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.
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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.

Posted by: deadmousediaries | December 2, 2016

I love these pre-holiday holidays! Starting the week of Thanksgiving, the days unfold for me like a long string of Friday afternoons leading up to the weekend. They are full of possibilities without making any withdrawals against the time available for the actual Big Celebrations. They are days filled with music, lights, magic, friends, food — and shopping.

   This time of year, shopping should be left to the pro’s. If you want to cherry-pick and gobble up the bargains, it’s a full-time job that can be overwhelming. It’s more than the crowds and costs and traffic; it’s those troubling questions like: did I buy him this same power drill attachment last year and why did I wear these shoes today. Although my Christmas list has fewer names on it these days, I continue to enjoy the thrill of the hunt. And I still have lots of questions.

   As we head into Shopping Season 2016, here are the top five questions on this shopper’s lips.

Question #5: Can I use my coupon? The answer lies in the fine print. Exclusions apply. Exclusions include the top 25 items on your shopping list. Also, there is a line at the bottom (written in invisible ink that requires the additional purchase of a special decoder pen) that reads: Our best deals were actually available yesterday, in our pre-sale sale. Sorry you missed it.

  Question #4: Does this shirt, sweater, nightie, etc., come in medium? Yes. It came in medium. It came and went in medium with 200 other shoppers who got here before you did. Sorry you missed it.

  Question #3: Where did I park my car? Ok, So I get distracted. It happens to any true shopper who has ever been on a mission. Deny it and you’re an amateur. Tip: use your phone to photograph the outside store entrance you are facing so you can reference it as true north when you emerge later. And remember, you’ll have to find your way back out of the store, too. Photograph the merchandise display as soon as you step inside so you’ll recognize your exit on your return. If you can’t take a picture, you could tie a big purple balloon to your car antenna but what if that catches on? Every parking lot will soon look like Barney is hosting a giant used car sale.

  Question #2: Where did I put that gift I bought on sale this summer? Summer logic does not apply in December so unless you’ve left yourself a clue (where you’ll remember to find it), you may be SOL. Tip: the moment you stash that first surprise, put a reminder on your phone calendar to pop up with a message around November 21st. Otherwise the holidays will come and go and you’ll be sorry you missed it. 

   And the #1 question on my lips this holiday is: Where is the restroom. There is no short answer. If you ask before lunch, the salesperson to whom you’ve directed this time-sensitive inquiry sends you winding through the displays of decadent chocolates and gourmet cookies in hopes you’ll give in to those impulse buys on your way back. If it’s after lunch when you’re weary and ready for a nap, your store tour guide sends you past the plumpest mattresses and softest sheet sets before branching off onto a side road into the open arms of all the comfy recliners. If you have a toddler in tow, the restroom is on the other side of the toy department, of course. In short, the only consistent answer to the restroom question is: you can’t get there from here. 

   The good news is, all this potty talk has inspired some gift giving ideas, too. I’m not talking about the toilet paper dispensers that play some tinny version of classic rock as you unroll, or the TP that’s printed to look like $100 bills. Below are three actual, great ideas that will surely work for someone on your list. 

    Let’s start with toilet lids that have a second little toilet seat latched inside. Yes, if you have ever traveled with kids or been through the ups and downs of potty training, you’ll be delighted to know one seat can now fit all. The smaller seat is secured in the lid with magnets and folds down easily to align perfectly over the bigger seat opening. That makes toddlers feel more independent because less parental hovering is required as they balance their tiny heinies. Kids also feel more secure when their little bums fit the brim better and who among us doesn’t remember at least one scary kid moment filled with the fear of being flushed away?

   Need stocking stuffers? Another potty product that’s been a long time in the making is the personal deodorizer. Although it’s a growing market, the first product to catch my eye was Poo Pourri. In short, spritz a bit of these natural oils into the bowl before being seated to create a barrier across the surface of the water that traps odors. Better yet, the family-sized product now comes in convenient, lip balm-size spritzers packaged in attractive little boxes that can travel discretely with you for any occasion. (And, gentlemen, you’ll note I said lip balm,-size not lipstick-size, which means you should carry them too.) With scents like Royal Flush, Lavender Vanilla, Poo La La and Merry Spritzmas, the next guest in the busiest space in the place will actually appreciate your efforts to turn their stop into a spa-like experience.

   And my final gift suggestion for just about anyone on your list? The motion-activated toilet seat light. That’s right. Finally, like a reassuring homing beacon, your toilet seat can now guide you safely across the room for that late night mission. It must surely improve one’s aim. I choose to think of it as runway lights for those who need external guidance to accurately hit the landing zone without skidding off the tarmac. And it’s great for those of us who, like the very best pilots, can immediately sense we are on target and could land our planes flawlessly in an open field in the dead of night. For us, this innovation answers the age-old nighttime question: is it up or is it down. It’s a great convenience feature and it protects us from that cold, ceramic reality of sorry, you missed it. Happy shopping!

Posted by: deadmousediaries | November 11, 2016

Honoring My Other Mom on Veteran’s Day

She’s a great-great grandma now and as I celebrate more birthdays, the more true it becomes when I say I’ve known her nearly all my life. Yet that’s still less than half of hers. I call her my other mom and my kids grew up as her extended family in a way that brought them no distinction among her other 10 grandchildren. How that came to be is too much story for this little space but know that it has given this only child a second family of more than 40 to love and know and with whom I’m growing older.

   Mom is 95 now. She married and loved only one man for the rest of his life. She worked outside her home, cooked, canned and baked and kept the household running. She pinched pennies and stretched nickels and raised six children. She lost one as an adult. Like so many women of her era, she finds her life unremarkable. All her life, she woke up every morning and did what needed to be done. Even now, she simply keeps on keeping on, as they say, whoever they are that we always quote this way.
    There are a hundred reasons why she is remarkable but with Veteran’s Day here again, I’ll tell you this one thing: she is a Navy vet. She framed her discharge paper with pride and it hangs on her wall, surrounded by her insignias, a yellowed news clip and a photo of beautiful young woman in uniform. It’s the kind of photo kids find of their mom and wonder who that woman really was because they will never meet her.
    She belonged to the Navy WAVES, Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, and served in Washington, D.C., during WWII. The true nature of her work was unknown to her and to the entire units of women who first helped build the machines, then operated them. It wasn’t until 1977 when President Carter declassified their information that details of what these women did were released. More than thirty years after her work had been completed, she had permission to break her vow of silence and talk about it.
   During the first part of her service, she soldered wires onto little wheels at a plant in Dayton, Ohio. When she returned to D.C., she saw how the wheels fit in place on a giant apparatus where she sat each day. The work she and other women did was done at the code-breaking machines they had helped build. Their work was credited with ending the war two years sooner than thought possible.
   “We were told if talked about it, we would be shot,” she remembers vividly. “My parents died without ever knowing what I did.”  That’s a pretty big secret for a young woman to keep.
   When we hear any veterans’ stories, especially from the second World War, it’s easy to forget the context of their day. The everyday world for most of them was so much smaller than we know it. Home and family were the centers of the universe, not always by choice but by necessity in a time when resources were depleted and travel was a luxury. The expanse of the globe was incomprehensible for many, who like her, spent their early years in modest houses, small schools and tiny towns. In her case, a move from Black Log Valley, Huntingdon County, to Chambersburg, PA, after graduation was an adventure into the unknown. “Back then, you went wherever you could get at job,” she recalls. In the spring of 1943, weeks before her 22nd birthday, she joined the WAVES. “I have no idea why I decided to go into the Navy!” she blurted with a little grin when we talked about it recently.
   “I signed up in Chambersburg and took a train to Harrisburg and then on to New York,” she remembers. “I went to a college campus for basic training. We lived in dorms and learned to march but were only there for a few weeks and were then sent to Washington, D.C., for a couple of weeks while we waited to be stationed. From there, we took a military train to Dayton, Ohio, where we worked, all top secret work,” she told me.
   After the work in Dayton building the machines, WAVES were sent back to D.C. to work on them. “When we went back to D.C., we would work one week 8:00 a.m to 4:00 p.m., then 4:00 p.m. to 12:00 a.m., then 12:00 to 8:00 a.m. There were dozens and dozens of machines. They were large, much taller than we were. Sometimes we had to stand on a stool to reach the top. We would get a message on those machines that came out as printed piece of paper and we would take that to the office. We didn’t go in; a hand would come out and take the message. We had no idea what we were doing,” she added.
   “After we came to Washington the second time, they were running out of barracks and they moved some of us into apartments so another girl and I shared one. We got our own meals and did our own laundry. We got an allowance for rent,” she remembered. “We stayed there until the war was over then got discharged. I served about 26 months.”
   Since her discharge in December, 1945, she has led a tradition in her family. Four of her six children served as well as a son-in-law. A generation later, two grandsons served along with a grandson-in-law. Today my son, another man she includes as grandson, is entering his fifth year of military service.
   On March 26, 2006, my other mom, Dolores Flood. was among local WWII veterans recognized by the PA House of Representatives during WWII Recognition Day ceremonies. Her certificate reads: “In thankful appreciation for selfless devotion to duty in service to our country.”
   I honor her service this November 11 and I thank her every day for selfless devotion to family. Happy Veteran’s Day, Mom.
Posted by: deadmousediaries | September 7, 2016

Five Signs You Might Be Your Neighborhood’s Crazy Cat Lady

Let’s face it, there’s a fine line between being an animal lover and being an animal crazy. Like most descents into madness, you don’t truly realize your destination while en route despite the mile markers along the way. In my life, it doesn’t help that my daughter is building her career in a place where she is surrounded by critters all day long, many of which find their way onto her radar by default. If something has been abandoned, falls chronically but not terminally ill or seems otherwise unadoptable, chances are good it will end up in a carrier in the back of her Jeep. That explains the iguana, the parakeets, the pair of canaries, the turtle and the rabbit. By design, I’ve also had to babysit her geckos, betas, goldfish, bearded dragon and a darling little puppy that grew into 125 pounds of big, happy meathead.

   Although my own menagerie also includes two dogs, a few random fish, and on occasion, a spider in a terrarium, I’m partial to cats because I grew up under the tutelage of other women cat lovers.  Sadly, I  have apparently never read any of the warning labels on my cat food bags alerting me that I might be morphing into a crazy cat lady if I was buying more than one 16-pound bag a week. And because what goes in must come out, there is a reciprocal indicator regarding the purchase of cat litter.
   Because I believe there is a teaching moment in every situation (and because anyone can serve as a bad example), I’d like to share some things that are clear to me in retrospect. If there are others among you wondering why your grocery cart always has cute little cat faces peering back from boxes, bags and jugs, I’d like to assure you that the ride to becoming a crazy cat lady is not an express;  there are lots of stops along the way that alert you it’s time to jump off if you’re paying attention.
    Here are just five of the signs that you might be turning into your neighborhood’s crazy cat lady.
1. Your Cats‘ Names. When you have raised and fostered too many cats, you run out of traditional names like Mittens, Whiskers, Max and Tiger. If you’ve started naming your cats based on their appearance or behavior such as Short Cat, Square FaceYellow Cat or MOYA as in Mother of the Year Award,  that’s a problem. (I have a 10-year-old we now call Bart, short for Badass Rip Terror, a name he earned as a tweener.) Likewise, if you’re on your second or third time around with favorite names and are now adding the word Baby in front, as in Baby Houdini or Baby Hipboots, you’re in trouble. Ditto for adding titles after their names as in: Yellow Cat, III or Bootsie, Jr. Of course the ultimate giveaway that you’ve been riding the train too long is when you’ve assigned proper titles to your little cat friends such as The Regal Mrs. Dupont or Miss Elizabeth Sweetiepuss. 
2. Your Shopping Lists. If you visit the pet store as often as the grocery store and have ever paid $6 a can for an 11-oz can of cat milk replacement to hand-feed kittens with a dropper, you should re-evaluate your situation. At that price, a gallon of people milk would cost you $69.12. Would you spend that kind of money on your human children??? In truth, you’re probably in the danger zone if you even know cat milk replacement exists.
3. Your phone. If you don’t have your veterinarian’s number on speed dial because you have it memorized, be warned. If your photo gallery is filled with your cats‘ pix and all your Google searches are accompanied by cat litter ads, it’s time to slow down. If you spend the hours when you can’t sleep watching funny cat videos in the dark on a three-inch screen, hit the brakes hard.
4. Your environment. If your cats have more playthings than your babies had toys, you’ve gone around the bend. That also means you expect to turn an ankle or otherwise trip and fall because we all know you don’t make your cats pick up after themselves as you required of your kids. Also, if you have ever laid down a towel and a water bowl in your bathtub to safely stow a kitten overnight, you probably host more cats than house guests.
5. Your vacations. If one of the key factors in planning your vacation is determining how long you can afford to pay a pet sitter, you’re probably past all hope. Although cats require less maintenance than their canine companions, most have an innate desire to ignore you at some point in the day and they can only do that when you’re present. The implications of ticking off your cats by staying away too long will be reflected in shredded upholstery, claw marks on door frames and little surprises deposited next to the litter box and beyond.
  So there you have it, my top five signs that you’ve earned a place in your neighborhood’s history. As for the research behind this article, I can only tell you, I write what I know.
Posted by: deadmousediaries | July 29, 2016

Eight Reasons to Get Out of Town Before Summer is Over

At last look, much of the summer still sprawls ahead of us taking us
well into September. That means there are plenty of vacation days
ahead. I’ve had some great staycations in recent years but the idea of
getting out of Dodge for a week while it’s hot will always hold some
appeal.

Let’s agree; going anywhere is not quite the same as when you were a
kid. Back then, your only job was to make sure you were in the car.
Now you are the one responsible for executing all those annoying
logistics before you can even get out of the driveway.

Somewhere in the middle were those glorious teenage years when getting
away from home for vacation offered grand possibiities of late night
adventures and summer romance, real or imagined. The reality is that
if we had known then what growing up was really all about, most of us
would have refused to do it. Author Judith Martin offered this
perspective in her writing as etiquette expert Miss Manners: “The
invention of the teenager was a mistake. Once you identify a period of
life in which people get to stay out late but don’t have to pay taxes
— naturally, no one wants to live any other way.”

But here we are. Thank goodness vacation dangles a carrot, a chance
for us to put some of our grown-up rules on hold for a week and tone
down the stress of adulting. As kids, we could never have imagined how
gratifying the smallest delights could be. Here are eight vacation
perks that might get overlooked but for which we can be grateful.

1. You can be whoever you want to be on vacation; the people you meet
do not know the you you left behind. I pretended to be a celebrity
once with my family as entourage. That was lots of fun and generated
another story in my collection, one I called:  Lifestyles of the
Middle Class and Fabulous.

2. There is no “to-do” list on the fridge, and sometimes, no fridge.
If that’s the case, there is zero likelihood that you’ll have any
peucliar odors filling your room from a slab of mystery meat slowly
going south behind all the pickle jars.

3. There is no crammed-full bill drawer, not even a bill basket, in
your vacation fantasyland. I know; I’ve checked. After you make that
one convenient payment during check-in, you’re good for the duration.

4. You get no telemarketing calls. The room phone never rings unless
it’s housekeeping with information you really want, such as offering
freshly laundered towels–or advising you to head to the basement due
to an impending tornado.

5. Every breakfast promises a smorgasbord. It is presumed that you
will eat out on vacation — and often.  Dining-in for breakfast could
mean Cheerios and cheesecake, pulled pork and cole slaw or crab
fritters and asparagus.

6. Nap is an actual agenda item — with TV on or off.

7. Sex is frequent, long and languorous– or so it seems based on the sounds coming from the room next door.

8. You can live in your bathing suit for days which means underwear is optional.

Here’s to your fabulous vacation! If you’ve just come back, remember
you  are now that much closer to leaving for the next trip. If there
isn’t a getaway on your horizon, you can always pretend. Lie around
without underwear surrounded by fresh towels as you eat leftovers.

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