childhood, Uncategorized

The Letters

Recently I came upon some letters while looking for the right sized box to mail a package to my son at college in. The letters were not written to me, most of them were addressed to my mother. Quite a few of them were “Aerogrammes” received from Ireland in the early ’70s after my grandparents had suddenly passed away within hours of each other. There are also some from South Africa where her cousin has lived for most of his life. I must have tucked it in the basement cabinet after my mother died, with the intention of looking at them “some day”. My mother passed when my eldest was in her first week of middle-school and my senior in college was still an elementary student. “Some day” ended up being last week.

The box not only contained letters to my mother from friends, there was a copy of my father’s autopsy and a thank you letter regarding him being an organ and tissue donor. There was a letter on camp Ihduhapi letterhead postmarked from the summer of ’43 that my father had written to his parents. A letter that pretty much was a template for “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh. Here I am at Camp Granada.”  a song that was not released until twenty years later. There was a very formal letter from my grandfather, clearly in grief over the death of his own father that thanked my mother for her kind words to him in a previous letter. There was also a telegram telling her that her grandmother had passed and instructing her to share the news with family. I discovered a war bond book with carefully placed stamps from my mother’s youth.

The biggest gem in the box was physically the smallest. A tiny leather bound journal, a calendar from 1924, with space for a couple of lines to be recorded each day. A Belfast Ireland address is in the front cover, and also a Minneapolis address. I passed the treasure along to my daughter, who intends to write out the contents of it. It appears to chronicle the year my Grandfather immigrated, with details of dancing and “police raids” and a notation that reads “lost this book for a while – Found on road”. My grandfather lived in over thirty homes in his less than 70-year lifespan. How this small book survived the multiple moves around the US and back and forth across the ocean is somewhat miraculous.

Taking the time to look at these items caused me to do some reflection. How will a great grand-child “know” their deceased family members from this era some day, down the road? So little it actually recorded in a manner that will be preserved. Social media has taken on the role of a journal to document the highlights of life and Tweets, posts, text messages and rare emails are the efficient method of sharing our thoughts with others.

I feel like there is something different and introspective that occurs when a person takes the time to write a letter or compose a journal entry. There is a sense of permanence and thoughtfulness that is used when choosing the words or attempting to convey a sentiment. A person is required to stop, think and actually feel the emotions that a situation, event or person evokes in them. Without that catalyst, are people unintentionally less thoughtful as the result of those muscles not being flexed?

In my garage is a box that contains correspondence from friends and letters written on graph paper by my brother, that closed with stick figure drawings and “fill in the blank” lines for me to solve with a phrase reminiscent of our childhood. There are also letters from my husband chronicling our seven-month courtship. Reading them takes me back to that time where it seemed positively illogical that we get married but also captured the struggle it was for us to be apart. Receiving mail once meant more than bills and advertisements and the occasional greeting card.

I’m thankful for this box of insights from the past and I also appreciate that my children learned to read and write cursive. If the letters I have written and received last another generation or two, I wonder if they will simply look like scraps of paper with scribbles on them or if anyone will be able to decipher the messages we had taken the time to share.

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The Heart(s) of a Mother and Other Trinkets

Mom Locket

The picture of a heart shaped charm that says “Mom” on it is not simply some random online photo I Googled. That’s a locket, one my children lovingly selected for me, for Mother’s Day in the late ’90s. I dug for it in a jewelry box, as I don’t wear it anymore. It is one of many heart shaped treasures that my husband allowed my children to select for me as gifts. As the worn edges indicate, I did wear the locket for many years, the children proudly noticed each time I wore a gift from them. This particular one made things pretty clear. In the same way an engagement ring shows you are betrothed, there is no mistaking who a piece of the owner’s heart belongs to when “Mom” is clearly displayed in her cleavage.

Locket Kids

Lockets are a special form of jewelry. Not that the heart shaped necklace with the gemstone flower wasn’t lovely, it’s just there was no place to carry pictures of my daughter and son in it. I often wore my Grandmother’s childhood locket when I was a little girl. Her locket it not heart shaped, it’s round and gold with her childhood monogram on it in a fine cursive script. Though it was only intended to hold two pictures (her parents) at some point she had removed the isinglass to insert a picture of my grandfather over the picture of her own father.  On the left hand side of the locket was my Great Grandmother whose stern countenance was reminiscent of Margaret Hamilton in her role as Almira Gulch in the Wizard of Oz. If that character name doesn’t ring a bell, she is the neighbor lady on the bicycle who takes Toto and becomes the Wicked Witch of the West when Dorothy gets to Munchkin Land. I didn’t want to suggest my Great Grandma resembled the witch, as the black and white photo definitely bore greater resemblance to the character in Kansas. My Grandpa’s picture is quite worn, as I removed it frequently to look at the real treasure in the locket. My Great Grandfather, Ace Porter Abell was a distinguished looking gentleman. I chose his moniker as my son’s middle name.

Locket Neona   Locket Ace

I assume my grandmother’s childhood locket was likely a birthday gift, probably dating to about 90 years before my heart shaped locket was gifted to me. My grandma was named Neona, she died of breast cancer two and a half years before I was born. She was only 58. I have her locket, her cocktail ring and paintings done by her mother Nida. I share her first initial and her love of the color purple. It makes me wonder where my own locket will end up someday.

I have only one of my own Mom’s Mother’s Day gifts. Typically on Mother’s Day my father would take me over to the local flower nursery (Sunny Side Gardens, which is still located near 44th and France, the neighboring Taystee Treet of my youth is not) to painstakingly select annuals. I would choose Pansies, Petunias and Marigolds for the large pot near the front steps of our house. I feel like the large pot had come with the house and that perhaps there had been one for each side of the steps at some point. I imagine it may have been terracotta underneath the many layers of green paint. It may have been the paint job that allowed the pot to stay intact through the below zero temperatures of our harsh Minnesota winters. Red was my mother’s favorite color, so often a Geranium was in the center of the pot. I’m fond of Geraniums only for sentimental reasons and have never purchased one for my own home. I find their stems have sort of an awkward and unattractive arthritic bend to them. I also don’t buy Marigolds, as I can’t stand their scent. I planted them as a labor of love, knowing my Mom would appreciate them. Despite being gone for at least an hour and spending another hour creating the potted arrangement, it seems my mother never noticed our clandestine activities. Every year, after we summoned her to come out front, she would walk across the porch and spot my handiwork. She was surprised every time!

My mother didn’t have a jewelry box of treasures from Mother’s Days gone by, she had memories of a little girl who desperately needed a bath, with dirt embedded under her fingernails and a huge smile over having pulled it off. There was the one exception, the year she got her “Mother’s ring”. There was an era where rings with the birthstones of ones children was a staple, like Pandora bracelets seem to be now. I remember being at the jewelry counter at Montgomery Wards. No that is not a typo. The real question should be what order had Sears screwed up so badly that year that we were not patronizing their “fine jewelry” counter? I remember the various sample rings that she tried on before deciding on a delicate setting with openwork. I watched how the employee completed the official looking paperwork; size, setting, stones, order of stones. It was in triplicate at least. My eldest brother’s September birthday dictated the sapphire stone, my other brother’s March arrival was acknowledged with a pale aquamarine and my July birthday contributed the ruby. I remember the debate over whether the stones should be placed in birth order or arranged by what was most aesthetically pleasing. We were represented on the ring in the order that we spent our life in the back of the station wagon. I, as the youngest was always in the center where it was easiest for my brothers to extend their arms to save my life if there was a sudden stop. It took several weeks for the ring to be made to specifications. I remember the night we went to Montgomery Wards to pick it up. The ring box was opened and there gleaming before us was an entirely different setting than my mother had chosen. Not delicate, no open work. After much rustling of paper (the copy my parents had been given, the one the store retained and the one that accompanied the completed order) the flustered employee confirmed that other than the correct birth stones, the ring was in fact the wrong one. It was however a more expensive setting and Wards was willing to let my mother take it home without paying more for it. The pendulum took a mighty swing for the Rose family back to being Sears customers.

My mother went home with the ring that day. She wore it both proudly and sporadically throughout the rest of her life. She would have worn it everyday, were it not for the fact that she would get a rash under it when worn too long, something that a bit of openwork might have prevented.

Mothers Ring

I wear this ring now on occasion. The sapphire is my daughter’s birthstone, the aquamarine is my sons. Their stones rest nicely on each side of my ruby.

 

I am posting my Mother’s Day Blog a little early. I’m putting in some hours at a local garden center and look forward to selling kids flowers to “surprise” their mothers with. I’ll be working alongside my adult daughter.

 

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Write On

Write on

It seems that we are at a turning point in communications in the United States that requires attention. I’m really unsure how it came to be that schools quit teaching cursive writing or made it a low priority but this trend needs an immediate reversal. I’m not simply waxing nostalgia for simpler days, I am genuinely concerned over creating a greater divide between the classes in our nation.

While my own children were taught cursive in school, they would be the first to admit that it is not their first method of communication and that their own penmanship lacks the consistency in flow compared to that of previous generations. That being said, they are able to decipher the written word. Only a few years younger than my own kids, a teenage nephew relies upon his brother to translate the messages in cards from their grandmother.

I’ve heard some defend the change by simply saying “there isn’t enough time for it” which I view as a cop-out. There was time for it in the days when gathering information for a report required going to the library and using a card catalog to locate sources and then digging into books to glean the information before either writing or typing the assignment. There were no Post-it notes to mark your places and no spell check to ensure accuracy, that required further research in another large book.  All of that took time and most of it is no longer necessary with information access a few clicks away via computer. There was time for it when someone had to go to the well before school began so there was water in the classroom and assignments were done by candlelight at home after chores were completed. It’s simply about making it a priority and not giving into whining if it doesn’t come easy. Make time for it.

I recall standing at the chalkboard and practicing letters awkwardly while classmates like Susan and Sabrina seemed to have a natural ability to make the identical shape over and over with little effort. I remember the manila paper with solid blue lines that had a dotted line midway between as sort of a visual set of training wheels serving as a guide. Before the days of participation medals there was penmanship and it was pretty clear who the winners and losers were. Not being good at it was not a reason to quit, it served as motivation to practice more. Cursive writing is a discipline and schools need more of it, not less.

Handwriting is an even playing field for those who are not musically inclined or athletically gifted. It is an equal-opportunity activity requiring no expensive equipment. To take it out of the classroom will mean that sooner than later some parents will make it a priority and have their children take lessens in it. Depending on an area of study, it seems likely that colleges will offer it, so students can access manuscripts and understand other documents. It strikes me as ludicrous to pay college tuition for this basic knowledge and it also is the sort of information that is much more easily grasped when a person is younger. Why would we deny youth such an accessible tool and potentially have it become yet another divisive symbol of rich/poor and have/have-nots?

The activity itself is scientifically recognized to increase brain activity and develops fine motor skills. Failure to provide this stimulation altars the way the brain functions. Neuroscientists recognize that the relationship between the hand and the brain is different when writing a letter than when simply selecting one from a keyboard. There is value in the creativity and communication form and recent tests have shown a person is able to generate more ideas when physically writing as opposed to keyboarding answers to the same questions. To ignore this we are actively allowing the decline of idea generation to our youth.

It seems obvious that an adult needs a signature to enter into a legally binding contract. How does one develop a signature without the skill of cursive writing? Signatures were once like snowflakes, or a visual form of DNA, something unique to the owner. My best friend and one of my sister in-laws share a similar chubby and cheerful penmanship. My mother had a formal and very elegant handwriting. Other than the last name being the same, my brothers signatures share little resemblance. The long line off the end of my E in Rose was intended to mimic the way my father signed his name. It seems odd that our youth might one day look at the Declaration of Independence and utter “That looks fancy.” but have no capacity to grasp that the words which drew their attention formed the name John Hancock. I think that would be a shame.

While it’s hard to ignore the importance of being able to read as a means of understanding historical documents for academic purposes, there is also value in being able to read cursive writing for other reasons. Those wishing to have insights to their ancestors can access a great deal of information through review of census data, much of which is handwritten. Closer to home are family bibles (often documenting births, marriages, deaths and other details), baby books, notations in photo albums and correspondence are all interesting, important but unfortunately lost without someone able to read them. I recently shared with my daughter some postcards my great-grandfather had sent to his children in the early 1900s and autograph books with messages from the children’s classmates, some in cursive by those as young as five. My mother was a letter writer and saver, somewhere among my things are all of the letters which I sent from summer camp and during my college years. It would be a shame if my future grandchildren would be unable to read them some day or need to go to a translator to have them transcribed. Failure to teach cursive and provide what should be considered a basic skill is cutting off easy historical access for future generations.

In an era when technology has permitted greater access to information and broader communication to many, it seems short-sighted to look at cursive writing as some outdated or unnecessary form of communicating. It’s affordable and with nothing but benefits to those who are able to produce it and understand it, it should remain accessible!

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Celebrating My Irish Heritage Like My Ancestors Didn’t

Rueben

My husband and I will dine out this evening. As much as I enjoy the taste, I am not a fan of the smell of cooked cabbage or sauerkraut in the house, so on St. Patrick’s Day we often let someone else prepare our meal. He will likely indulge in Corned Beef and Cabbage with Irish Potatoes and I will feast upon a Reuben sandwich.

As a kid hearing the word “Reuben” brought to mind Reuben Kincaid, the manager for The Partridge Family, played by Dave Madden. His wacky escapades with Danny Bonaduce have nothing to do with the sandwich but I feel compelled to share this fact as my first knowledge of a Reuben.

I loved Pastrami on Pumpernickel with some Spin Blend or Miracle Whip as a kid but I was likely in college before I actually consumed what would be considered a Reuben. I actually credit the Reuben with some responsibility for my marriage. Having only known the man who eventually became my husband for a week the first time he came to visit, I had no idea what foods he liked. Living on a college campus with dining hall privileges, despite having a full kitchen I typically had an empty refrigerator. I decided to do a little grocery shopping before his arrival and found myself craving a Reuben sandwich. While gathering the ingredients I recall thinking “What if he doesn’t like Reubens?” and then responding to myself “Would you really want to pursue a relationship with a guy who doesn’t?”. So we ate Reubens that weekend and we have been together ever since.

My maternal grandparents were born and raised in Northern Ireland, moved to the United States as young adults and became US citizens after having three American offspring. They retired to Ireland where they died a short time later when I was only eight years old. I remember my grandmother’s accent (my grandfather worked very hard to lose his) and her teaching my how to jig, those two recollections and the heavy cream-colored fisherman sweaters that they brought back for my brother’s and I from one of their visits are the only truly Irish recollections I have of them.

Despite being only a second-generation American of Irish descent, I celebrate St. Patrick’s Day like most non-Irish Americans, the way people in Ireland never did, until tourism made it clear that embracing these non-traditions would be profitable. So bring out the shamrocks, tacky green beads, bedazzled bowler hats and green beer. Irish whiskey may be among the only truly Irish consumable ingested in the US on March 17th.

The Reuben sandwich, a Jewish deli mainstay. The bread upon which the delectable ingredients will be layered is of German origin. While the sauerkraut is often deemed a German food, I will credit the Chinese whose laborers consumed the fermented cabbage while working double shifts on the Great Wall. While Swiss cheese seems to have obviously come from Switzerland, if you want to purchase some while there (or most places in Europe) you will want to ask for Emmental cheese. Some put Russian Dressing on it (which is either from Russia or New York, depending on who you ask) and others (myself included) like a slathering of Thousand Island, which my research indicates is an American concoction that originated somewhere in New York.

Like much of food history, many lay claim to originating the Reuben. Restauranteurs with a son named Reuben and the last name Reuben both have compelling arguments. Locations from New York to Nebraska claim to be the birthplace of the gastronomical creation. Most indications are that somewhere between 1897 and 1920 the sandwich was invented. In 1956 the National Restaurant Association made it the National Sandwich Winner.

I am entirely unclear if my Irish ancestors ever consumed a Reuben or Corned Beef and Cabbage. It seems that in Ireland, the impoverished dined on pork and potatoes, a cured pork or “Irish bacon”. When arriving in the United States most Irish immigrants lived in poorer communities with other “undesirables”; the Italians and Jews. It is believed that economics and proximity is how Irish people became associated with Corned Beef, it was cheaper than pork and accessible at Jewish delicatessens.

On St. Patrick’s Day the United Nation of sandwiches is Irish, despite having no actual ties to Ireland, in the same way that everyone is Irish on St. Paddy’s day, regardless of where they came from.

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Day 8 in a month of writing: Change, Constant Change

Our Personal Disney Vault

Our Personal Disney Vault

In the old garage at the family cabin when I was a kid there was an “ice box”. I imagine if you used that term today, a child or young adult might think you were talking about a cooler that you’d use on a camping trip or just to hold beverages at a picnic or bonfire. The ice box was actually the predecessor to the refrigerator, the “appliance” that kept perishable items cold with a block of ice. In my lifetime it was never used to store food but to hold old phone books. Phone books were thick, with tissue thin pages with every household’s phone number in it alphabetically by last name. The books with the yellow pages were the business phone numbers. Much like a dictionary, it was often difficult to locate what you wanted. Not so much because you couldn’t spell it but because gas stations were listed under “service stations” and barbers were included under “stylists”. In most homes they were used in lieu of a booster seat when young guests were being seated at the table. Chances are that today social services might take a  child away from someone willing to plant someone vulnerable atop a stack of unsecured books with shiny (read slippery) covers.

While taking pictures at a family gathering over the weekend, a great aunt handed me her camera, prompting her sister to ask “you don’t have one on your phone?”. The inquiring sibling was wearing her cell phone in a wrist strap contraption. “Oh no, I could never have a phone with that much on it.” In their late seventies and into their eighties, I admired their cellphone ownership. Having gone from “party lines” where nosy neighbors had access to your personal business via their rotary phones to touch tone technology and eventually phones that permitted them to move from room to room and more recently the advent of the cellphone, they had lived through a substantial portion of communication history. Raised on radio shows, it would have been difficult to imagine that one day they could have access to entire movie libraries or watch a television program that they had missed, at a time of their own choosing. I am certain that my own families mobile phone bill each month is larger than the mortgage payment was on the house where I was raised.

I miss the days of rolling down my window and saying “Fill it up with regular and check the oil.” when I refueled. I remember shortly after purchasing my first new car in Missouri in 1986 that the first time I did that the attendant inquired how many miles I had on the car “175” came my reply. After a couple of years of adding a quart of oil to my Nova every time I filled the tank I was learning that was not normal. I remember my Ford Escort as being the last car I owned that did not have power windows. Same thing regarding manual locks. My last Honda CRV had a CD player and a cassette player (I assume my last). One of the early vehicles I drove was a Lincoln that had an 8track and curb feelers). Despite owning two minivans when my kids were younger we never owned one that had a DVD player in it, something I know parents of youngsters find indispensable on road trips now. Personally, I always enjoyed car discussions and pointing things out as we drove to our destination. Our kids were however in car seats and then graduated to boosters (not a stack of phone books) that were located in the back seat. My husband and I came home from the hospital in our mother’s arms, in the front seat. It was not uncommon while growing up to see missing pieces of dashboards in cars from children taking a bite out of it when being launched by a quick stop or the classic spider web of a windshield where the entire head had made impact. The cars were heavier back then but the safety features, airbags and seat belt laws of today have made passengers safer over the years.

After the recent death of Robin Williams, my daughter had a circle of friends over to have a mini film festival; Dead Poets Society, Jumanji and  Aladdin. It made me wonder when I would truly part with my VHS movies, so emblematic of my children’s childhood. Perhaps someday when I consider parting with my own cassette tapes.

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Cousins: The Original Friends and Family Plan

Marge, Dad & cousin Wayne

Marge, Dad & cousin Wayne

I had the good fortune to spend part of yesterday with some of my cousins. We gathered to celebrate the high school graduation of one of their offspring. A Sunday afternoon spent catching up and sharing quick exchanges that remind us how quickly time passes and how we really should see each other more frequently. Cousins share a bond that goes beyond DNA and childhood holidays spent with now deceased relatives. We’ve known each other our whole lives, through awkward phases, horrible hair styles and bad fashion choices. The frequent shared holidays of childhood become the less frequent weddings, milestone birthdays and funerals of adulthood. With cousins there is no drama, just a sincere affection and the honest wish that we could gather with greater frequency.

I have 7 cousins; the flower girl from my parents wedding who was beautiful and brilliant and died too soon, their ring bearer who I saw less often growing up due to a divorce but who has always remained in contact and now stays in touch via Facebook. My solo cousin on the other side of the family who grew up in a suburb of my native Minneapolis but has lived in Louisiana for perhaps thirty years. She has two children I have never met but we faithfully exchanges cards each Christmas. I have another cousin who is a talented musician who I last saw when my brother and I showed up at his 50th birthday after at least a 20 year hiatus. Then the three I encountered yesterday, the hostess and mother of the grad, her younger brother who came with his wife, college-aged daughter and dog from northern Minnesota and the oldest brother who lives in Minnesota but is completing a three year work commitment in Singapore. It is these three (and their eldest sister) with whom my family shared a Wisconsin cabin during our childhood. We played together, pestered each other and eventually we grew up to be the adults who love to reminisce about the close calls, foolish choices and outstanding antics of our youth. I have good memories of each of my cousins and feel fortunate for the relationships I am able to share with each of them.

Growing up I recall only one of my mother’s cousins. He had come from Ireland and lived with my grandparents while he went to college. I have faint but fond memories of him being at holidays when I was little. Later he married and started a family before moving to South Africa with his wife and two children. My mother and he corresponded throughout the rest of her life and there were occasional visits. His wife was Desmond Tutu’s personal secretary for many years and he remains politically active to this day, while she works with the Tutu Aid’s Foundation. My father had a number of cousins whose names were typically spoken in pairs; the cousin’s name and their corresponding spouse.

This morning I was still reflecting on how pleasant it was to visit with my own cousins yesterday when I discovered that my father’s closest cousin had passed away last night. It was not an entirely unexpected death, as he had been undergoing various cancer treatments for many years. During that time he outlived his daughter and his grandson. Despite my own father being gone for over twenty five years and his cousin Wayne being well on the north side of 80, the man had struck me as perpetually youthful. Though my father had an older brother there were few stories of the two of them growing up together that one might reflect fondly upon. To be honest, the only story I recall of the two brothers as children is of my dad as the frustrated younger sibling of a cheating brother who retaliated with a croquet mallet. Not a cute story, or particularly charming. The entertaining, fun and comical stories were the ones of my dad with his cousin Wayne.

They were close in age, my father graduating from Minneapolis West High in 1949 and Wayne from North High that same year. While my parents Chuck and Dorothy raised me and my brothers in Minneapolis, where we attended Southwest High School (which sort of makes one think that only a compass was required to get to school in Minneapolis) Wayne and his wife Marge raised their son and daughter in the suburb of Bloomington where they would go to Lincoln High School. I raised my own son and daughter in Bloomington where they graduated from Kennedy High School (a community that names their schools after assassinated presidents). As a kid I recall seeing Wayne and his family at my Grandpa’s birthday each July. It was an annual outdoor potluck where the men played croquet in sandals with dark socks and my uncle seemed to remain a cautious distance from my father when he had a mallet. Wayne’s daughter Wendy Jo would perform a baton routine on the shuffleboard court after dinner in an elaborately sequined costume. The evening ended with cake and a slice of Neapolitan ice cream.

It was not the food, the games or the activities that made these gatherings such pleasant times, it was the stories and banter. The opportunity to catch a glimpse of these adults as the children they had been. There was a warmth and genuine affection that my father and his cousin shared that was unlike any other I had witnessed, they were friends that were related. They shared more than DNA. Throughout the years I would see Wayne at weddings, anniversaries and more funerals than I liked.

A favorite story is of my dad and his cousin which took place on a hot summer day in Minnesota. Wayne’s mother “Aunt Dolly” (a somewhat proper woman who liked things “just so”) was driving. My father who suffered horribly from Hay Fever was in the back seat when he staged the sound of a horrific sneeze and timed it with his trigger finger on a squirt gun which was filled with warm water and directed at the back of Aunt Dolly’s neck. She nearly drove off the road screaming “Chaaaaaaaarrrrrrrlllllles!!!!”. The retelling of such tales brought them both great joy and all of us much laughter.

Cousins; the ones we spent our youth with, keeper of our memories, teller of our stories.

 

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