Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Echo of Piano Keys

There was a piano in the front parlor of my grandparents' farmhouse. All of us little ones would take turns sitting on the bench pretending to play except for one cousin who really could play. Sometimes I would sit with her. She'd nod her head when it was time for me to turn the page of her songbook. When she put her fingers on the keys and started to play Rhapsody in Blue I'd be mesmerized straight through to the last note. Over the years, I never did learn how to play the piano but I've always loved listening to someone play. I thought I'd heard it all until coming down a narrow flight of stairs to the main area of a local psychiatric center. I was in a hurry. The monthly meeting had run longer than I'd expected.
I was aware of the piano's existence. I'd heard someone playing it awhile back when I was standing-waiting for the elevator to take me to the 2nd floor. But this day was different. There was no hustle or bustle. No one was sitting or sleeping on the benches. There were no clusters of people or attendants walking around. The double set of locked doors were quiet as were those in charge behind protected windows. .As I came flying down those narrow stairs I heard a few sporadic notes. Then, as I opened a door leading into that area, a few more notes struck on those ivory keys lead to even more beautiful notes and soon I was stopped cold. Turning around, I looked towards the piano and saw a young man with his back to me sitting on the piano bench. A bit hunched over-with his head down-his hair in place, his fingers were moving those keys as if they were free-weightless-dancing in a meadow on a warm summer day-feeling the wind-chasing butterflies and laughing without a care in the sunshine. But the young man was not free. Yet that didn't stop him. As I stood there I realized I was listening to a master of his craft. Every key struck-every chord played echoed through that facility with its drab walls and sterile presence-creating a sense of a great stage on which sat a most grand piano player.
When the young man finished he stood and walked away. I started clapping as tears filled my eyes. I'd never heard Rhapsody in Blue played so beautifully.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Funeral Director with a Sense of Humor

A SENSE OF HUMOR:
All of us have our ways of dealing with life when life doesn't go the way we want it to or when the unexpected comes at us like a hurricane. My father chose humor as his way of dealing. I'm not even sure he knew he did that but looking back, I'm certain that's why he'd do his "Tricky Dick" imitation-and joke with my mother who hardly ever thought he was funny-but we did! My father was a dedicated funeral director. His profession was his passion. The families he served became his families. The care and concern he expressed was genuine. When the phone rang and he was needed, my father was there in an instant. He also loved his hometown. He knew every street-every family and where they lived and who married who and when someone had died right down to the date and where they were buried. It wasn't gossip when he'd go on about a family. It was because he looked upon those families as an extended family of his own.
By virtue of being a funeral director or a member of that funeral director's immediate family, one is aware of that thin line between life and death. You learn the truth in-"You never know"-"Live each day to the fullest"-"Go for it" and so on. I've written before about the call my father received on one particular Easter morning-a call of a family in great need-in unspeakable sadness-as their little girl choked on a jelly bean and died. My father received so many-so many tragic calls as funeral directors do. And my father stayed by those families long after the calling hours were over and the headlines faded.
Perhaps one of the hardest things my father had to do when called upon in his role as funeral director was to tend to patients who passed away at a nearby psychiatric center. His compassion would be on overload for normally there'd be no family involved. He'd be quiet for awhile after their burial-their place in the cemetery marked not by name but by their patient number. That to me is dedication-compassion for human beings most turn their backs on.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Growing Up With June's Creators


 

 

Richard Scarry


It can’t be in the water for they were all born in different places. It can’t be one particular year in which they were all born because the year differed. I’m certain it has nothing to do with the fact that June is the month with the longest day of the year or that no other month begins on the same day of the week as June. The common denominator simply is the fact that all these famed creators were all born in the month of June.

 Richard Scarry-(pictured above)-author and illustrator of over three hundred books with over one hundred million books sold worldwide, was born in Boston June, 1919. He lived a large part of his adult life in Switzerland which shows in his amazingly creative artwork. His animals and imaginative houses and modes of travel continue to delight children-and the young at heart. Busytown and the Best Ever series were favorites in our house and remain on my book shelf. My kids and I loved searching for Lowly worm.

 Bob Keeshan was born in Lynbrook, NY  in June of 1927. He started out playing Clarabell the Clown on the original Howdy Doody show. Clarabell spoke by honking his horn. To our good fortune, Bob Keeshan had the idea for what became a classic television show for children-Captain Kangaroo. For three decades beloved characters such as Dancing Bear, Bunny Rabbit, Grandfather Clock, Mister Moose and Mister Green Jeans joined Captain Kangaroo in fresh, creative programming that remains beloved by generations. Later on in life, Keeshan became an advocate against violence in video games and joined parent groups in protest of TV shows geared to children based on toys in the market place at that time such as He-Man and Transformers. He felt toys turned into TV shows didn’t teach children about the real world.

 Maurice Sendak, children’s writer and illustrator, was born in Brooklyn in June, 1928. Sendak described his childhood as a “terrible situation” because his extended family died in the Holocaust. His love of books developed when he was young and confined to bed due to health problems. At the age of twelve he decided to become an illustrator after watching Disney’s Fantasia and Mickey Mouse. That decision continues to influence children everywhere. Sendak is best known for writing and illustrating Where the Wild Things Are first published in 1963. To date it has sold over nineteen million copies worldwide and has been adapted as an opera, animated short, and live action feature film. Upon his death, Maurice Sendak was called the “most important children’s book artist of the 20th century” by The New York Times.

 Eric Carle whose brilliant illustrations of beloved children’s picture books was born in Syracuse, NY in June, 1929. During his career he illustrated more than seventy books and most of those he also wrote with more than one hundred ten million books sold around the world. Carle’s, “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” remains a beloved children's book everywhere.

 Whatever it is about the month of June we continue to reap the rewards no matter how old we get. Thinking back to when we were first inspired by a hungry caterpillar or a very busy town or a funny worm with a hat or really wild things or a dancing bear or cute bunny rabbit or a captain who visited our homes on a device called a TV, fond memories are tapped as that place in our hearts called childhood-where we never grew up-is once again visited and it doesn’t even have to be June to go back there.

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Beauty Nurtured on a Farm

There's something to say about growing up on a farm. It offers one the opportunity to understand and value the meaning of hard work. My grandparents never stopped from sunup to sundown-using their hands not computers-to do all that had to be done inside and outside their farmhouse-inside and outside the barn and granary-and spreading out to fields just over the plank bridge. I've seen photos of my grandfather coming through the back door into the kitchen looking exhausted yet he was back at it a few hours later. He had to be. There was no slacking. Their livelihood depended on it. Of course he was blessed with a great partner who worked just as hard and just as long.

With all the conveniences we have come to depend on-I don't know how my grandmother accomplished so much and got up and did it all over again. But dressed in a house dress, she did it all-even baked and cooked amazing homemade meals every day. During the haying season, she cooked full-fledged dinners that included pies of all sorts, serving them at noon for those working the fields in the blazing sun. I vaguely remember those times-those noontime feasts served in the kitchen. For some reason what stands out to me the most remains a small pitcher of vinegar, sitting on a table covered in fine linen, for anyone who wanted to add it to their salad. I think that remains so vivid because I couldn't figure out why anyone would want to add something that smelled so potent to anything.

With all they had to do-there were six daughters to be cared for and tended to. Looking at the photo, I think my grandparents did an amazing job. True Beauty can't be found in tubes or compacts. True beauty doesn't mean erasing the lines that come with age or going through procedures to nip and tuck. True beauty comes from within and is noticed by all. There will never be a more beautiful woman to me than my grandmother. Her hands were worn from hard work yet her touch was as gentle as a feather and warm as a summer breeze. There's something to say about the beauty nurtured from growing up on a farm. That beauty truly is eternal.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Making School Fun with the old Barnes's National Reader

Playing school was a favorite thing to do in our chicken coop clubhouse. But then, we were lucky. Our parents and grandparents filled that old place with desks, books, and chalkboards from an abandoned one-room schoolhouse. Our schoolhouse wasn't made by Fisher-Price. It stemmed from our imagination. There were no summers or week-ends off. Our school was open all year long despite the fact some of the windows were without glass allowing snow to pile up inside during the winter. But we didn't mind. School was in session. And if we didn't have little brothers and sisters and cousins to teach, we used that imagination to fill the two rows of desks-the same type of desks you'd see in 'Little House on the Prairie' episodes.

I still have one of my favorite books I used when 'teaching.' It didn't come from that one-room schoolhouse. It belonged to my grandmother. She had a few editions of the "Barnes's New National Readers." The one I have sitting on a bookshelf in my living room was their "New National Third Reader" published by the American Book Company in 1884. I love the book. It presents a story or a poem for the teacher to read and then offers lesson plans to follow. Some plans include what to maximize for memorizing-a list of new words being introduced followed by a language lesson which could be fill in the blanks-word pronunciation-explanation of word types like connecting words-writing sentences using the words. There's a Definition of "some of the difficult words in the reader" in the back of the book. Included with each story or poem is a simple black and white illustration.

The Preface is interesting, stating teachers and school officers are requested to examine features in the book including its conversational character-the beautiful script-the new type. The publisher explains Language Lessons serve-among other things-"to develop the perceptive faculties of pupils by stimulating investigation-the prelude to all accurate knowledge." I think we understood that in our chicken coop clubhouse. Our students were quite attentive-quite curious. At the end of our school year, they all passed. They all went home with their report cards stating they'd made it to the next grade which was actually the same grade as before with maybe a few tweaks here and there. It didn't matter. We made it interesting. We made it fun-and isn't that what school should be anyway? Because if it is fun, kids will dig in-kids will participate and kids will learn in the process.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

A Place of Gathering

Call it what you want-a porch or a veranda. The term doesn't matter as much as the value it holds in the early morning or at the end of a day. It doesn't matter if it's one person sitting there enjoying that first cup of coffee or several sitting around after a long day discussing whatever they choose to discuss. It doesn't matter if it's used for a celebration of a special moment or for the rocking of a little one to sleep as a gentle breeze passes by. Whatever the reason-there is no place like that place called whatever we chose to call it. What does matter are the values of friendship-of family-of conversation and companionship such a place nurtures and develops from one moment to the next. In this era of electronic devices taking over real human interaction where that conversation is turned from people to people face-to-face to cold, hard devices with fingers moving at lightning speed and heads down and where words spoken are nil-that place called whatever you chose to call it is invaluable.

The photo included in this post shows my parents in their early years as a married couple standing in front of my grandparents' farmhouse. I love the photo for many reasons-one being, it shows the screened-in veranda where I played with my cousins. One summer we had some sort of a club. All I remember is clipping things out of magazines and taping them all over one end of that veranda. I recall a stormy summer evening when we were huddled around our grandmother sitting in her rocking chair as lightning struck a poplar tree close by. We all screamed and jumped-a few of us hid in a closet under the front stairs.

Sadly that veranda is gone-ripped away by a new owner who took those peony bushes away as well. But the memories of moments shared at the place of gathering can never be ripped away-for when you gather at such a place-what you experience is priceless.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

On A Magic Carpet Ride


To this day, there’s absolutely no explanation for my infatuation with classic Ford Mustangs. I know nothing about cars. I never did. But I can tell you when I first took notice of the Mustang, I fell head-over-heels in love-for a car. My parents were always trading cars. Because of their friendship with an Oldsmobile dealer, brands like Cutlass, Toronado, and the Ninety-Eight took turns sitting in our driveway. My father also had a thing for Lincoln Continentals. He was a funeral director so those cars were always black-always spotless and always off limits to those of us just itching to drive something-anything. Once in awhile during the summer he’d come home for lunch in a funeral van sort-of-thing. It too was black. He’d let us take it out beyond the hayfield while he ate. My cousins and I had lots of fun going over the wooden planks that spanned the creek. Then stepping on the pedal, we’d fly up the gravel road and across the open space to the woods. We never told my father how fast we had the old thing going. Looking back, I’m sure he knew.
A yellow GTO was my older brother’s choice. It went great with his red hair and crew cut. At least the girls thought so. At one point, he owned a little TR3 which he let me take for a test drive into town. With this my first experience maneuvering a stick shift, I ended up in someone’s front yard. I didn’t say anything but I’m certain my brother knew something had happened by the look on my face when I came screeching into the driveway jerking all the way.
While this was the era of muscle cars-everything from the Camaro to the Thunderbird to the Barracuda and Todd and Buzz  zooming along Route 66 in their Corvette convertible, not one of those hot cars made me feel the same way as when my eyes came upon the 1964 Mustang with bucket seats and a stick shift in between. I became obsessed with this car. The Mustang had it all or what I should say, what that vehicle had hit a chord somewhere. The way those seats sat-the shape-oh I loved the shape-the sleek front and how the back end was short, leading to those tucked-in rear lights-the way it’d move along the highway following a beat of its own and making a statement of freedom, coolness, and watch out world, here I come sort of thing all contributed to this overwhelming awestruck feeling. My father’s cars were ok but nothing too exciting. My brother’s cars-well they were his. But the Mustang was unique-from its galloping horse logo to its distinct design and I claimed it as mine.
I was hired right out of college. Once I got my feet on the ground, I asked my father to go with me to a Ford dealership. What might have been one of the easiest car sales ever occurred minutes upon opening their door. I didn’t need the pitch. I didn’t have to hear the spin. Once everything was in order, I was heading down my version of Route 66 in an all new, cherry red 1968 Mustang with black bucket seats and a stick shift in between. If ever there was a love story written between a car and its owner it was written that day. If ever freedom was experienced and exhilaration on high it happened that day as a cherry red Mustang took me along the asphalt-around curves and up hills on a magic carpet ride with my hair flying and tunes playing.