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Good, Bad and Ugly

Tears rolled down my seven-year-old daughter’s cheeks. I looked up from wrapping the toy to beg, “Tammie, please don’t cry. I know you want this toy for yourself, but yesterday when we bought your friend’s birthday present, you knew it wasn’t for you. Besides, you have several of your own Pretty Pony toys in the toy box.”

        A sob caught in Tammie’s throat as she complained, “But, none of mine glow in the dark like this one does.”

        Fastening tape to the pink wrapping paper to hold it in place, I thoughtfully enthused, “This gift is a very, very special gift. It probably will be the best present your friend will get for her birthday this year. Do you know why?”

        My little daughter stopped crying and looked at me in surprise to ask, “Why?”

        “Because the very best gift you can ever give is the one you love and really, really want for yourself. This is especially true when you give the gift without letting anyone know how badly you want it for yourself.”

        Tammie was silent for a few moments before saying, “Okay.”

        “You’re such a good little girl.” I complemented my daughter. “I have a feeling Santa’s going to give you a glow-in-the-dark Pretty Ponies this year.”

        When I first entered motherhood, I had no idea I needed a class titled, Motherhood Philosophy 101. No one gave me a listing of job skills I would need. My initial concern had been merely to share my faith with the children, to keep them fed, bathed, clothed and obedient.

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Craving Christmas

Mom put down the spoon she was using to stir soup, and turned away from the stove. She instructed me and my sisters, “Tonight’s the eve of Saint Nicolas. After supper I want you to write your letters to Santa Claus.”

My sister Mary volunteered, “Kathy’s in first grade. She doesn’t know how to write yet, so I’ll write her letter for her.”

Although I was still too young to write my own letter to Santa Claus, I knew December 6th was the official start to the annual Christmas count-down. At bedtime we would put our letters to Santa in bowls at the place we always sat at the table. In the morning, the letters would be gone and we’d find the bowls filled with peanuts, angel food candy, bridge mix, candy canes and an orange.

For me, time dragged by too slowly between Saint Nicolas Eve and Christmas. I fretted and fussed. I wanted the tree up. I wanted to constantly hear Christmas songs. I wanted fun, Christmassy things to do. Most of all, I wanted to open a big pile of presents. The craving for all things Christmas was intense.

When I grew up in the 1950’s, Christmas was hardly mentioned before the first week of December. Luckily, my emotional agony didn’t start as early as Halloween as must be the case for children now, since stores promote Christmas sales two months in advance.

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Thanksgiving Beast

Thankful for yet another wonderful widow’s supper, I leaned back to enjoy my cup of tea. These weekly gatherings for an evening meal had started for me and my daughter after both my husband and son-in-law had died. When my sister’s husband died, she began to join us each week, too. Our being together for this meal as a family is a blessing and a joy.

As my daughter Niki’s four youngest children reached for the novelty ice cream treats my sister had provided, I turned to my daughter and suggested, “How about I buy the roast beast for this year’s Thanksgiving Supper?

Putting the last of the kale salad on her plate, Niki acknowledged my plan to buy the turkey. “That sounds great!”

I questioned, “And what dish would you like me bring, a seven-layer salad, a potato casserole or one of the desserts?”

Niki speared the last, crisp green leaf on her plate with a fork and exclaimed, “I don’t know. I haven’t thought that far ahead yet.”

A week later at the grocery store, I stood examining the frozen turkeys for sale. I wanted a big bird. Someone had once told me the bones of a huge turkey weren’t that much bigger than the bones of a medium turkey. I figured that meant buying a dinosaur-sized turkey was an economically wise move. With fingers quickly going numb from the cold, I strained to lift my choice from the freezer. It landed in my shopping cart with a loud, “clunk!”

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Going Home

Seeing the movie, Wizard of Oz for the first time, the flying monkeys scared me and when the hot air balloon lifted off without Dorothy in it, my stomach tied itself in knots. Glenda, the good witch of the north’s cure for the change in plans was to made Dorothy to click the heels of her ruby slippers together three times and repeat, “There’s no place like home…there’s no place like home.”

There really is no place like the home where we first begin to record memories. The feeling of safety, the fascinating newness we found there and all the first experiences of our lives are filed in a nostalgia bin that we carry with us for the rest of our days.

Few people spend their entire lives in the same house they were brought up in. Some families move frequently and most people move when they reach adulthood. Fanciful memories of our first home makes us remember the rooms as larger, stairway banisters as longer, closets as doorways to Narnian adventures and all food served as gourmet quality.

My daughter moved her big family to a bigger home three years after she was widowed. The house came with several acres of land and was in a more convenient location. None of that mattered to the children.

My grandchildren were not happy about having to move. In their eyes, the small home they lived in, sitting on only one acre of land, was a beautiful, desirable place to live, far beyond anything a new house could offer.

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Secondhand Memories

Grandpa Jacob Altmann Senior with Mary and Betty and Casper in the background.

One of my sisters reminisced, “Grandpa kept a pint jar filled with hard candies on a shelf by the door. Whenever we visited him, he’d give us a candy.”

Another sister chimed-in, “I remember going to his apartment in the garage that summer after he died. I took one of the candies from the jar and it was chewy!”

Younger than my sisters by more than a decade, I volunteered, “I remember Grandpa falling when he came into our house. I was standing in the kitchen watching Daddy hold the door open for him.”

“You couldn’t possibly remember that!” scoffed one of my older brothers. “You were just barely two-years-old, too little to remember. What you do remember, is what we’ve told you.”

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Hand-Me-Downs

When I saw the garage sale sign, I pulled over to the curb. Children’s toys littered the lawn around the open garage door. In the yard behind the house, I spotted a swing-set. I thought to myself, “This place looks like the perfect place for me to shop.” Inside the garage I spotted several tables heaped with household items and clothing. Across the back of the garage was a rack of children’s clothing.

After a few minutes of looking through the sale items, I realized that the family putting on the sale had daughters just a year or two older than mine. I picked out several items of clothing that my growing daughters needed. Everything was in good condition and clean. Feeling like I’d found a buried treasure, I rushed to pay for them. If I had bought the same items in a store, I wouldn’t have been able to afford them. The woman took the money from me with a big smile. It was a win-win situation. She needed the money and I needed the clothes.

Being the youngest child of my family, I grew up familiar with the concept of secondhand clothing, otherwise known as hand-me-downs. When I became a mother, I quickly realized that with children constantly changing size until their teenaged years, it makes sense to reuse clothing. The minute I take my garage sale purchases home, I put them in the washer and add soap. That instantly makes the secondhand clothing stop belonging to someone else.

One of the small dresses I took over with my “soap and water ownership” method that afternoon was so cute, I put it on my youngest daughter while it was still warm from the dryer. My husband happened to come home just then and suggested, “Let’s take the girls out for a fish fry.”

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Sore Leaf

My sister Agnes followed me around the side of my house. Stopping and pointing dramatically at a towering bush beside the living room window, I exclaimed, “Look how big my Pinky-Winky hydrangea bush has grown. I’m glad I didn’t plant it right below the picture window. We wouldn’t be able to see out!”

Each time my sister and I visit each other, we walk through our respective yards showing how the flowers and bushes are doing. Moments before my big hydrangea reveal, we had examined double pink hollyhocks growing beneath the kitchen windows. As we inspect, we discuss what we see and like.

While walking through Agnes’ yard once, I remembered following my mother and her sister Theresa, who was home for her yearly visit, from flowerbed to flowerbed in our backyard on the farm during my childhood. Each year Mom and Daddy made a one weekend visit to visit Theresa, where they did the same thing at her home.

I’m not sure if all families talk and look at plants as much as my family has and still does. Our botanical interest goes beyond common backyard flowering plants. Even the weeds growing in the fields and along the road fascinate us. Most of my family members know many of them by their common names if not by their Latin genus and designation.

I remember walking through the yard with Agnes when I spotted a broadleaf-plantain growing alongside my driveway. My sister Agnes glanced down at it and commented, “When Casper, Rosie and I were little, we called that a sore leaf plant.”

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Dancing in the Moonlight

My sister Mary sat on one end of the davenport reading a thick book. I sat at the other end, twiddling my thumbs. We hadn’t had a new comic book in the house for over a week and I was sick of rereading our collection of old ones. The heat and humidity of the day had zapped all my energy.

Taking a break from household chores, Mom walked into the living room and sat down in her upholstered rocking chair. Picking up a crochet pattern book from the table next to her chair, she fanned her sweat-glistened face and requested, “Kathy, open the windows wider.”

I went to the first window. As I leaned over to slide the aluminum frame up a blast of backyard heat, smelling like cooked lawn, hit me in the face. I gasped, “I don’t think having the windows open wider is going to cool us off. It’s hotter outside than in the house!”

Mom sighed, “I hope it cools off tonight so we can sleep.” She shrugged and picked up her crochet hook, pulled string from a spool on the floor and checked directions in the book. Then she began to make the small, hooked needle in her hand dart rapidly in and out of loops. Before long, a lacy doily began to take shape.

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(I’m) The Beast

The two, peanut butter-loaded mouse traps that I put in the brick farmhouse’s old-fashioned back porch last night were nowhere to be seen. Arnie, my husband was in the house. I yelled, “Honey, did you get rid of the mouse traps I put out here yesterday?”

Arnie’s bellowed answer, “No I didn’t” made me closely examine the green indoor-outdoor carpet. The traps were gone, and there wasn’t even an oily smear left behind on the artificial grass.

Yesterday, I’d noticed chew marks on the outdoor toys stored in a box below one of the porch windows. Today, the toys looked even worse. I assumed mice were doing the damage. Our farmhouse had a long history of rodent visitors.  

My husband stepped into the porch with a half-eaten sandwich in his hands. He looked in the toy box and exclaimed, “Mice can’t do that kind of damage! I think a rat has been getting into the porch.”

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March 31st Auction

I pulled into the driveway, stopped the car and got out. Wind blew down my open jacket collar, making me shiver. Despite the afternoon sunshine, the early March afternoon had a sharp bite to it. Patches of melting snowdrifts dotted the yard. I shrugged, thinking, “The air is chilly, like inside an old-time refrigerator, but as soon as the snow finishes melting, it’ll feel warmer.” Pulling the mailbox open, I found several envelopes. Among them was the monthly letter from my elderly friend.

Saving the letter for later when I could sit down and slowly read it, I began preparing supper for the family. Having prepped our meal the night before, my husband Arnie, our two children and I were able to sit down to eat lasagna a mere hour later. Arnie came to the table and glanced at the mail I’d brought in from the roadside mailbox. He chuckled, “I see your boyfriend wrote to you again.”  

“Yes!” I admitted with a demure smile. “It isn’t every day a gal has a sweet old boy writing to her all the time, telling about his life 70 years ago in the very house she lives in!” After serving everyone, I sat down to rest and enjoy my meal with the family.

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