Posted by: deadmousediaries | June 8, 2017

Green Riders Bike Across the U.S., Plant Gardens, Raise Awareness

  Storytellers know that on the very best days, a story that needs to be told will simply reveal itself. I had that good fortune Sunday, June 4, 2017, when I passed a string of cyclists on their way to passing the Path Valley Hotel. It turns out there were 30 of them strewn along the major east-west roadway in my county. Known as the Green Riders- Good Deeds on Bikes, they are weaving their way across the U.S. from New York en route to Seattle, Washington. The group converged in New York’s Central Park on Memorial Day to begin their three-month mission to create awareness for sustainable green living and to highlight food waste in the U.S. 

   Although the group has been united by a common cause, most had never met until the ride began on May 29, 2017. Riders hail from the U.S., the U.K., France, Australia, Colombia, Spain, Denmark and beyond. On Sunday morning, June 4, 2017, they pedaled through my little town as part of their daily 50-mile increments in their journey of 3,700 miles. They expect to reach Seattle August 18, 2017.

  They’ll be spending their nights in parks and campground and with hosts who are preparing for their visits. There will also be some surprises with stops in other shelters such as barns and churches. The group is also plugged into Warmshowers.org, a worldwide, hospitality exchange for touring cyclists, as well as the social network known as couchsurfing that connects travelers of all types with short-term sleeping accommodations. Along the way, riders are planting gardens, living off fresh produce and also dumpster diving for food that has been tossed before its expiration date. 

   “About 40 percent of the food in the U.S. goes into the garbage,” said rider Sarah Edleman, a statistic that has been backed up by government agencies. Sarah and companions had stopped for a lunch they spread out on a blanket under a shade tree when I caught up with them. Their meal included fresh broccoli, tomatoes and a version of Thai peanut sauce made fresh on the spot in a hand-powered food processor. It was served on a hoagie roll, one from an unopened pack rescued from a dumpster because it had been trashed by it’s sell-by date, not the expiration date. The difference between sell-by dates and true expiration of foods is one of the things Green Riders are hoping to highlight. 

   The U. S. Department of Environmental Protection estimates that the single biggest component of landfills is discarded food and it comprises 20% of all U.S. refuse. A study released by John Hopkins University researcher Dr. Roni Neff confirms that the billions of pounds of wasted food put in the trash in the U.S. each year is enough to supply 84% of the world’s population with a 2,000 calorie diet. 

   While some of the Green Riders are making their first long distance bike journey, organizer Rob Greenfield, environmental activist, has made other cross-country bike trips. His social media appeal for riders to join the adventure included a dose of reality about accepting this challenge where there are no support vehicles and riders had to pack their own food, water and equipment, a responsibility that means bikers are carrying about 80 pounds of gear everywhere they go, including up Pennslyvania’s inespcapable mountains. The true essentials of the trip were defined by riders as the bike, a small pump, patch kit, spare tube and water.

   The appeal to participants was the chance to expand personal knowledge and skills and to get the opportunity to practice sustainable living, including concepts of zero waste, holistic health and learning to live with less money. Organizers promised riders they would come away inspired and informed, leaving each stop along the way better than they found it.

   That promise appealed to Sarah and cyclists Joshua Graveline and Jonathan Nye who offered to share their bounty with me, a random stranger who happened to initiate conversation from my Jeep at the intersection where they had stopped. They passed around everything they had. As we talked, Jonathan and Joshua pulled dandelion and lemon grasses and added them to their lunch.

“The ride is  mostly about awareness, about getting closer to the Earth and living more simply, ” said Joshua, who admitted he has been living a fully nomadic life for more than a year. “I lived in my van for a year and worked as migrant help on farms,” he shared. “I finally gave up fossil fuels and struck out on my bike.”

   When asked how friends and family were reacting to their journeys, Sarah, who grew up in the south of Spain, said her parents had always encouraged independent travel and discovery. When she told them she was considering this trip, they told her to go, enjoy, and were totally supportive. Josh said his mother was terrified. “But I’ve been terrifying her for years,” he added, smiling about his love of adventure and extreme sports which is evident in all his photos.

   As they talked, Jonathan quietly planted cucumber seeds in a small bed of flowers along the roadway, living one part of the Green Rider’s mission by promoting freestyle gardening. Joshua reported he has dropped seeds in random spots in his travels, too, including abandoned flower pots. “Somebody’s going to be surprised to find bell peppers growing in their window box,” he joked.

   Several cyclists from outside the U.S. arrived later at the impromptu picnic spot and were quick to report on the kind hospitality they have received while in Pennsylvania. When asked if they have encountered any angry motorists en route, Joshua took the lead in responding. “For the most part, it’s all been good. Every once in a while people will shout and wave their arms about something. I can’t hear them so I just choose to think they’re saying ‘Hey! You’re doing great! Keep up the good work!’ Then I keep on peddling.”

   The Green Riders moved on to Ohio from Pennsylvania. The next routes take them through Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota before heading through the Dakotas. Travel through Montana and Idaho will bring them into Washington. Their route was plotted to take them through national parks and campgrounds, creating the chance to enjoy the peace of cycling. Stops include time for planting gardens at people’s homes, at schools, and in the small towns and cities in each state along their route. 

   The group will be visiting organic farms and permactulture operations that work in partnership with natural ecosystems. They will also be visiting sustainability centers and homesteads that choose to live off the grid. 

   Riders install solar panels on the backs of their bikes to power their phones and they use social media to stay in touch with families, friends and followers. “Some of us don’t really want to be that plugged in but that’s where everybody is,” Joshua noted. That’s good news for those who want to follow their progress as they make their way across the U.S. in Johnny Appleseed style. Find them on their public Facebook page: Green Riders- Good Deeds on Bikes, #greenriders. 

   If your town is lucky enough to be along their path, the Green Riders will leave you feeling inspired. As true caretakers of our planet, they are honoring that pledge: Take only pictures. Leave only footprints. The only other thing they might leave behind in your community is some bell peppers in your window box.  MK

Posted by: deadmousediaries | May 26, 2017

Pressing Pause on This Holiday Weekend

I love browsing second hand shops. It’s like a treasure hunt. Sometimes you stumble across exactly what you didn’t yet know you wanted. Other times it’s an odyssey and you uncover something you wish you hadn’t found.

I had that kind of encounter two weeks ago while browsing in a vintage jewelry store in Cumberland County. Under glass in the lone men’s case was an artifact that neither of my traveling companions even found remarkable. I recognized it instantly thanks to my friend and WWII veteran Gregg Davis. It was a Purple Heart. When he had handed me the one he had earned, he did it with honor and humility and he shared his story.

Unlike the first one I had ever seen, the medal in the shop had been abandoned by everyone who knew its story. It was meaningless, looked tawdry, set out for sale among the tie tacks and cuff links. I paused only a moment before stepping away. It made me sad. A soldier somewhere had been wounded in combat to have earned that honor and now there was no one left to remember or to care.

By the end of that week, I realized I could have rescued that soldier from obscurity by simply asking to see the back of the medal. Most Purple Hearts have the soldier’s name inscribed. The military engraves it if is presented posthumously and if not, most recipients or the family choose personal engraving after the presentation. The Purple Heart registry would have been the perfect place to start my research and if there had been no inscription, the Purple Hearts Reunited organization could have stepped in to help. 

A few days later I called the store owner to inquire about an engraving and paused again. It had been sold. I wish I had called sooner.

Gregg Davis has a talent for weaving history together in a way that makes it meaningful and so does my son but as a student, I hated that subject. With no disrespect to all my teachers who tried to help me find it fascinating, I didn’t. That’s pretty ironic for someone who has grown into storyteller and can never hear too much now about the way things were. In classes, I studied historical names, places and dates in a way my son studied other subjects, a method he branded R-LETTT, remember long enough to take test. 

We’re approaching Memorial Day again and it’s thanks to my son that I remember some history others probably tried to teach me. Do you recognize the name Hiram Maxim? Probably not but he introduced the machine gun in 1884. In 1897 live demonstrations prompted the New York Times to write about these “terrible automatic engines of war.” The story continued: “These are the instruments that have revolutionized the methods of warfare and because of their devastating effects, have made nations and rulers give greater thought to the outcome before entering…They are peace-producing and peace-retaining terrors.”

Did nations and rulers pause to give greater thought when they saw the potential for devastation? They did think about it but not in the way the Times had envisioned. By the beginning of WWI in 1914, machine guns were in full military use and we all know how that turned out.

Somewhere in class, I was supposed to learn about the Treaty of Versailles, too. What I don’t remember hearing about the final chapter of WWI on June 28, 1919, was the prophecy from French Marshal Ferdinand Foch, Commander in Chief of Allied Forces. Foch believed the Treaty was too lenient on Germany and was vocal about it. “This is not peace,” he is quoted as saying. “This is an amnesty for 20 years.” Others might have paused to hear him. The world was thrown into WWII on September 1, 1939. He was off by 64 days.

Monday is Memorial Day, a time to honor all the men and women who fought and died for our freedom. Along with parades, ceremonies and the posting of colors everywhere, we also fill the day with beach trip plans, steaks on the grill, summer sandal BOGOs and mattress warehouse sales. What if we all took time to pause and truly honor our fallen this one time a year as they do in Warsaw, Poland?

For one full minute at noon, every August 1st, the entire city of Warsaw comes to a standstill. Traffic stops, workers pause, pedestrians halt in their tracks as alarms blare and flares fill the city with smoke. It happens in remembrance of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, the largest single confrontation waged by resistance forces during WWII. The record keepers tell us that 16,000 Polish resistance fighters died and nearly 200,000 civilians were executed. At the end of 63 days of fighting, 85% of the city had been destroyed.

It’s hard for me to imagine the eerie feeling of radio silence here for one full minute, much less no one on their phones and no agitated drivers honking horns because stalled traffic has delayed them. As an American, it’s even harder to imagine the deafening sounds rolling through my town like the ones that racked Warsaw during its annihilation. 

I suppose it’s best that we each claim a different minute to say thank you, but what if our fire sirens sounded and church bells rang out together on the chance we have forgotten? The important thing is that we interrupt our regular programming on a Monday holiday to pause and be grateful, remembering why we call it Memorial Day. Of course that’s only my opinion.  MK

Posted by: deadmousediaries | May 12, 2017

The Motherhood Contract: Always Check the Fine Print

Motherhood. Funny lady Erma Bombeck called it the second oldest profession. Unfortunately, unlike the oldest profession, you don’t get paid. In fact, some would say motherhood is more like a Bernie Madoff promise; you invest, invest and invest, yet your bank account continues to dwindle. 

When I was a young mom and our beautiful baby girl arrived as little sister for our son, people would smile and tell us we had a million dollar family. That expression was intended as a compliment. What it really meant was that it would take a million bucks to raise them.

There’s no shortage of money being circulated where mothers and kids are involved. When we celebrate Mother’s Day again on Sunday, May 14, 2017, the National Retail Federation reports Americans will spend more than $23 billion (23 and nine zeroes), to honor our moms. That’s more than we spend on Valentine’s Day so I guess we know who our true loves really are.

Despite the urban legend, this American tradition was not invented by Hallmark. The event we celebrate today has roots in the Civil War and is credited to Ann Reeves Jarvis of West Virginia and later, her daughter Anna. The duo became champions for the idea of creating an event to honor mothers after other organizers tested a few false starts.

On May 9, 1868, three years to the day after the end of the Civil War, Ann and her committee launched Mother’s Friendship Day, an event intended to reunite families divided by the war. Ann continued her activism and when she died in 1905, her daughter Anna picked up the charge. Anna pushed successfully to establish a national observance of mothers and in 1910, West Virginia became the first state to recognize an official Mother’s Day. Other states quickly followed suit.

In 1914, the U.S. Congress enacted a law designating the second Sunday in May as national Mother’s Day. Six years later, Hallmark began selling Mother’s Day cards. Oddly, Anna Jarvis quickly became a vocal opponent to all the hoopla and lobbied for the event’s abolition, arguing that the day had become too commercial. Perhaps she should have seen that coming when she enlisted the help of retail magnate John Wanamaker and entrepreneur H. J. Heinz to create awareness for her cause and build nationwide support. 

In 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt commemorated Mother’s Day by approving a new three-cent postage stamp. He sketched the design personally after the idea for a stamp was brought to him by Mrs. H.H. McCluer, a past national president of the American War Mothers. The violet-colored stamp featured an adaptation of the famous portrait known as Whistler’s Mother. It included the words: In Memory and in Honor of the Mothers of America. 

Reports from friends indicate that even now, 87 years after Hallmark stepped in to make it easy, grown kids have trouble making a card and a stamp come together in time for that second Sunday in May. The good news is, Mother’s Day continues to see the highest phone call volumes of any day in the year.

Mothers deserve at least one day of recognition. I remember what I really wanted for Mother’s Day back then was a nap I could enjoy for a week. 

There are a lot of clauses in the motherhood contract and if you’re the party of the first part when the endorphins are flowing, it’s tough to be a careful reader. If you are a mother, you know now there was a lot of fine print at the bottom of the page when you signed on and it was easily overlooked. Here are some items commonly missed:

1. Alone time will be a problem. From the moment babies are born, life as you know it is over. It’s nearly impossible to put newborns down long enough to simply take a shower and before you know it, the only privacy you’ll ever get is if you have a lock on the bathroom door. Even then, little voices will always be outside pleading Mom? Mom! Mommy, mommy, mommy!!!  Fast forward 18 years (and it will be fast forward), and they’re off on their own doing exactly what you taught them: creating their own happy, satisfying, productive lives and finding new people who’ll share them. Then one day very suddenly, you can’t remember why you ever wanted to lock that door. Yes, alone time will be a problem. 

2. You will no longer recognize yourself in the mirrorI remember the first time I looked at my reflection and truly wondered when the middle-aged mom had swallowed the girl I used to be. The sleepless nights and worrisome moments of motherhood take their toll. Crows feet and pucker lines suddenly decorate your face and an unruly silver fringe encircles it. That’s the day you realize you don’t need a mirror to see your reflection; you can see yourself best in your kids’ faces. 

“Live so that when your children think of fairness, caring and integrity, they think of you,” wrote H. Jackson Brown, Jr., author of Life’s Little Instruction Book.  If you’ve done your job as a mom, your kids will show you a more beautiful image of the real you than you’ll get with any great lighting or magic mirror. Choose to be reflected there.

3. Your heart will get broken. From the moment they are laid in our arms, our kids begin to battle us for independence. A mother’s heart survives a thousand tiny fractures along the way. I’ve come to realize that’s a critical phase of a mom’s journey, too. Hearts don’t really break. They crack and heal. And whether it’s love that rushes in to fill the gap or just a patch of rubbery stuff like what’s inside Stretch Armstrong, a mother’s heart expands a bit with every repair. That’s an important part of the process. Without that gradual expansion, how would we ever grow enough room to continually love our children more?

Posted by: deadmousediaries | April 28, 2017

News from the Path Valley Hotel, Episode #101: The Big Tree

I don’t know how long I’ve been tree crazy. It’s an inherited condition. One of my earliest memories of adventure with my mom was walking out our back door and making the trek onto the farm lane to visit The Big Tree. That was its name. I have no idea what kind it was and of course, it’s gone now. I do remember it stood as sentinel over a small, family cemetery, the kind people carved out on their personal property to keep their loved ones close.

The Big Tree’s partner was a wild persimmon. No matter what fall day we visited, we never found the little orange fruits when they were truly ripe and no amount of determination on my part could keep their tannins from drawing my mouth into a pucker. That was okay; testing them was an important part of the visit.

Our front yard dropped off to the edge of a very busy highway but in the back, a clover field bordered the lane that ran behind our row of six houses. As I got older, I was allowed to walk as far as The Big Tree alone, and I remember that heady feeling of independence. I was a tomboy and a pilgrimage to the Big Tree always promised the chance to catch a toad or a grasshopper, or once, mistakenly, a little snapping turtle –all without parental consent. It never dawned on me that Mom could see me plainly the entire time from our kitchen window. 

I’ve spent a lot of time under big trees since then and on April 7, 2017, my daughter and I and our two friends drove 200 miles to the Presbyterian Church in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, to honor and say goodbye to one of our nation’s oldest. A six-hundred-year-old white oak towered over the town’s Revolutionary War era cemetery; it had been standing 300 years before the church was built there in 1717. On Monday, April 24, the task of removing it began.

The tree stood 100 feet tall, spread its branches over 150 feet and was 18 feet in diameter. It has been in failing health for decades. A network of weathered cables and ground supports were evidence of the valiant attempts to keep the tree viable for more than a century until finally there were no more fixes.

The tree dominated the view the instant we turned onto Oak Street. Even in its state of decline, there was a presence about it, a complete majesty, that caused a catch in my throat. We parked and walked to visit, observing first, quietly, and then struck up conversations with the people who knew this tree well as their town’s icon. We all took pictures, too, but nothing came close to capturing what any of us had seen with the naked eye. Some views were never meant to have borders.

This has been a tough year for big trees. In January, we lost one of Franklin County’s oldest when a 100-foot tall black oak toppled in Mont Alto. Even closer to my heart was the loss of a big tree on my little community’s ancient school grounds, one that has always been part of my memories and was part of my mother’s playground.

When it split, its broken bones fell onto the roadway. The first round of debris was removed by a resident with a chainsaw. For weeks after the collapse, the rest of the tree stood in partial ruin until a professional service was called in to finish the job. All the smaller sections have since disappeared, presumably picked up for firewood, but the huge pieces of the trunk still lie by the roadside. Every time I pass it, I am sad it has simply been abandoned, It reminds me of the discarded carcass of a Thanksgiving turkey. All the best parts have been picked over and the remains wait to be swept into the trash. There will be no honor it. Yes, I’m tree crazy. And proud of it.

In Basking Ridge, residents have been preparing for their landmark’s removal for months. A GoFundMe account was established to help cover costs of removal and school kids submitted essays about what stories the tree could tell. After 600 years, there would be much to tell, including the conversations between George Washington and Lafayette who reportedly sat in the giant’s shade discussing strategies for the Revolutionary War. 

Community leaders and church officials have also committed to repurposing all the wood from the tree; none will be wasted. The best news is that another 25-foot tall white oak, nurtured from the acorn of the original tree, has been growing on the other side of the cemetery with plenty of room to stretch for its lifetime. To me that’s all a beautiful story that shows how a community has rallied around an old friend and offered a proper goodbye.

Sometime this summer, I have to take down a hemlock here at the Path Valley Hotel and the thought already makes me sad. It was one of two I planted with my dad. It wouldn’t be so hard if it was sick but it’s healthy, having missed the invasion of the woolly adelgid, the insect that has been destroying so many hemlocks in recent years. Unfortunately, it now towers dangerously over my chimney and its roots are pushing their way to the PVH foundation. I won’t be able to watch as it comes down but will plant a new tree somewhere in gratitude for the time it spent here.

On Friday, April 28, 2017, we’ll mark another National Arbor Day, a celebration that has been with us since 1872. It’s the perfect time to plant a tree and a beautiful reason to take a drive and appreciate the native dogwoods and redbuds while they are in bloom.  If you’re tree crazy too, it’s also a great excuse to hug a tree. Thank it for providing shade, clean air and critter homes –and giving us some stories. 

Posted by: deadmousediaries | March 24, 2017

News from the Path Valley Hotel, Episode # 98: The Dangers of Ironing

   Like most moms, I have some very clear memories of firsts with my kids. First giggle, first wail from Santa’s lap, first haircut with with craft scissors behind closed doors. I remember first words and their first full sentences, too. My son’s was: “Bonk my bean,” which was his way of telling me as he stood up rubbing his little blond noggin that he had hit his head when he took that tumble outside the bathroom door.
   My daughter’s first sentence was: “No. Guess again.” That was her response when we were trying to decipher the words she had said just prior to that. We were all sitting together for dinner at our favorite Friday night restaurant and I was giving her the chance to tell us what she wanted to eat. She added a flourish as she said it. Her little head tilt was punctuated with a closed-mouth grin that communicated smugly: “I’m trying to be patient but please try to keep up.” There is nothing like being reminded that your child is smarter than you are. Of course, this is also the same kid who had clearly shouted “Cheesburger!” to the teller at the bank’s drive-up window weeks earlier.
   Along the way of language development, kids all go through a fairly lengthy “What’s that?” phase, too. By the time my son was six, I thought he was beyond that but the night he saw our ironing board set up in the kitchen, the age-old question popped up again. In six years, he had never seen an ironing board. There’s a reason. We kept it buried, out of the way, at the back of the closet. It served best as a low-rent spider highrise and a trellis for their handiwork. I can assure you there was never any pressing of permanent press fabrics at our house. The night of the ironing board’s magical appearance, my husband had set it up to plaster a patch on his jeans.
   I was reminded of this story when I was reading a post from a young blogger I follow. I’m not sure where she lives or exactly how old she is but she lives on a farm and has told readers she’s home-schooled. I love her posts. You can find her at A Farm Girls Life on WordPress.com.
   She’s fresh, authentic and artsy and hasn’t yet had any writing coaches beat the joy of writing out of her. She shares posts on farm life, her own creativity and reblogs artistic how-to’s. She also shares lots and lots of pictures of baby farm animals, fuzzy and furry. Farm Girl recently interviewed her grandmother about the good ole days of farm life and her grandmother shared some memories about how she handled her daily chores, including the ironing.
   Like Farm Girl’s grandmother, my mom kept rolled up sheets and pillowcases in a plastic bag until they could be ironed, revived first with a sprinkle of water from an old bottle with a cork-base top. Farm Girl said her grandmother warned you couldn’t let clean laundry sit like that too long or things would get moldy. My mom avoided that problem by putting the bag in the fridge.
   Mom not only had an iron, she had an ironer, a huge, industrial-looking contraption that resided in our basement. It had a giant, padded cylinder where wrinkly things went to be squashed into submission. A huge press above it was operated by a foot pedal. The press clamped down on the cylinder and the whole thing sent out a distinctive long hiss of steam I can still hear as part of the comforting rhythms of my childhood.
   Won’t my mom and Farm Girl’s g-maw be surprised to know that these days, ironing is a competitive sport? And it’s not just any sport; it’s an extreme sport to boot. If you can’t grasp the distinction, here’s the classic definition: extreme sports activities are perceived as having a high level of danger. In addition, the definition also states these activities often involve speed, height, a high level of physical exertion and highly specialized gear. What???
   You may already be envisioning Donna Reed and June Clever standing side by side in a canary yellow kitchen, preparing to go shirt-to-shirt in a challenging iron-off. Can you picture them now at extra tall boards, speed ironing their way through a month’s worth of 50’s family laundry and wearing their highly specialized gear (a pear necklace, of course)?  Well, stop!
   Extreme ironing does not take place in the kitchen. “EI,” as it is known, takes place underwater, in caves and on horseback. It happens on water skis, on the roof of a moving car and when rappelling down a mountain face. EI sites and photos are all over the web, describing extreme ironing as an outdoor sport that combines the danger and excitement of an extreme sport with the satisfaction of a well-pressed shirt. What a great combination. EI athletes make a point of getting caught in the act when skydiving, bungee jumping and in roaring whitewater.
   The popular story says that the sport was born in Leicester, England, in 1997 when a regular guy named Phil Shaw came home from a rough day and faced a lot of chores, including his ironing. He preferred to go rock climbing instead but decided to combine the two activities and Bam! a new extreme sport was launched. Today there are official rules and regs, governing bodies and world championships. Organizations such as the Extreme Ironing Bureau and Extreme Ironing International help promote the sport and document the record setting. Of course there is a Facebook presence and merchandise, too: t-shirts, decals and coffee mugs. A used 2009 EI calendar lists for  $127.40 on Amazon. A new one will cost you $600-plus.
   I haven’t dug deep enough yet to find out exactly what kind of job those irons do while plummeting to Earth from 12,000 feet or while jouncing down a mountainside but  I do know this: water and electricity don’t mix. I would never recommend any EI water sports. It is all enough for me to know that my instincts were correct in keeping that ironing board stashed in the closet. This sport proves my theory. Ironing can be hazardous to your health.
Posted by: deadmousediaries | March 13, 2017

The People We Admire Most

These past few days, I felt compelled to do a little research on the people Americans admire most. Results of the Gallup Survey from 2009 through 2016 were fascinating to say the least. Founded in 1935, the American-based research firm Gallup, Inc. now conducts 1,000 wireless and landline phone interviews per day in the U.S. They do it 365 days a year and about a variety of issues.

The first thing that caught my eye was that in this country, we continue to need to distinguish our most admired men from our most admired women which makes me wonder when, if ever, we’ll get to one inclusive list. For now, Gallup poses the two separate inquiries this way: What man (woman) that you have heard or read about, living today in any part of the world, do you admire most?

For the past eight years, Barrack Obama has topped the list with as many as 30 percent of respondents naming him as their most admired man. In 2016, he was named by 22%, followed by Donald Trump with 15% of the popular vote. Pope Francis has held the number three slot on our list for the past four years. Bill Clinton claims a small percentage of overall responses but has done it annually for each of the last eight years. Joining him as consistent names worthy of admiration are Bill Gates and Reverend Billy Graham.

On the double X chromosomes list, the consistent most-admired women over the last eight years are Hilary Clinton (12% in 2016) and Michelle Obama (8% in 2016.). Four other women have been named each year since 2009, although to a lesser degree: Oprah Winfrey, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Queen Elizabeth and Sarah Palin.

Others making continued appearances over the last five years are German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai. Now 19, Malala has been a tireless advocate for women’s education and in 2014, received the Nobel Peace Prize for her work, the youngest recipient ever.

Some of the other names we’ve named as persons we most admire may surprise you. Maybe not. Consider these: Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg; entertainers Beyonce Knowles, Angelina Jolie, Ellen DeGeneres, Brad Pitt, Scarlett Johansson, Clint Eastwood and Jennifer Lopez. It might shock you to find that Vladamir Putin, current president of the Russian Federation, made an appearance on one of America’s recent most-admired lists as well.

I don’t know any of these people personally and barring any grand political appointment, a ticket to a $10,000 a plate dinner or random gig to be a seat filler at an awards extravaganza, I don’t ever expect to be on the same city block with them. What I find reassuring about the Gallup results is that we Americans have reported that eight percent of the men we admire and 12 percent of the women aren’t politicos or celebrities in any way. They are our relatives and friends. I can relate to that.

I attended an admiration event on March 1st for an important mentor in my life but it was the goodbye kind, the farewell service for my friend and neighbor Anna. I knew her nearly all my life and felt her influence since my twenties. She raised a beautiful family, left a legacy. She was a nurse, a volunteer a catalyst, boundless in her energy — and her patience. I watched her endure, stand firm and thrive. She taught me you can always choose to remain calm even while being fierce in your resolve.

She talked me off the ledge of non-existent health scares when I was a new mom, gave me opportunities to shine in my career. She opened doors for my writing and gave me a most unexpected gift when I became a widow.

Her family will never really know all the things she did for me and there’s really no need to try and explain it all here. Every person who filled her church for her service could share Anna stories, too. That’s how she lived, supporting others, giving her time and sharing her talents.

Anna taught us about compassion, love, tolerance, commitment, leadership and action. The light shone on her too few times but she didn’t like the spotlight. She never needed an award or a flashy billboard as a tribute. She moved among us every day with intention, adding a splash of richness to the lives of everyone who knew her.

Anna’s name will never be on Gallup’s most-admired list but it is on mine. She spent a lifetime quietly laying down a trail of small kindnesses like bread crumbs for us to follow and I’m grateful that I walked along her path.

Posted by: deadmousediaries | March 2, 2017

News from the Path Valley Hotel, Episode #96: The Power of a Letter

In a very ordinary way, my cousin Candy handed me an extraordinary gift last spring: a little, yellowed envelope she had found among her mother’s things. The postmark was pale and blurred but discernible: November, 1926. It had been addressed to her grandmother Florence. Why her mother had kept it all those years remains a mystery to us both but Candy knew I’d enjoy it. Although we shared a grandmother on our dads’ side, the letter had been an exchange between our maternal grandmothers,  mailed to hers and written by mine.

 

At first blush, it was an exchange of news between two high school friends who had been separated by distance and life changes. From the start, it offered the promise of a delightful peek behind the curtain for this storyteller, but something seemed unsettling.
 
I knew instantly the thick, black pencil strokes on the envelope didn’t look like my grandmother’s handwriting but the name in the return address seemed unmistakable. In the style of the day, the writer had used her husband’s formal name, my pap’s, with a “Mrs.” preceding it.  When I pulled out the letter, I was thrown off again, struck that the writing style seemed off somehow, not my grandmother’s fluid lines and careful grammar. I skipped ahead to the signature on the last page. Again, it was signed as “Mrs.” The writer was certainly my pap’s young wife.
 
The pages were filled with girl talk, the young bride wrote to ask her friend Florence about her baby and how her life was going as a young mother.  She asked her friend how she liked having her hair shingled and what she wanted for Christmas, then added: “Maybe you are like me. Take anything I get.”
 
It was a line of news on the second page that stopped me cold. The letter told of family deaths, including the writer’s sister who had left seven young children behind. I remember running my finger over the handwriting then, looking again at the signature, going back to the postmark. My grandmother never had a sister and she married Pap in 1930. The tears welled up as I realized then what a treasure I was holding in my hand, a key to a family mystery.
 
When I was very young, Pap used to take me to visit a woman we called Grandma Horn. Although she was always delighted to see us both, and always treated me with the best grandma-like affection, I never understood how our lives fit together. My “real” grandma, Pap’s wife, never went with us but always sent her regards. Grandma Horn returned the sentiment. 
 
I don’t remember when Grandma Horn died. I didn’t go to her funeral but I’m sure Pap did, probably 50-something years ago. Sometime after that, I started to catch bits and pieces of her story: my pap had been married once before and Grandma Horn had been his first mother-in-law. The letter I was holding had been written by her daughter Helen.
 
In very vague terms, I’ve known for decades that Pap’s first wife Helen had died and that he had lost an infant son, too. End of story. Even my mother didn’t know much more. The hush wasn’t really a cover up, I learned later; the memories were simply too painful. Time passes; memories fade. The generations before us disappear and are reduced to an occasional comment at a random family gathering. I learned nothing more about Helen or their son until my mother showed me her cemetery marker three years ago.
 
When the gift of a letter connected me with Helen and the woman I loved as Grandma Horn, I shared the story with close friends, among them genealogist Pam Anderson. In her hands, Helen’s letter opened doors that had been locked in my family history. Pam dug into public records and newspaper files. Her research and tenacity brought me census records, marriage applications, birth certificates and obituaries. Here’s a sampling of what her excavations uncovered, all triggered by one letter from a seventeen-year-old newlywed:
 
Grandma Horn’s first name was Ida; she had been a maid. Helen’s dad, Grandma Horn’s husband, was David, a laborer, who was 23 years older than Ida when they married. Both had children from former relationships. Although Ida could read and write, David made an “X” on the marriage application rather than adding a signature indicating he was illiterate. He did own property which meant he had made his way in the world, regardless.
 
Helen was born March 2, 1909. While her marriage to my pap was not recorded in Franklin County, her letter to Florence reveals they married on February 26, 1926, just before her 17th birthday. It’s unlikely that she knew it when she was writing to Florence in November, but she was probably two months pregnant at the time. Other records show that her infant son died when two months premature, on April 12 , 1927, two days after my pap’s birthday. Helen died one week later when she was barely 18.
 
The baby’s death certificate calls him “John.” I’m guessing that at the time of death, Helen was too ill and my pap too overwhelmed to have declared a name. When the obituary appeared a few days later, the baby’s name was listed as Charles David, a combination of both grandfathers. Helen’s obituary in the local newspaper attributes her death to pneumonia, like most others listed that same day and the week preceding.
 
March 2, 2017, would be Helen’s 108th birthday. Ironically, she shared that birthday with my great-grandmother, pap’s second mother-in-law. I realize now that day that must have been rough for him to celebrate as the rest of us gathered for her cake and ice cream each year.
 
Helen did not leave a written account of her short time here and until last year, she was merely a cemetery marker in my layer of family history. One little letter has made her real for me and helped me pass along a part of her story.
Happy birthday, Helen. You and the little soul who was among us barely long enough to get a name have not yet been forgotten.  And to Florence, Roberta and Candy– thank you for recognizing and preserving the power of a letter.
Posted by: deadmousediaries | February 19, 2017

Presidents’ Day Language of Love: Keep Your Motor Running, Honey!

Valentine’s Day might be over but chances are good some of us are already flirting with a hot new romance. Presidents’ Day is now looming large and you can expect there will be a rush of starry-eyed proposals and tearful separations on car lots everywhere. We are on the cusp of car buying Nirvana and let’s face it friends, here in the U.S. we are in love with our cars. When you look at the numbers, it’s hard to deny.

Depending on which report you reference, there are at least 260 million registered cars in the United States. That’s a meaningful statistic for a country where the entire population number, babies and all, hovers somewhere around 319 million. Some reports also tell us that 7.7 million cars are purchased here each year and that the average age of cars running across America today is 11.4 years. That means at least a portion of our cars get recycled as “new to you.”

According to the car-buying gurus, Presidents’ Day is one of the best times of the year to land a great deal. Dealers want to move last year’s models that are taking up valuable real estate. The weather is generally crappy in February and people aren’t motivated to roll out of the warm to tromp through dealership lots or even go ogle the buy they found online. Tax refunds aren’t yet in our hands so we don’t have that tempting infusion of cash. When you combine all that with the fact that sales quotas exist even in the super short month of February, the odds are in the buyer’s favor for putting the pedal to the metal and driving off with a deal.

If you need to make chit-chat with strangers or bridge an awkward silence at a social gathering, simply ask people about their first car and watch their faces light up. Even if it was a gas-guzzling garage queen that spent more time on the rack than the road, everyone who has ever owned a car has a story they’re happy to share. Those thoughts often bring up memories of the first tastes of independence and invincibility, the promise of eternal youth and of course the joys of learning that having a car meant not only could you go driving, you could also go parking.

I was a late bloomer; my first car was single horsepower because it was a horse. While most of my friends were cruising around town with their eight tracks blaring, laying down the stink of burning rubber, I was listening to clip-clop and leaving behind an aromatic trail of horse biscuits. Before I was old enough to saddle up on my own, I drove a horse with training wheels which of course was a pony in a cart.

When the car bug finally hit, I was off in a brand new Chevy coupe 350, metallic blue, bucket seats, automatic bar shift on the floor. Sweet. Her name was Baby Jane. There was no logic or memory to prompt her naming; that’s simply who she was. I came from a long line of car namers and have many happy memories as a kid bumping along in the back seat of our Chevy Banty Rooster.

 

Does your car have a name? Now there’s a conversation starter. In October, 2013, USA Today built a story around the results of a Nationwide Insurance company survey that found one in four us name our cars. If you think that’s weird, I guess you can’t get on board with KITT, Christine, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The General or Greased Lightning either. If you do get it and want to find your people, here are a few more results from that survey:

– Car owners between the ages of 18 and 34 are more likely to name their cars.

– Women are more likely than men to have a nickname for their cars.

– More than 31% were inspired to name the vehicle based on its color or appearance.

– Men are more likely than women to name their car after a famous historical person or a character in a movie.

There is a psychology term for describing our naming of cars and it is anthropomorphism which means giving human characteristics to non-human entities. Adam Waytz, a psychologist and professor at Northwestern University, tells us that we do this for three reasons: the object may resemble a human in looks; we want a frame of reference for understanding the object’s behavior or we want to make a social connection with the object. The speculation? Perhaps when we see our cars with human characteristics, it could make us better drivers and remind us to take better care of our cars.

In a completely non-scientific survey of my own, I asked friends and friends of friends about their car naming experience. More women than men said yes, they’ve named a car. Most people, even the men, referred to their cars as female, even if only as “the old gal is running great.” My favorite story came from a man who said the only car he had ever named was his Nissan 350 Z;  he named her TY after an exotic dancer he had met. On the other end of the spectrum, I had a college roommate who called her car Esmarelda. That wasn’t some exotic foreign princess reference but more like an ancient, halting, white Rambler kind of thing.

If you haven’t named your car but think you might want to improve your relationship with her, it’s not too late. October 2, 2017, has again been set as National Car Naming Day (yes, there’s a day for that, too). In the meantime, you can get some help weighing in on possible names by using free online services. Simply Google car name generators.

Prompts on each site will ask you to answer some basic questions about your car, nothing too personal or identity revealing. You’ll pick words to describe it, choose the fantasy road trip on your bucket list or highlight a favorite car movie. You can change your input and start over again at any time. I didn’t like any of my first-round names of Jewell the Jeep, Jaya, or JC. I changed one parameter and came closer in line with Meryl Street and Muddy Hackett. My favorite of all the names the system generated was Truck-o-Saurus.

It really doesn’t matter what the psychology says, my Jeep is Baby Beet and I knew it from the moment I met her. I won’t be seeing you on any car lots this Presidents’ Day but wish you well. I’m still in love with Beet after all these years and have no plans to separate.

Somewhere in my keepsakes I acquired from my parents’ farm is a box of letters my classmates sent me in the third grade. They are all written in pencil on those chubby tablet sheets with blue lines that were standard issue to my generation of school kids. I received them in February, not for Valentine’s Day, but because I had been absent from school after having had my tonsils removed. Of course, my closest friends told me they missed me but the real news in everyone’s note was that Dana had stepped on a nail and had to get a shot.

The command to send me a letter was surely Miss Allen’s way of incorporating a teaching moment. It was more than another attempt at perfecting the smooth, bold strokes of the Peterson Method of penmanship whose unattainable, flawless alphabet lined every elementary classroom as a giant black and white guidebook. No, Miss Allen was attempting to teach some social graces along with sentence structure and proper spacing. Wouldn’t she be surprised today to find that not only has cursive writing been abandoned for keyboard strokes but that any kind of a snail-mail note with personality has become an endangered species, too.

If you remember the love life of third graders in the days before computers, there used to be a lot of note passing that often included a phrase like: “I like you. Do you like me? Circle Yes or No.” Third grade boys never responded “yes” to that, girls nearly always. I know the notes I received about my dearly departed tonsils were mandatory, not an option, because I have one that reads: “I don’t love you but Miss Allen said I had to.” Now presumably that meant Miss Allen said he had to write me a note, regardless of his romantic intentions, but if she had the power to insist the hottest boy in class love me, where was she seven years later when I was really ready to date?

As a side note, I’m sure I won over a few new hearts a week later when I returned to school. I brought my tonsils to school in a jar of formaldehyde to share at show and tell. They were disgusting enough to have peaked interest from all the boys. Even Spanky, Alfalfa and other Our Gang members of the He Man Women Haters Club couldn’t have turned away.

In elementary school in those days, we each decorated a box where we could collect Valentines from all our classmates. Or only some of them. As I remember it, there was always some kind of unannounced competition among the girls to see who could attract the most cards and the race was on to see which potential marriage partner had dropped us a little card with his dreamy name scrawled across it. Sadly, parents weren’t as tuned in to the importance of inclusion as they are today and some boxes were not as abundant as others. I also remember great contemplation and third grade philosophical debate over the real intention behind the specific, generic, pre-printed greeting a boy had chosen to send us if he was on our radar.

I’m sure classroom Valentine’s Day boxes have fallen by the wayside. Even snail-mail cards to dear hearts are on the wane but in recent years, we’ve added some new February celebrations to share the day. Take a look at the national holidays calendar for this February 14th.

In addition to Valentine’s Day, we now celebrate National Ferris Wheel Day on February 14th. I guess that makes sense. It’s your chance to feel weightless, your heart in your throat and butterflies in your stomach, as you float toward the clouds to be suspended at the top of your Universe and separate from the mundane world below. A Ferris wheel ride means you must also dangle exposed and unprotected, reliant on your partner not to rock the boat or make you feel afraid. Sounds like love to me.

February 14th is also National Organ Donor Day. I mean no disrespect to all the people everywhere who need these gifts and the families who must agonize over decisions that help make sense of tragedy but that day and designation can’t be a coincidence, can it? I mean, National Organ Donor Day has only been around since 1998. Frank Sinatra told us way back in 1967 that unrequited love made him leave his heart in San Francisco. Tony Bennett, Brenda Lee and Johnny Mathis all suffered the same fate since then, based on their recordings.

Two decades after Tony won his Grammy and claimed Left My Heart as his signature song, 80’s recording artists Wham! confided they, too, had made an organ donation, although at Christmastime. Last Christmas/ I gave you my heartBut the very next day, you gave it away./This year, to save me from tears/I’ll give it to someone special. I’m thinking that when it comes to organ donation, giving away hearts is nothing new but we do now have two events that celebrate it. (And by the way, February 14th is also International Condom Day for love bugs all across the world which I’m sure is no coincidence.)

When you look at the heart in context with what we now celebrate as an entire National Month if February, it all clicks. President Johnson declared February as American Heart Month more than 50 years ago in 1863. February has since been officially desiginated as National Creative Romance Month and National Weddings Month as well.

I’m not sure how I’ll celebrate Valentine’s Day this year, unlikely it will be on a Ferris wheel or at a Wham! revivial but I do know this. Any day is the right day to tell the people you care about that you love them so I think I’ll make some time for that. And maybe I’ll send a few handwritten notes to renew old friendships, not because Miss Allen made me but because they may find them buried in a box decades from now and be happy with the memory.

Posted by: deadmousediaries | December 25, 2016

A Richmond Furnace Christmas Memory

I often wonder how many baby boomers like me remember being part of a children’s program in a little country church somewhere at Christmastime. I love the feeling those memories stir up in me.

My special Christmas program was held at my grandmother’s church in little train stop called Richmond Furnace. I attended with my cousins, only for the Christmas program, but decades before that, my grandma had herded my dad and his seven siblings down the family’s long dirt lane and off to services on countless Sunday mornings. In those days, Grandma and Pappy’s little white church drew folks from up and down our valley for hymn sings and oyster suppers. The church never had running water but  it was no great hardship; when it was built, everyone led lives of “making do.”

By the time I came along, services were held just one Sunday night a month when the minister from the church in the little town nearby would extend a visit. The church and the congregation were well aged by then and the whole crowd of a dozen or so people would wait patiently below the single light bulb on the church doorstep until the designated caretaker brought the key to let everyone inside.

One night a year, in December, the pews would fill again and all this little church had ever been wrapped her arms around her loyal congregation and their offspring as we gathered for the Christmas service. This special Sunday also drew my other grandparents to this church for a holiday tradition, the night that I would say my Christmas piece.

Recitation was the word teachers used in school when we had to memorize a poem or quote a few lines from a story but that’s a hard word for five-year-olds to form. At Grandma’s church, a poem you worked so hard to memorize was simply called your Christmas piece. Beginning in early December, my mother oversaw the learning of it and my dad endured the countless practice runs.

The church pews were well dotted with visitors on program night and it was years before I came to realize that all of us children were not related. I always thought “The Bricker Girls” who joined us were just two more distant cousins who I only saw one time a year. In truth, the connecting thread was the church itself and it called us all back that time of year just like a family reunion.

Long before we would crunch across the gravel parking lot in our ’41 Chevy coupe, a faithful volunteer would have been busy at the church, firing up the coal furnace and setting out the Christmas greenery. The little tree always wore two strands of multi-colored lights and a mismatched collection of glass ornaments. How any of that had survived a thousand curious fingers of all the other children’s programs was a Christmas miracle all its own.

There were usually ten or so of us children, maybe a dozen, who waited not-so-patiently for our turn to shine. No matter how short the service or how moving the minister’s message, we squirmed and fidgeted, mouthing the words to our own Christmas piece one last time before we’d be called up from the pew.

When our big moments came, we would each be announced to take our places behind the altar railing. Just one step up put us at the center of the universe in that sprawl of loving faces. I remember pinching the fabric of new Christmas dresses and swishing my crinolines from side to side as part of my nervous ritual. My words always flew out at lightning speed so I would not have time to forget my piece. No amount of consolation could outweigh the shame of being prompted by your mother or worse yet, being coaxed back to your seat if your mind went completely blank.

In truth, the real excitement of the entire night never set in for me until the program was over.  As families filed to the back of the church, my aunt would turn on the lights in the Sunday School room. Behind the partition was the thing a thing of great amazement, the old pump organ.

In my first memories, I only got to listen and I watched fascinated as my mother or my aunt pumped air through the bellows and brought the 0ld organ back to life.  Later I was allowed to play whatever simple tune I was learning at Miss Dixon’s while my aunt worked the treadle.  As I grew taller and put more piano lessons behind me, I was able both to pedal and to play.

While the organ huffed and wheezed, I would do my best to make my daddy proud as I coaxed out my latest rendition of Little Drummer Boy from the yellowed keys. For me, the treadling was a novelty that required complete concentration.  For the little church, I suspect it was the comfortable return of a familiar heartbeat once again. That part of the evening was never long enough.

At the end of the night, I would be buttoned, tied and wrapped in wool far too long before my parents said their final goodbyes to family and the December cold hit us again. As we stepped out into the winter night, a bright and dimpled orange and small cardboard box with a handle made of string would be passed into each child’s waiting hand. Little fingers poked around the hard candy ribbons and pushed aside the sour balls in search of the one or two creamy buttons of chocolate that would also be inside.

As I remember it, it was always snowing when we stepped back into the darkness, a perfect ending to a child’s perfect night. The church bell and the candlelight, the tiny cedar tree and the fresh pine on the window sills all blended one night a year into indelible childhood magic. Even now, more than 50 years later, the old carols don’t reach the place in me that those untrained voices touched when they melted together in my grandma’s church. I can conjure up those images without the slightest hesitation. They were glorious traditions that still anchor one corner of my clearest Christmas memories.

I remember how safe and constant those days seemed as a kid, days when my parents and grandparents were the center of my universe. I don’t know when I decided I was too old to be part of the children’s Christmas program but at the time, I know I couldn’t wait to grow up. I wanted to wear lipstick and high heels and be one of the big kids who were excused from that annual ritual. Even though I recognized that  I was changing, I never gave a thought to the idea that things around me would change, too. I had faced no losses and had no experience in knowing that time would eventually unravel all my most familiar comforts.  I didn’t know it then but I was living in a state of suspended bliss, a feeling that will always be entwined with my memories of that church.

About 20 years ago the church was sold and the contents sent to auction. My husband bought me two ancient wooden folding chairs from the children’s classroom and I gave my dad one as the perfect Christmas present. It made me smile. I love to think that decades before that, he had been sitting on that same chair, squirming and fidgeting, learning his Christmas piece.

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