Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Playing School in the Old Chicken Coop

When playing school out in the country in our chicken coop schoolhouse void of chickens and filled with the chalkboard, books, and desks from an abandoned one-room schoolhouse, my cousin and I often shared the responsibility of teaching our 'class' of younger siblings/cousins. When they were not attending class their desks were occupied by invisible students who had pretend names and participated with enthusiasm. Sometimes too much enthusiasm. But all would quiet down when I read them a certain story set in Lapland from the Barne's New National Reader titled, "A Reindeer Drive." Actually I didn't read it. I made a story up and showed them the picture that went with the story-a reindeer running while pulling a small sleigh. For some reason I loved that illustration and decided to enhance it by letting my imagination take over. The pretend students loved it! They asked me to read it again and again and so I did.
I still have that book. The copyright is 1884.I love its simplicity. I love how the story is a lesson-Lesson XX111. There are new words shown before the story that will be introduced and after the story there is a Language Lesson with the instructions, "Let pupils give answers whether oral or written in complete statements." I did that with my students. I asked questions and they answered in complete statements. Most of them received a grade of 100 and a star hand-drawn in the upper right corner of their paper.
Looking back at that chicken coop turned clubhouse-schoolhouse-anything we wanted it to be I realize how lucky we were to have that old coop to play in and pretend and create and read and write in. Boredom was not a word we ever used. There was no time! Even in the winter when the snow would come through any cracks it could find we'd be out there bundled up and warm as toast for when you let imagination take over snow can work to one's advantage. Snow can become a storyline.
I am thankful I never actually read "A Reindeer Drive" to my class for it talks about how the people used the skins of the reindeer for hats, coats, boots, and beds.

My students would have been horrified! I know their teacher was!

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Could My Father Have Been Santa Claus?

Because my father was a Funeral Director back when funeral directors were always on call we rarely went on vacations. When we did it was unusual if we went very far. The North Pole was only two hours away so we made that trip a few times. Every time was magical. Of course Santa Claus lived there. Although I knew that, one year on Christmas morning I was convinced my father was the real Santa.

The night before had been disappointing. Oh family members came. Piles of presents were under the tree. I hung my stocking and put the milk and cookies out with my brother. But it was raining outside. Any snow on the ground had been washed away. I'd never known a Christmas without snow in all my seven years. Besides the lack of snow, my father had to work. He made it home just as our mother was telling us it was time to get ready for bed. I was standing by the Christmas tree when he came in soaking wet. After pulling a package out from under his coat, he took the coat off and hung it over the bannister. Then he placed the package on a chair and came into the living room. After giving us hugs and asking about our Christmas Eve, my father grabbed that package and went to the kitchen. My mother had a plate full of food ready for him in the refrigerator. I was right behind him. I was keeping track of that package now lying on the counter.
I sat at the table while my father ate his Christmas Eve dinner. As soon as he finished, my mother was in the kitchen reminding  me it was time for bed. I tried stalling but it didn't work. Saying good night, I opened the door to the backstairs which led up to my bedroom. I stalled again, eyeing that package until my mother hustled me along. I was okay with that.
There were two registers in my bedroom floor. One looked directly down into the kitchen. Once I had my nightgown on and my teeth brushed I turned the light off-stretched out on the floor and peeked through the register. All I could see was white tissue paper and Christmas stickers on that counter.
I tiptoed down to the kitchen. My excuse was ready. I was thirsty. I didn't have to use it. I could hear my parents talking in the front room. The package was no where to be seen. I went back upstairs to bed.
While I thought I'd never get to sleep it was soon morning and I was rushing down the front stairs and into the living room with my brother. The stockings were bulging. But it was a package wrapped in white tissue paper kept together by Christmas stickers that caught my eye. It was sitting under the tree on top of some bigger presents. It was tradition for us to open one gift after our stocking gifts. Then we'd have breakfast and open the rest. I knew which gift I was going to open. I knew the present wrapped in white tissue paper was for me. I felt it. When it was time I took hold of that gift with my name in cursive on a tag. It was beautiful penmanship. I loved how the letters swirled as if caught in a breeze.I looked at my father. He was smiling.
Seconds later the tissue paper was off and I was holding on to a box I'd held on to in a small corner store just up the street. My mother and I had stopped there for a few things and while she paid for them, I found what I was now holding. I'd told my mother how much I hoped Santa would bring me the paint-by-number kit with primary colored felt tip markers included. Sitting there in my nightgown I looked back at my father. He was still smiling. Then he pointed to the window. It was snowing.

The paint-by-number kit with primary colored  felt-tip markers ended up my favorite Christmas gift that year. I don't know how my father ever knew I wanted it as much as I did. I convinced myself he was Santa Claus.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Cornfields and Mr. Rogers

Mr. Rogers once said, "Play is really the work of childhood." Growing up in the country my cousins and I were playing all the time. Not with toys, but outside, taking advantage of what nature provided us every season of the year. We never went to Disneyland. We never even thought to ask to go. Why would we. We had our own theme park. In the winter we'd be skating on the creek just out back and down the hill. It didn't matter how cold it was. That never stopped us. We'd even be down there skating at night. With the moon above and the stars glistening that was the best time of all to go skating on that old creek that turned into a waterway in the summertime-providing us even more fun as we'd guide our rafts made from telephone poles on endless adventures. It was named Sucker Creek for a reason. Whenever any of those suckers got on our rafts we'd take our steel poles used for steering the rafts and cast them back into the murky water.

Fall proved to be just as much fun especially with cornfields spreading out as far as we could see. It was the cornfield next to our grandparents' farmhouse that got most of our attention. Being little, it seemed massive. Once we entered it, we disappeared which is probably what we wanted to do so no adults could see us as we each found our spot and made homes in the corn. We'd move cornstalks aside-bring them down and then stomp on them until we felt we had enough space. Then we'd create a kitchen-a living room-a bedroom with a cornstalk bed. We'd play in the middle of the cornstalks for what seemed like hours. We'd visit each other. Create imaginary friends. We'd even spy on adults not too far away. Besides making our homes, we had fun just running through the field. We were making corn mazes long before it was a popular thing to do. Running as fast as we could, most times we'd keep our eyes shut and our heads down because the leaves on those stalks were sturdy. They'd whip us in the face-scratch us most anywhere we weren't covered up but that never stopped us. That was the price we had to pay for playing in those tall stalks with funny tassels at their tops waving in the breeze.

Our grandfather never said a thing about the crushed cornstalks in the middle of that field when it was time for harvesting them. But then, he never said a thing about our hosting circuses in the barn or sitting on his tractor and pretending to take it out back-down the hill-and across the plank bridge to the backfields. Maybe we amused him with our playing. Maybe he understood what Mr. Rogers was saying about Play. We certainly did. We were quite serious about our work no matter the season..

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Stories Told In Braided Rugs

Funny what you remember growing up. At the time it might have seemed insignificant but looking back some of those memories prove priceless. My grandmother filled what little idle time she had using her hands to create. Crocheting to sewing-to braiding rugs-it didn't matter. In the evening she'd sit in her chair and her hands became her instruments. That generation never wasted time. There was no time to waste. Little did she realize that some of what she created would live on to tell her story-a family story-to generations that would follow. That especially rang true of her braided rugs.

Growing up we were aware that no garment was too old to be considered a candidate in one of her braided rugs. Before anything was thrown out, it would go to my grandmother. She would make the decision if it would get that second chance. More often than not, it survived her test. After that initial 'interview' a garment would be stripped of buttons, zippers, bias tape, rick rack-anything that could be recycled and used again. From this process came a great collection of zippers and tape and a button bag brimming with buttons of all colors and sizes. That bag came in handy when we'd play, "Button! Button! Who Has the Button!" Once the garment was clear of bobbles, my grandmother would cut and rip it into strips. Then the strips were rolled into a ball until there were enough balls of strips of fabric from other garments to braid together and create a rug. It was common to see her sitting in her chair with strips of fabric spread out on the floor and as she wove them all together the strips became shorter and shorter. Her rugs were like the storyline in Goldilocks and the Three Bears. There were small rugs-medium-size rugs-and great big rugs. When one was finished, it would sit on the floor for awhile so it could be stepped on to eventually get the stitching evened out.

Those rugs provided my cousin and I with a game of seek and find. Lying on the floor, we'd inspect new rugs created-looking to see if we could recognize any old pieces of clothing woven in to place. It was fun finding what we'd considered something old and tattered given new life and a place center stage for all to see for years to come. Discovery led to stories about that garment-who it belonged to-certain times when it had been worn. When my aunt who lived with my grandmother passed away years after we'd lost my grandmother, those rugs were given to family members. Those stories continue to be told. Included in the stories are memories of the woman who'd created the braided rugs while sitting in her rocking chair-using her hands as instruments-weaving stories that will never be forgotten.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Discarded Underwoods

I grew up using a typewriter. I must have been eight or nine when I'd take my brother's typewriter into my room-shut the door-and spend what seemed like hours at my pine desk my grandfather made me one year for Christmas and type my stories. The typewriter was the last stage of my process as I'd have the stories written out on lined paper and ready to go under my penname of Maggie O'Shea. I often wonder whatever happened to those early masterpieces or the notebooks with my scribbles. Or that typewriter my brother never knew I borrowed without asking.

The use of notebooks continued as I grew up. And so did the use of typewriters. I loved the process-the art of typing. Loved the sound of keys hitting the paper and the bell dinging at the end of a line telling me to pull the shift arm to go back and begin another line. White out was a blessing. If I didn't have any I'd go looking for an eraser. If I couldn't find an eraser I would pull that particular sheet of paper out-put a new one in and start all over. That never bothered me. That was the way it worked back then.

When computers started edging their way from offices in to homes, my daughters told me over and over I should buy one. That way I could store all my material and when comfortable I could use one to not only write my stuff but send it, tweet it, zoom it around the world if I wanted to. At first, I had no interest. I still had my typewriter in its case although typewriter ribbons were getting harder to find. I still loved using legal pads to write out whatever I was working on-and then rewrite it using my typewriter. I had a system. I'd never have use for a computer. Not me!

Now I can't imagine writing without using a computer. I started reluctantly with a laptop after my daughters kept at me. I wouldn't admit it, but I fell in love with that thing the minute I turned it on. After a few instructions I was on my own. I was told I couldn't break it. I was advised to save stuff as I went along. They were right. I haven't broken anything yet. I am now tweeting and writing and saving and shifting sentences and deleting and downloading and amazed by the time I save and curious as to what I ever did without my computer.

I wonder if some day I'll find a discarded antique called a computer decaying next to a barn with no one to care about it but the meadow moles and chipmunks and rabbits as rain turns to snow and the wind swirls about its silent keyboard.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

In Search of Pumpkins

Since being blessed with two beautiful grandchildren a tradition has taken hold and continues every year about this time. We pick a Saturday or Sunday to go out back and harvest the pumpkins. The only problem this year is the lack of pumpkins. I've only found seven and that just won't work. So this week my son and I went on a search for pumpkins. With roadside stands-commercial businesses and Amish farms, pumpkins are not hard to find. We chose to ride down a back road and find an Amish farm. And we found the perfect Amish farm. So perfect that I went back a few more times. They know me now. They wave Hi as I pull up in front of their sprawling mass of beautiful pumpkins. Of course having little Amish children running around barefoot adds to the backdrop.

Soon we will be going out back to "pick" pumpkins. Little will those grandchildren know that most of those pumpkins are imports. All they will see will be a mass of orange ready to be touched and patted and brought home in wait of Halloween. I think as parents or grandparents we've all had to "help" things along or do something to make a moment easier while never confessing to anyone.

I remember back when one of my daughter's had a baby rabbit. She was quite young. She loved that rabbit. Played with that little rabbit all the time. She'd carry it around like a kitten. She'd talk to it-even read the rabbit stories. One day I found the rabbit in its cage. It had died over night. While I realized it could have been one of those 'teaching' moments, it was one I was not ready to teach-not then anyway. So I ran to the farm where we bought the rabbit. Luckily, they had one that looked just like the little one we'd lost-same size, same coloring. I brought it home and put it in the cage-praying the little rabbit had the same disposition as the other little rabbit. It turned out that rabbit had it all. My daughter never realized the difference and they were best of friends for years. Since then, my daughter has had more than a few of those teaching moments I avoided when the little rabbit passed away. Those moments are part of living. We all have them.

I'm also reminded of the time when I was trying to make a homemade gingerbread house with all the trimmings one evening close to Christmas. The kids were little and they were "helping." For some reason nothing was working. The walls kept caving in. I think it was because the icing I made didn't have the right consistency. Or maybe it was because they'd cry and moan uncontrollaby whenever a wall fell in, sending sprinkles and hard candy all over the place. I decided to get them to bed. I told them I would work on it. And I did. Once they were asleep I got in the car and went to the grocery. I bought a kit with a 'prefab' gingerbread house. I brought it home. I put those beautiful prefabricated walls up-glued them with icing included in the kit and adhered some of their candy in place. The kids were thrilled in the morning. That evening we finished our project. Not one scream or moan. Just lots of laughs and happy memories!
So very soon pumpkins will be discovered with delight. Then we will come inside for some of my 'Witch's Brew'-a homemade soup that has become part of this tradition. It will be the same tradition even though most of the pumpkins about to be 'planted' outback are immigrants from a farm not too far away. That won't matter. They'll never know. Years from now when they too are adults-maybe with their own children-I may tell them. And maybe by then they will have had to help along a gingerbread house or go in search of pumpkins. That's when they will understand.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Old Grinder In The Cupboard

Funny how something simple can trigger memories-like the old steel manual grinder my mother would bring out from a kitchen cupboard during the Holidays. Taking all the parts out of the cardboard box, she'd give them a good washing before she attached it to a leaf of the table and put it all together. Then she'd place her big yellow bowl on the floor underneath it to catch the juices from whatever she'd be grinding. For Thanksgiving that meant cabbage and carrots-maybe an onion; for Christmas that meant cranberries, oranges, and apples. We all loved doing the grinding-especially the cranberries because they popped when going through the grinder and the juice would squirt all over the place. When my mother wasn't in the kitchen, I'd load it with cranberries and grind them as fast as I could. It sounded like fireworks-blending right in with whatever Christmas album my mother had playing in the other room.
Among the vegetables my son brought home the other day from Steps 2 Grow Garden, was a cabbage. Not your ordinary super market cabbage-but one heck of a huge cabbage.It was an armful. And he carried it in the house smiling all the way. I knew I had to do somehing with it sooner than later and today-with the rain falling-I thought of that old grinder. You see, I have that grinder. It sits in my cupboard in the same carboard box as when my mother was its keeper. I am not one to use fancy blenders with endless options and zillions of buttons or coffee pots and toasters with brains. I don't even have an iPhone. That old grinder is my speed. I treasure it-and so today as the rain kept falling, I pulled it out-washed it off and set it up alongside a kitchen counter. I brought out carrots and cleaned them as well as an onion. I put a bowl on the floor to catch the juices and called my son to come and help.
I explained how the grinder worked as I cleaned that magnificent cabbage and sliced it into wedges. Then I asked him if he wanted to keep filling the top with the vegetables or do the grinding. He said he'd try grinding.
We started with cabbage because there was so much of it. Once we got going, he'd mix it up with a carrot-a slice of onion. Soon he was going full speed-telling me when to add what and to make sure the bowl on the floor was catching all the juice. And while we worked, we talked about that old grinder. I told him about Holidays of long ago when I was a little girl out in the country. I told him about the times I'd get in trouble over the cranberries popping out onto the kitchen floor and the time my mother got laughing so hard when she was the cranberry grinder and one jumped out and hit her in the face. He told me he might not be able to eat the salad we were making because he might choke. You see he has a fear of choking after choking on a candy bar one day years ago when we were in the car. Since then, he stands to eat-thinking that will help him if he chokes. Introducing new foods is sometimes tricky.
But not today! I gave him a small poriton just to see what happened-that led to two more helpings! He loved it. He asked if we could bring the rest of the cabbage/carrot salad to Steps 2 Grow on Monday to share.That's what it takes-one Step at a Time and each Step is one more Step out of the Darkness.
That old grinder proved its worth yet again. And now he wants to grind cranberries when Christmas gets here!