Tuesday, October 12, 2010

It rhymes with hurt

I take full responsibility.

It was the worst camping trip and worst Thanksgiving our family ever experienced and they still resent me for it.  They bring it up whenever they give an example of how they've suffered by being a member of this clan.  I dismiss their whining and assure them that it wasn't that bad.  Stephen gently suggests that it was just as they  describe and remember. 

It started as my innocent effort to create a memorable Thanksgiving Day holiday before the kids all grew up and left the nest--Justin had just recently flown away. Otherwise, we had no real traditions or history associated with the holiday.

We rarely celebrated Thanksgiving most years since it was the tradition for gathering extended family around the table, grocery shopping, cooking, baking for days in preparation, and hosting traveling families arriving from any point in the country. 

When Stephen and I were first married, we lived far from both of our families.  I enjoyed playing house and preparing our small meals for just the two of us.  In those early years, Stephen was in the Air Force.  The base Morale Officers often sent young airmen and their wives to holiday functions hosted by senior-ranking officers around the base.  We took advantage of the new friendships that those might offer and left the details and chores to other hosts.

In later years, when the kids were all quite little, I didn't really see the point of all the effort made for a special meal which would be consumed in short order creating extra cleanup work.  Since both of our families were at least a thousand miles away, and rarely held big family gatherings, we ignored Thanksgiving and started our Solstice celebrations, instead. 

So over the years, Thanksgiving was a holiday we'd enjoy, but only if we were invited away--we rarely made the effort to host our own.  On the few occasions that we did, it just reinforced our opinion that we just weren't getting the true meaning of it all.

For example, when we were just getting settled in Omaha, we had a small circle of friends through The Unitarian Church and Stephen had a small circle of co-worker friends who, like us, were displaced in the Air Force, far from home-towns and family.  We hosted a small group of unattached people and offered an open sideboard to which everyone was assigned what they could contribute to the meal.  One guest, in charge of bringing a vegetable dish, brought a 7 pound raw acorn squash and set it in pride of place on the buffet, arriving just moments before dinner was served.

On the other hand, for more than one Thanksgiving, we were invited to the child-hood home of our church friend, Charlotte Shields, joining her parents Bill and Jean.  Charlotte and her then husband, Al Vovolka, and their young son, Robin, took all nine of us, in a van they'd borrowed from another friend, to rural Red Oak, Iowa, crossing The Missouri River, and traveling over an hour past farm-fields and the rolling countryside of western Iowa.  It really put us in the heartland and mindset of family, heritage, and tradition.  Once we were in the farmhouse, surrounded by hundreds of acres of naked, recently-harvested, soybean fields, we sang songs while Charlotte accompanied with piano, listened to family stories, admired the artwork of Charlotte's mother, Jean, watched the kids play together, and created some remarkably happy memories in the most traditional way of holiday and setting.

On our first Thanksgiving visit, once seated at the table, Charlotte's father, Bill,  asked that we go around the table to recite what we might be giving thanks for this year.  I started to get nervous--I'm not very comfortable with genuine, heartfelt expressions of personal reflection or emotion.  As we went around the table, I got an increasing case of tunnel vision as this close-knit family displayed their affection for the company, their love for their family, their gratitude for their health, and their delight in watching their grandson, Robin, grow and develop.  By the time they got to me I was a sobbing, blubbering mess of uncontrollable emotion and appreciation for being included in this warm embrace of a family gathering.  It was exhausting and a little confusing for the kids to see me in such an emotional state at a dinner table.

Growing up, my suburban family Thanksgivings were probably all very stereotypical.  I just don't recall any vivid details or memories of them.  I'm sure my mother slaved in the kitchen, preparing for the five of us: stuffing a turkey, mashing potatoes, and mixing pumpkin custard (she cooked everything by scratch), using few gadgets of convenience.  Her cooking and preparation techniques were simple, food was good, and clean-up had the importance, efficiency, and sterility of a military hospital operating room after triage.

I remember one holiday spent with the Larson family of seven.  Five children and parents, Ed & Jean.  Ed and Dad worked at Norton Company together and our families were frequent companions for camping excursions, often centered around Ed and Dad's scuba diving expeditions.  On one holiday, they joined our family in Plymouth, Michigan, which created a full table, mostly of teenagers, I --not yet a teen--was the youngest of the lot.  I remember just sitting and watching the activity around me, and dearly recall the lively nature of the group and the laughter--non-stop laughter.  Dad remarked that there wasn't a morsel of meat left on that turkey carcass--- like a cartoon turkey skeleton sitting on the platter when the meal was complete.  I often think back to that particular brief moment in time, watching and listening to the frivolity and high spirit of many happy people seated around a full table.  Frequently, I still use that image as a model when planning a dinner event.

So we fast forward to our own three teenagers, those still at home, and my efforts to combine the fun of a camping weekend and a memorable Thanksgiving Feast just a few miles south of our home in urban New Jersey.  Historic Allaire State Park offered the setting--the only camping facility still open in late November.  I booked our camp site at one of the few that had a permanent yurt set up with a fire pit outside and full length picnic tables, all located just a few hundred yards from the heated flush-toilet/shower house.  This was going to be perfect; luxury camping compared to some of our past experiences.

We loaded the van with our most precious camping equipment, leaving the tent at home--we were going to be off the ground, on bunk-beds!  More luxury!

Kathryn, Olivia and I acted as forward observers arriving in Mid-afternoon with all the necessary equipment: an 8-quart cast-iron dutch oven for the turkey, a 4-quart dutch oven for the pie, a three burner gas camp stove, 5 gallon water jugs, the Coleman (tm) lantern, a 60-quart marine cooler full of food, sleeping bags, and the chuck box:

This is an elaborate wooden cabinet with drop-down sides, pop out drawers, and a lift-off piano-hinged top that Stephen built for me fashioned after the chuck-box I remembered growing up as a child.  My grandfather, Allyn, had built it years before and it was always used as our camp kitchen and pantry.   Stephen's version was a little more sophisticated, featuring cubbies for my Tupperware (tm) spice containers--everything from salt to sage, a slide-out for my stainless steel flatware (service for 12), a hanging shelf for KP duties-soap, dishcloth, SOS scrubbing pads, hooks for soup ladles, pancake turners, sausage tongs, mixing spoons, wire whisks, carving knives, and shelves for my traveling canisters of flour, sugar, baking powder and soda, coffee, chocolate, and tea, and enough plates, cups, bowls, and mugs for at least 12 people.

The chuck box, in happier times.

Since we were about to dig in to prepare a simple but full Thanksgiving meal, I needed all the right tools.  We set the fire just right, employing hot coals to roast the turkey in the dutch oven, the girls mixed the ingredients for a pumpkin pie and home-made pie crust, I heated a pan for cranberry sauce, made a slurry of flour and coffee to simmer gravy with the turkey drippings, set several pounds of potatoes to boil and mash, and made efforts to keep-kamp before Stephen and Andrew joined us after work.
Remember, nothing's more fun than gathering sticks. NOTHING!

Caught in typical pre-holiday New Jersey rush-hour traffic, the one-hour drive, took over two, while the girls and I puttered about the campsite, anxiously but silently noticing the setting sun, and more of a concern, the rapidly falling temperature.  The table was set with coordinating Tupperware (tm) plates, tumblers, flatware, serving dishes, and eventually--finally-- Stephen and Andrew arrived.

It was either because we were starving and shivering or because no one dared say otherwise, but I thought it was the BEST Thanksgiving meal we'd EVER eaten--before or since. 

Nothing says camping like setting everything on fire.

The turkey was roasted to perfection, the drippings providing a robust base for a savoury gravy, the stuffing was moist and aromatic with spices and homemade bread, the cranberries jellied sweet and tart, the potatoes soft as silk, a buttery, creamy vessel for a puddle of gravy.  A meal of perfection.  Eaten in less than 10 minutes.  In darkness.

We were cold.  The temperature had dropped dramatically and severely once the sun set. 

Immediately after the meal, we quickly began KP at the Camp Sink:

Another of Stephen's creations at my request.  Our camp sink station.  He built a wooden tabletop using the legs from a discarded folding table, and attached footings to the table top that would hold a shelf strong enough to support two filled 5-gallon water jugs.  One for hot water, the other for cold.  He plumbed one of jugs' spigots to have a sprayer hose to make dish-washing effortless and aseptic  The table top had ample room for a large stainless steel basin used for a sink.

Once clean-up was done--not so easy in the dark, most unpleasant in the cold--and after vainly trying to stay warm around the dwindling campfire, we abandoned story-telling and harmonica playing and retired to the yurt:

A yurt is a semi-permanent, but portable, dwelling traditionally used by nomads in Asia.  It's constructed of canvas around a lattice-work frame and roofed--more cabin-like than tent-like. 

The Yurt. Sleeps up to six, freezes up to eight.

This being New Jersey, there was no hand-felted roof made by Mongolian shepherds, and our flashlights revealed the many names carved into the planks and wood bunk frames of previous visitors.The yurt also had a large permanently framed sign stating that under no circumstances would stoves, fires, or heaters of any kind be permitted in the yurt.  So, the kids each took a bunk, unrolled their -30 degree ranked sleeping bags,  and Stephen and I zipped our sleeping bags together and unrolled a sleeping mat on the floor.  We all hunkered down for the night.

But the temperature kept dropping. 

and dropping.

and dropping.

We tossed, we cuddled, we adjusted, we zippered our heads into the bag.  We just couldn't get warm--no one could get warm.  We could hear teeth chattering.  Frequently, someone would get up and 'go to the bathroom', but they were really just warming up in the heated facility.  It was a long, cold, uncomfortable night.  I was sure I'd make it up to them all by making a fabulous camp breakfast:  eggs, sausage, pancakes, hot coffee, the works.

When first daylight came, we stirred, and I was first to get the morning routine going.  I went to fill the kettle for a large pot of strong coffee, but the water jugs had frozen.  Solid.  The gas stove (the ever-faithful Coleman pressure pump) wouldn't hold a charge, so I couldn't get a burner lit. I started a new camp fire;  I could make pancakes and sausage over the flames. 

We'd spent all our collected wood the night before trying to get warm, so I sent the kids to forage for kindling and branches.  They culled enough to get a modest fire going and I made pancakes.  The butter was frozen, but worse, the maple syrup wouldn't pour.  Anything we left outside of the cooler froze, anything inside the cooler was fine.I didn't think real maple syrup could freeze at all, but this was as close to frozen as it could get.  The kids were as frozen as they thought they could get. 

So tradition was lost, very little fun was had, I created way too much work for a simple turkey meal, and, really, everyone just wanted just to go home. So much for Thanksgiving. 

I'm remembering this particular Thanksgiving celebration since we just celebrated our Canadian Thanksgiving. (It's the same weekend as the US Columbus Day.)  So what am I thankful for?  It's simple; A vivid memory of a time spent with friends and family, ultimately, a story to share. 

Mostly, that no one lost any toes to hypothermia.

In the background, Andrew and Kathryn stare dully at a tent bag.
It's the most fun they had all weekend.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Good Art Doesn't Match Your Sofa.

I like a good short story.  An anecdote.  An amusing recounting of events among friends  Here's a quick one.

Several years ago we received an invitation to a local Albert County art gallery called Joie de Vivre which was having a seasonal grand opening featuring several Maritime artists.

At the time, I didn't have many acquaintances in the area and not wanting to go to the intimate event alone, I was happy to be accompanied by a woman who was visiting her family in the area on holiday.  She's since divorced, but at the time, she was married to John, the son of our good friend, Dick Squiri from Waterside.  Doree and John lived in the United States, and were spending a few days visiting Dick at their long-time family summer home.  We'd often been invited over for suppers or cocktails, and met most of the extended Squiri family over time.

After one especially lively lobster chowder supper, John and I were in the kitchen finishing up the dishes and cleaning the counters and pots and pans.  After all the dishes were done and the sink drained, I asked John where to put the drain's garbage and he showed me the switch for the garbage disposal, which I promptly pretended to activate with one hand while my other hand was clearly still in the drain and made the motions and frightening sounds of someone whose hand was being macerated.

John was not amused and stopped fast, met my eyes, and said, "That's not funny at all, don't ever do that again."  Humbled, I stopped, withdrew my hand, and flatly said, "okay, I'll never do it again."  We finished the last of the kitchen chores in chilled silence.  I felt very small.

Doree, however, seemed more easily amused, and told me not to worry about it--explaining that John sometimes takes himself too seriously.  I don't think anyone should take themselves too seriously.  When she called later and suggested we go together to the opening, I was pleased to be asked.  She drove her luxury car and we chatted amiably on the 25 minute trip.  A nice getaway on a clear Fall day.

The Gallery was very nicely appointed with high-end artwork of every variety: pottery, metal-smith jewelery, sculptures, photography, and artwork in several mediums.  Several of the artists were local, and all of them talented.  Joie de Vivre was a small gallery, but tastefully arranged to keenly feature each artist's creations in the historic building.

Throughout our quiet tour, we both made polite comments about the different works of art, sometimes we would separate momentarily if we lingered over a specific piece and then meander back together, raise our eyebrows about prices; some high, others very high, and cluck our tongues at pieces or works that we just didn't like or understand.

On the newly renovated second floor, one unframed painting immediately caught my eye.  It was titled Two Drowned Rats, and was just that.  A pale, unfocused background, featuring two very dead rats --on their backs, eyes closed, paws in the air, long tails extended-- in realistic detail in the foreground.  It was simple, to the point, matter of fact.  I liked it.

I remarked to Doree, "Gee, wouldn't that be great in the baby's nursery?" and to my relief, she saw that I was joking, and we shared a laugh.

But the more I looked at it, the more I liked the painting and was compelled to ask the gallery owner about the artist and if there was a story behind it.

It, too, was simple.  The artist had passed her garden rain barrel which was full after seasonal storms, and saw the two rats, dead-- but afloat.  She removed them by their tails and laid them nearby on a barn board, stiff and wet.  And then she began to paint.  Easy as that.

So, overall, the event was lovely; I had a nice outing with a new acquaintance, enjoyed some finger sandwiches and punch and had a laugh with someone who shared my sense of humor--few do.  A good day.

I told my folks about our day, the artwork on display, and my keen interest on the very expensive but compelling painting on the second floor.

The next day, Dad bought me the painting and eventually Stephen made me a frame out of re-claimed barn board so we could hang it in pride of place in our living room.  Over the years, it has caught the eye of several guests and served as a conversation piece on different occasions.  The scene is neither gruesome nor pitiful; it's just a fact of life.  Sometimes, I think we should look at a lot in life with that approach, hopefully finding peace in the end.

I suppose that's easy to say when it's about rats.

Friday, July 2, 2010

the cooling breeze of relief

Dad bought a new car nearly every year.  I don't think my mother ever really cared--she never got very excited about them, she just appreciated a trustworthy vehicle to get her from point A to point B.

Until the year the Chrysler PT Cruiser came out.

She admired that car and would remark on it when she saw one on the road.  For the first time, I saw her excited about a new car when the PT Cruiser was delivered and sitting in the driveway at Cleveland Place:  Silver metallic pearl coat, retro-style-- featuring a retractable moon roof, power windows, all the bells and whistles including cruise control.

Dad bought it for her.  It's the first car in all their years that she ever really requested or that I remember she ever showed an interest.  She said it reminded her of her childhood.  She didn't drive it often, and she rarely drove when the two of them went anywhere, together.  She frequently let me drive it when we went somewhere together--a nice new, tight, efficient and compact vehicle.  The ideal automobile for pleasant day drives and comfort while running errands. 

There was a time, shortly before my mother died, that she was feeling rather puny, and one complaint evolved into several, and eventually she ended up with a case of pneumonia and bronchitis--a serious concern for a lung-cancer survivor-- that ultimately required some chest x-rays and a cat scan to rule out anything more complicated.

Understandably, for Pat, this conjured up wicked memories of the horrific time twenty years earlier when she'd successfully battled a malignant case of what was thought to be incurable lung cancer, and she doubted she could face another round either physically or emotionally at that point in her life.

So, I visited and became her morale officer while she underwent these tests and we waited several anxious days for the results.  We played Scrabble (tm), ironed placemats, competed at Triple Yahtzee (tm), washed and waxed the kitchen floor, and busied ourselves with otherwise mundane and distracting household chores while she pretended not to fret.

To get to one of these tests, Dad put us all in her PT cruiser and drove the scenic, country, remote Albert County roads by-passing the usual route to get to the city and hospital.  We wended our way along The Chocolate River at Hopewell Cape, cruised through The Albert Mines Road, passed through Hillsborough following the old train rails along back roads, and solemnly watched the scenery pass by our windows on an otherwise cheerfully sunny and crisp fall day.  We arrived at hospital in time for Pat's appointments.  She was being quietly cheerful and brave, but you could see the concern and the dread of anticipation for both the procedure and feared results.

When she was all done, we made the return trip home while Dad drove in silence.  He's not a fellow who communicates his worries, concerns, fears, or emotions.  Not unless it's anger--the one outward emotion he easily expresses.  His concerns were heavy.

Although there was some relief after the procedures were done; a first hurdle overcome, but what remained was the dread--the 'what if....' so there was still no light-hearted banter in the car on the trip home.  There was little conversation.  It was clear they were both tossing worries about in their own thoughts as the car and its quiet occupants meandered along.

Coming back home through some of the less frequently traveled by-ways revealed some spotty road surfaces which I especially noticed as the passenger in the rear seat behind my mother sitting in the front.

Sitting cross legged, and leaning slightly forward to hear any sparks of conversation my free leg would jostle and bounce with every frost heave, bump, pothole, and rough patch in the road, and I frequently had to re-adjust my position re-crossing my legs.

Meanwhile, though it was a nice sunny day, it was a cool day.  My window was continuously lowering and raising every few moments.  Down the window would silently lower just an inch or two, then up again to be closed.  Seconds later the window was sent wide open, and a gust of  late afternoon chill would blast in.  Then just as quickly the window would return to the half-way point and remain until it was raised a few more inches, then a few more until it was closed, and then almost immediately sent back down again in increments of no particular preference.

This continued for several long miles, with such repetition and so erratically that I surmised that Dad must be doing it to be silly, not to actually adjust the comfort level in the car.  After all, my mother--in all her wool and tweed--would be the LAST person he'd consider would need an occasional cool blast of air.  Up, down, half-way up again, down a little, one inch, two inches, stop, back up again, closed fully, open entirely, down again for an inch, another inch, another inch, back up again....

Silly, Dad--sweet silly Dad, trying to get a reaction--create a distraction; anything to stop thinking the worst---mum's head was bowed, no doubt, she was deep in thought.

Then the car suddenly slowed, Dad downshifted, slowed more.  Pat's head perked up--something in the road?  My window was now descending to its fully lowered position as I strained leaning further forward to see what caused Dad's change in course.

He stopped turned and looked straight at me and said, "You know that you're doing that, don't you?"

"Doing WHAT?" I asked, afraid of the answer--afraid that since I knew wasn't being sparkly, cheerful, and offering a ray of sunshine for this cloud of doom that was above all our heads--and was especially black over my mother's, I was going to be blamed for the somber and heavy atmosphere in the car.  What good am I  if I don't lighten the mood and offer positive quips and remarks?  He's right: I was a failure in my duties as Head of Optimism.

He then pointed to the console between the two bucket seats where the rear-seated passenger can control their own window by the small electric power switch.

Apparently, with each bump and jostle, my foot was hitting the switch and activating the window.  He wasn't doing it at all; I was-and I was completely unaware.

My mother quietly said, "Stupid.".

I laughed.  I laughed loud and hard. I laughed louder and harder.   Here I'd been sitting-- my hair blown into a Flock of Seagulls hairstyle, my hearing distorted, I was alternately uncomfortably cold with blasting wind with the wide open window and then annoyed by the baffled noise of the nearly closed window, and for all those passing miles, I'd been the unknowing operator.

It caught on.  Dad laughed, Mum laughed, we laughed together, we laughed long and loud.  Dad started up again, and on we went.  It was a small distraction, but it worked.  Frivolity crept back into our lives for a few moments, there, and it felt good.  That doom cloud was temporarily lifted.

Back home, after a stressful week of waiting, the call came.  Mum took it in the office.  Dad and I sat at the dinner table.  Silent.

We heard a quiet "Thank you, Doctor." and she emerged.  Tears in her eyes.  We didn't ask.

She came back into the dining room and she tearfully said with quiet relief, "He said I'm going to be fine; there's nothing in my brain, and the shadow on the chest x-ray was just my nipple."

That was the first time in my life I ever heard my mother use the word nipple.  I snickered.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

making connections

My Dad, Wallace, was recently visiting in the kitchen at Cleveland Place and reached up to pull down and turn on the light fixture in the kitchen ceiling.  He had purchased it at least a dozen years ago at the auction of a long-time friend, Rod  MacKay.  Rod is an accomplished Maritime artist who we met over thirty years ago in Sussex, New Brunswick, but currently lives in Nova Scotia. We have a large collection of Rod's work that represent several periods in his life which feature New Brunswick scenes and people.

                     (Unished Rod MacKay--Woman on the Knightville Road)

I remarked to dad that another friend, Karin Bach, who lives just a few kilometers away, had bid on one of Rod's large floor easels at that same auction but she insisted that Rod autograph the easel before she finalized the transaction.  Dad wasn't aware of that even though he had spent the entire day at the auction assisting Rod and the auctioneers.  Karin currently uses that easel in her studio; she is an exceptionally talented sculpture artist and painter.
 (Three birds representing Wallace, Patricia, Jane at Cleveland Place.  Artist: Karin Bach, New Horton, New Brunswick, Canada)

Dad returned his gaze to the unusual antique light fixture and described how he'd engaged in a bidding war with another Bed and Breakfast owner from Saint John who ran an establishment called Home Port.  Dad refused to relent in the bidding, and eventually won the bid, at a much higher price than he'd intended to pay.  The fixture was ideal for the Cleveland Place kitchen, both because it was a unique antique and its style fit the era of the home.

(unlit light fixture, before the connection)

After the auction, Dad explained to the operator of Home Port why he was such stubborn competition for the fixture and they shook hands.  Later, Dad sent the fellow a copy of a book titled Home Port that is from our private collection of Olive Higgins Prouty books which includes her self-published memoir. For Home Port, Mrs. Prouty consulted my grand-father (Dad's Dad), Allyn West I, for information to help her accurately and authentically describe the events of an overturned canoe in the water as part of the plot.  Allyn and Wallace had built a few boats between them, and Allyn was an authority in all wood and water craft.

(Allyn S. West II, Shirley Campbell, unknown-, WestCraft (tm) Watercraft, Massachusetts)

A story of a man who becomes a fugitive from his own identity.

                                       Fronts piece autographed to Allyn West I by Prouty

Our nephew, Allyn West III, and his bride, Sara have just left Cleveland Place.  They spent a week with us after their road trip from Houston, Texas.  Allyn is a doctoral candidate (journalism/literature), writer, poet, thinker.  Both Sara and Allyn remarked on the unfinished MacKay painting in their guest-room.  Of the over 30 paintings in the MacKay collection, I think that particular one is the most haunting and evocative, (Rod was working on that canvas when his first wife, Anne, was terminally ill with cancer; when she died, it remained unfinished.) and I admired that they remarked on it.  It didn't occur to me to ask Allyn if he was aware of these details until this afternoon.  We'd spent some time during his visit sharing a variety of little-known family histories---several of them significant and local in New Brunswick, and anecdotes and photographs; most of them happy ones, a few were depressing, but important to remember.

      (Allyn Stuart West I, August 1953 at the estate of Olive Higgins Prouty, Brookline, Massachusetts)

    (Allyn Stuart West II, location unknown ca. 1981)
(Jane West Chrysostom, Allyn Stuart West III, Sara (Cooper) West, March 13, 2010, Phoenix, Arizona)

Sylvia Plath was depressed.  She may have been bi-polar.  She benefited from the generosity of Mrs. Prouty who, as a fellow author and Bostonian, became a benefactor to Plath both for her tuition expenses through a scholarship and cost of her treatments for depression.  I imagine that by today's standards and practices of medicine, those treatments must seem barbaric.  Plath modeled one of the characters in her book The Bell Jar after Mrs. Prouty.  Sylvia committed suicide a short time after that book went to print.

Mrs. Prouty was a member of the Unitarian Church across the street from her estate in Brookline, Massachusetts.  As a high-school student, Dad mowed the estate lawns of Lewis and Olive Prouty for twenty-five cents an hour.  He also took one of her many cars luxury cars without her permission on at least one occasion which resulted in some serious punishment from his dad.

(Young Wallace at the Higgins Estate, Brookline, Massachusetts)

My mother's father, Ernest Henry Carritt, was a Unitarian minister. (Not at the Brookline church--but at parishes in Ohio, Illinois, and New Hampshire). I don't know much about Ernest's career, except that he was relieved of one of his appointments at a parish in the midwest in the 40's when he invited an African-American family in the town to join his congregation.  Also an accomplished wood-worker, Ernest built an altar for the chapel at the Joliet Prison in Illinois. The prison has been closed for several years, now, and I wonder what ever happened to his altar.  After he retired--with no pension from the church-- everything that Ernest built in and for his home, hand-crafted, wrote (sermons, lettters, etc.) and all the books he'd collected were destroyed in a fire by arson at their home in New Hampshire in the 60's.  His only daughter, (Ernest had a son, Dayton, with his first wife who died.) Patricia, had few mementos of his life and career which have been left to our family archives.

(Ernest Henry Carritt, Doctorate of Divinity; Tufts University)

(Altar crafted by Ernest Henry Carritt)

Stephen and I were married in the Unitarian Church in Worcester, Massachusetts where Stephen's family had been members for years.  The minister, Chris Raible, married us in 1981.  Chris is now living in Toronto,  Ontario, Canada.  I came across his name and e-mail address (for the first time since we were married) last Summer in an outdated Canadian History magazine called The Beaver that I found in a waiting-room. I contacted him to see if it was the same person.  It was, and we exchanged a few notes.  I was surprised he'd moved from Massachusetts to Ontario.

(Airman First Class; USAF Stephen Chrysostom, Jane (West) Chrysostom, Christopher Gist Raible, First Unitarian Church, Worcester Massachusetts, October 24, 1981)

Karin Bach who is originally from Ontario was raised in the Unitarian Church. I'm pleased that Karin met Allyn and Sara this past week.  Karin has been operating a unique lodging establishment called An Artist's Garden set in the woods of Albert County along scenic Route 915.  She has three self-contained efficiency suites that she designed, built, furnished, and decorated with her uniquely talented eye for taste, color, nature and quality.  She recently felled several large trees to give way for the spectacular views of Shepody Bay and Two Rivers Inlet that her secluded property overlooks.  My mother would be delighted; Pat frequently advised Karin about the potential of that obstructed view whenever she visited there, but during those earlier years when Karin was getting established with her pottery studio and building a home from the ground up a family was blooming--not easy years, I'd expect, and trees were probably not a priority unless they were already cut down and providing fuel for heat.  Karin is an especially hard worker and generous--two qualities my mother highly admired.

(Karin Bach, Patricia Carritt West, Hebron, New Brunswick, Canada)

My mother died in 2002.  We remember her in many ways, of course, but Stephen and I established a scholarship in her memory that recalls her good character, dedicated work ethic, and sense of humor through the qualifications of the scholarship recipient.  We've awarded six in as many years.  I try to imagine my mother reading and selecting qualified applicants, --she was a tough judge of character, and did not suffer fools gladly.  I can picture her Dollar-Rama (tm) readers perched on the end of her nose, wearing several layers of wool, lips pursed in concentration, with that light fixture pulled down close to the papers in an otherwise dark house.

Funny how we get to thinking about people, sometimes.

Monday, June 28, 2010

It only hurts when I laugh

We've all been asked the question.

Some of us take no time in coming up with the answer.  Some have several choices for their reply. Others have to really think about it, but eventually can find a suitable response.  Very few are stumped.

What is your most embarrassing moment?

The question is typically asked in a group setting, usually a party, so you have to choose your response carefully so you don't reveal too much about what causes you embarrassment (it might backfire on you later), or tell something you've done that you might not be proud of, or share part of your character that you might not want people who you're not very well acquainted with to know about you.

I have a few responses, but it's more a list of embarrassing things that I've said than done.  And now, faithful blog reader, you're preparing yourself for a humorous accounting of the gaffes, faux pas, blunders, and misspeaks that have rolled off my impetuous tongue in the course of these long years of adulthood.

Not a chance.

I think that inappropriate laughing is a better topic for this blog entry. Really!  Think about it. How many times have you been asked the question at a cocktail party?

"When was the worst time that you laughed inappropriately?" 

Imagine it, several of you are gathered around someone's living room with a drink, a small napkin with a puff pastry or stuffed mushroom that's too hot to eat--you know it, because the last one you ate scorched the roof of your mouth and you've been nursing it with an ice-cube from your drink for several minutes. People exchange topics about the work that they do, their kids' comings and goings, travels they've made--some guests you may know, some you're just getting acquainted with.

You've probably already pegged some of those who you don't know very well.

Type A:  The person who asks you a question, and before you've finished your response, they're answering it for you with the answer that they really wanted to give if you'd asked THEM the question.  For example,  "Have you ever been to California?" and you respond with "Well, funny you should ask, I've just been a few months ago, and found it to be much colder than I expected for this time of yea...." but they interrupt, and begin to tell you about their experiences in California, and you realize they really didn't care about your answer at all--they just had an agenda to start non-stop talking.

Type B:  The person who is everyone's very best friend, and knows everyone else in the room.  They find out something about you in some capacity, feign genuine interest in something that you're discussing, and promise you something in the future like:
a follow-up lunch
a book they'll put in the mail about the subject your discussing that they picked up at a yard sale but can't quite finish.
a telephone call with some information that would be pertinent for you to pursue

but you never hear from them again and you realize they are a big phony--so by now you spot them early on.

C:  The know-it-all.  Enough said.  Some esoteric subject has been brought up that piques your interest, and perhaps you know a few facts, but big mouth in the room, knows-it-all.  Or does he?

D:  Drinky McGluggerton.  He's just there for the alcohol;  he's actually amusing until he's had too many, at which point he becomes a little grouchy and frumps himself down in the Barcalounger (tm) in the corner and watches everyone else with a combative eye as the evening drags on.

But then the question is popped.  Has it ever before?  I doubt it.  Let's pretend it just has.
"When did you last laugh most inappropriately?"

My mother was a terrible offender.  But to her defense, and probably for most of us, an outburst of inappropriate laughter is usually an involuntary expression of stress or relief--(see The Jugular Vein blog entry)  --but not always.

When my mother was in a grocery store parking lot one cold wintry day after a freezing rain, she spied a woman who was pushing her heavily laden grocery cart out of the store to her vehicle.  The unaware woman hit a patch of ice, and the cart went wayward, while her feet went out from under her causing her to fall to her knees while keeping her grip on the cart.  The poor woman slid the entire length of the parking aisle flailing her legs to try regain her footing on the icy-slick pavement, but with no success.  By the time the cart came to a stop, and the woman could stand again, with torn stockings and bloodied knees, my mother was hysterical laughing.

Many years ago, we'd gone out to Bennett Lake in Fundy National Park.  We had an absolutely gorgeous wooden combination canoe-sail-row boat.  The Aphrodite.  It was very heavy, but the three of us (I was 13 at the time) could manage it well, and my parents could manage it with a bit of a struggle between the two of them.  Wally, would bark commands expecting an immediate and efficient response in action, while unloading the canoe and all its accessories from the top of the car until finally launching it into the water.  After several outings, we had a pretty good routine, each of us executing our job with the timely precision of a military mission.

Until one afternoon at the water's edge.  We were going sailing.  While I was setting the leeboards, Dad was righting the mast, and my mother tied the boom.  Something happened at this point, and the boom came down on Dad's head with an audible, and sharp CRACK!  Expletives were abundant, and my mother was immediately convulsed with laughter, which elicited even more expletives. 

After the tweety-birds stopped circling around Dad's head, we resumed our duties, and Dad returned to the rigging, when


it happened again.  Loud.  Hard. The angry sailor's vicious vocabulary was considerably more verbose.  My mother was unable to catch her breath from uncontrollable laughter.  It wasn't that she thought that it was funny, I'm quite sure it just was her coping mechanism. 

In our early days of home ownership in Omaha, we had a large Linden tree in the front yard that had several large, broken, and dangerous limbs that needed to be brought down.  At the time, we didn't have the standard set of homeowner tools like a tall ladder, a chain saw, or other necessary equipment to do the job safely or properly, but we were concerned that some of the dangling branches might come down and hurt someone.  Stephen drove our car up into the yard and stood on the roof to get a better look at them, and indeed, they were precarious limbs.

I advised him to just jump off the roof of the car, grab hold of the branch, and drop down with it as it should easily break off.  This was not good advice.

Stephen sprang off the roof of the car with the grace of an Olympic parallel-bar athlete, grabbed the diseased tree branch with both hands and stopped in time and motion for a few seconds when


the branch did break easily, but poor Stephen fell to the ground FAST and landed on his back completely knocking the wind out of him rendering him breathless and dizzy.  My immediate response should have been to rush to his side for assistance, but I didn't simply because I became helpless with a fit of manic hysterical laughter that I absolutely could not control.  Stephen was not amused.

(Remember when Mary Tyler Moore couldn't help herself at the funeral for Chuckles The Clown? )

Then there was a time when Olivia was in the hospital.  It was just one of several lengthy and successive stays when she was most sick several years ago.  The nursing staff knew us, and enjoyed Olivia--she was a model patient; she didn't cry, scream, or struggle during painful and invasive treatments, didn't demand toys or television or games, and tolerated the needles better than most adults.

An unfamiliar nurse came into her room one afternoon with a series of hypodermic needles to draw blood, and administer several medications through Olivia's IV.  She set the lot of the needles on Olivia's bedside table and turned her back to set up the procedural equipment when Olivia took on of the syringes and inadvertently inserted it directly through her hand---syringe on her palm side, the needle poking out the back of her hand.  Olivia calmly looked up at me from her bed and in a quiet monotone voice recognizing trouble held out her hand and said, "mummy?"

I laughed at first, because it was so incredulous that the thoughtless, careless, nurse would leave these syringes within Olivia's reach, and also because it looked so bazaar!  This strange anachronism of a small child's hand run through and through with a gleaming hypodermic needle filled with poison.  Certainly, not a laughing matter.

I think the next time I'm asked "What was your most embarrassing moment?" I'll return with the question "First, tell me when was the last time you laughed inappropriately?"  I think it will be a better conversation.

Either that, or I'll reply, "A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants." And see what happens.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Teasin' is the Reason for the Season

We either send them or receive them.


Most of them are sent to and from distant friends and families you ordinarily don't hear from at any other time of the year.  In the intensely boring newsletter you are subjected to the braggart accounting of children's accomplishments, the changes in careers, the ailments discovered or overcome, exotic travels, marriages, births, and a variety of upheavals, joys, and disappointments that occurred since the time passed from the previous year's letter.

We sent one every year.  We knew we shouldn't subject our friends and loved ones to our shameless boasting, but we just couldn't help ourselves.  When we started writing and sending them, we were displaced from friends and family, both in New England and in Canada, while we lived in Omaha with our four perfect, genius, handsome children who we just had to brag about.  We included photographs, certificates of achievement, report cards, locks of hair, newspaper clippings.  As the kids grew older, we asked for their input, and posed for family portraits with cat and dog--often in coordinating wardrobes against a backdrop of glittering Christmas decoration and twinkling light, or mahogany bookcases filled with leather-bound classics.

Until one year. 

We employed the help of our new friend, Jim McHarg.  He and Stephen look like they could be brothers--or at least related; both are tall and lean, and each have the same hair growth pattern.  So we asked Jim to join us in our family photo.  We asked Stephen to step out.

We gathered in the living room, the three remaining kids still living at home (Justin had already left the nest), the dog, the cat, the antique furniture, the dark-walled paneling.

Jim and I stood side by side, beaming--as proud parents would--with the children close by.

Kathryn, our popular high-school teen, in the foreground wearing a large t-shirt that clearly displayed a distended belly representing at least 7 month's pregnancy--her smile not so much beaming, but rather chagrined.

Olivia, our youngest girl who ordinarily wears a link of pearls, a classy cashmere sweater, and perky capri pants, her long locks of youthful, vibrant, brown hair, fresh-faced stood barely in frame of the camera at such an angle and with body language that suggested she'd rather be cutting herself than posing for a lame photograph.  Her  pin-straight hair, dark-rimmed eyes, heavy with mascara, combat boots, straight leg blue jeans, and arms clenched and folded in front of her created an authentic image of a rebellious, angry, disassociated teenager.

Andrew had to sit in the library rocking chair.  It is hard for him to stand--since he's missing the lower half of his right leg, so his crutches are propped against the chair where he sits and the vacant pant-leg knotted-- clearly revealing its absence.

Jim has his arm around me; we're still affectionate after all these years of marriage, even with the obvious stresses we've encountered since last year's holiday newsletter.

The dog and cat have gone missing.


and another to be sure....SMILE everyone; LIFE IS GOOD!


We took two pictures that year.  The one just described that we dashed off to print and make 35 copies to send to our friends and family who we think will enjoy our little holiday photographic prank.  The other photo was more run-of-the-mill, with both me and Stephen, the dog and the kids, all posing cheerfully.  That's what we sent to those on our mailing list who we knew wouldn't understand the joke photo.

The newsletter describes an otherwise mundane year, not making mention of a teenage pregnancy, an horrific accident that cost a young man his limb, or the trials of dealing with a distant, angst-filled teen daughter who clearly has not embraced her new-found health since being in remission for a few years and is considered cured.

"Merry Christmas, blah, blah, blah......" lick, seal, stamp, send. 

While we were on Christmas/New Year's holiday in Canada, we checked our telephone messages back home in New Jersey, to hear several repeated messages left by Stephen's mother who with each message, and with increasing urgency, implores him to return her call--she is very concerned for our family after seeing the photograph. 

There is also a message from my sister.  She is sickened by what she's seen, and what's worse, is troubled that I hadn't shared any of these significant details about our family with her before now.  I have RUINED her holidays.

Those who knew us well, and shared our sense of humor, enjoyed the diversion from the typical treacle we'd ordinarily sent off year after year.  My sister and mother in-law did not.  We returned their calls, and assured them that all was well.  (Really?  Neither of them didn't recognize that it was NOT Stephen standing next to me; REALLY?)
It's been several years since we mailed the epic FO-TOE-GRAF--one we now refer to as "The Christmas Card incident".

                        Christmas 2002

"I am sure that I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round, as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely."
C. Dickens

Maybe, it shouldn't just be when Christmas comes around....J. Chrysostom

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Blowing our own Horns

Of course we're proud of our kids.  We know it, they know it, everyone we know knows it.  What surprises me most is their sense of responsibility and commitment.  What I love about them most is their willingness and humour.

We recently had a well attended Robert Burns supper at Cleveland Place--an event the whole family looks forward to more than the usual traditional holidays during the year.  A few newcomers came to the party this year who weren't very well acquainted with the kids, and several remarked after the festivities how "great your kids are!  They're interesting, all very independent, creative, and FUNNY!"  High praise for a mum to hear, and I was eager to share that with them all, since I certainly feel the same way.

It made me remember other opportunities for praise when they were younger and involved in school or other activities which has probably shaped their character somewhat, either from having had too much or not enough at key moments.

When Andrew was in high-school he was in the marching band.  The new band director meant business and they had exhausting practices, requiring long after-school hours of marching and playing; Andrew carrying the snare drum or the quad-set of snares on his shoulders under the late afternoon or early Saturday morning sun. The high-school football team was not stellar, but the band put on a great half-time show. The Marching Band also participated in state competitions that were pretty tough.

As Band Parents, our requirements were to faithfully attend the Saturday competitions, occasionally serve hot dogs, purchase banners, buttons, rattle noise-makers and root and holler to show our support.  One loyalty purchase at these events was a half-time Shout Out.  At a designated booth, parents could purchase a Shout Out page for five dollars and write a few lines that the announcer would read over the PA system as the bands made formation on the field before their performance and competition.  Most parents would write a few pithy lines praising Suzy's flute skills or congratulating Johnny's Tuba talents, expressing pride, dedication, love, and admiration and above all, supporting the team: GO EAGLES!  In our efforts to financially support the band, and make our contributions, we purchased several Shout Outs at every competition.  We just couldn't' tolerate any more of the We Love you and we're proud of you (insert name here) now go play your (insert instrument here) and make us even more proud.  So ours went something more like this:

Hey, Son!  Congratulations on having a dry bed this morning!  Now go blow that horn!  Love, Mom & Dad.

Dear Son.  We love you, but your mother and I are getting a divorce.  Good luck today.

Hey Kid! I can't tell you who I am, but I'm watching you and I'm proud of you.  Love, your biological Dad.

Since many of the Varsity Members of the band were seniors, waiting on college acceptance status. we added:

Sorry, Kiddo, the letter from the college came in; apparently felony convictions DO affect admission.  Play hard out there, today, anyway!

Andrew knew we were proud of him, I hope.  We just weren't so sappy about expressing it.

When Justin was in high school he joined the Cross Country Track Team.  Our participation required a lot less to show support for the team.  We showed up, watched him take off at the starting line, waited around for about an hour, and watched him cross the finish line, giving him a congratulatory minimal bodily contact sweaty hug when he could catch his breath.  Strong, lean, fit, that boy could run!  He started entering local community 5 & 10 K runs.  Occasionally, we'd find ourselves hunched over a Dunkin' Donuts coffee on  early dewy Saturday mornings dropping him off at the registration tables getting his number and t-shirt, and find the starting line to watch him take off.  After several events, we could generally pace his time, and goof off until we'd anticipate his finish.  On one run, he wasn't seen at his usual run time, and we watched the crowd--some were regulars that we recognized from other races--but he wasn't on the horizon.  We remarked that today was a slow run for him.  More time and runners passed, and Justin still wasn't seen.  We stood, peering deep into the groups, hoping to catch the color of shorts, his tank top.  No Justin.  Uh, Oh---maybe he's been hurt; a twisted ankle, burst lung, a fall, heat exhaustion, dehydration?

THERE HE IS!  We spot him, in full pace, intact, no limping, no road rash--but at least 7 minutes behind his usual timing.  He crossed the finish line, and we approached.  He breathlessly told us that there was a great yard sale not too far back and there was some archery equipment in the yard; he'd stopped to take a look.

I'm glad he still doesn't take things too seriously.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Eggs, Milk, Bread, Camaraderie

I love to go grocery shopping.  I savor the potential that the various products, ingredients, foods, staples, and produce represent.  I also love to cook, so the two probably go hand in hand, although I know a lot of good cooks who hate to grocery shop.  

Recently, I was at the check out at the Atlantic SuperStore in Sussex.  The young clerk greeted me cheerfully which is a sharp contrast from the typical grocery shopping experiences in New Jersey where the employees regard you as an intrusion in their day, resent your presence, and do nothing to mask their intense boredom with their tasks and lack of respect for the customer.

After picking up a few sundries, I exchanged pleasantries with this young fellow who remarked about the weather, recounted his recent passport application and photograph taking experience, revealed his desire to acquire a new large flat screen television, and shared his brilliant idea for a store promotion in the camera department.  I learned more about him in our three minute exchange than I know about neighbors that I've shared a communal wall with in our building for over two years.

But he crossed a line.

He started making opinionated comments about several of my purchases as the conveyor belt brought each item toward the scanner.  As a small wedge of expensive blue cheese approached, he picked it up, turned it over and exclaimed, "OH, gross!" gaining the attention of the customers next in line.  He lifted it higher with one hand, pointed to it with the other, and with shrugging shoulders, declared his dislike for the aroma, flavor, and overall principle of this particular kind of cheese and continued to remark how he can't understand how people can spend so much money on different cheese varieties.  I quietly defended myself, suggesting one man's cheese is another man's wine--age, flavor, region and price all influencing our tastes.

Next he sympathized with my seasonal allergies as he scanned my Claritin (tm) tablets, approved of my choices of fresh oranges, and inquired about my banking practices when I used an American debit card to complete the transaction.

On one hand, I felt myself bristle at what I initially felt were intrusive remarks, comments, and inquiries, but on the other hand, appreciated the contrast from my New Jersey grocery store counterparts, who rarely even make eye contact in the few moments of exchanging cash and receipts. Because I actually enjoy going to the grocery store, these are familiar people I have contact with several times each week, every week.

I wanted to say something to caution him about this fine line of assumed anonymity that he was crossing, but decided I liked it somehow, after all.  It was a true human interaction.  Oddly, something I'm often lacking while living in the dense population of New Jersey but relish in New Brunswick.

I hope he gets that fancy TV soon.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

C'mon Boy!

Everyone has a dog story.  Books have been written about them, they've been featured in movies since the early days of cinema.  Most of them make you cry.

But our Scout was just a dog.  He wasn't particularly good at anything--he had no talents to speak of.  But he was with us all the time.  We brought him home from the pound in Omaha when he was about 6 months old.  He was a cheerful puppy, didn't nip, jump, or bark at the four young kids when we were meeting him for the first time, and he had a large splotch of paint on his ear.  A good match for our family.

He camped with us, traveled with us, romped wildly in the deep Nebraska snow, chased tennis balls, ate the kids' socks, and made the move with us back East, a full member of the family.

After we left the Marriott Marquis Hotel that we'd been living in for several weeks in Manhattan, we moved across the river to The Embassy Suites in New Jersey and lived there for several more weeks.  This new facility offered a lot more elbow room for our family of six with Scout and Mittens the cat.  We all appreciated the spaciousness of the two room suite, and though he had finally adjusted to the glass elevators at the Marriott, Scout seemed happier to bound up and down the stairs at The Embassy Suites when the kids would take him outside for his walks.

Like most hotels that cater to the business crowd, The Embassy hosted several conferences during each day.  Some held in large banquet-type rooms, others in smaller empty rooms that were adjacent to guest suites.  Frequently, during our stay, we'd pass by a meeting room that was filled with an attentive audience listening to a speaker standing at a podium or seated with several others at a head table.

Every room on the four floors had a door that opened to a balcony type corridor that overlooked the main courtyard.  On one particular afternoon I stood waiting at our door for the kids to return with Scout from one of his outdoor runs.  I saw them all on the opposite side of the courtyard parading single-file down the hallway: Justin leading Scout on his leash Olivia bringing up the rear.  What a sweet picture they created.

Unfortunately, Scout's most recent efforts to relieve himself outside on the grass proved unsuccessful, and just as they all passed an on-going meeting of approximately 30 senior-citizen women he felt an urge and made the very recognizable squat directly in front of their open doorway.  All the kids came to an abrupt stop, paralyzed.

"NO!" I hollered from across the entire courtyard, and Justin pulled on Scout's leash.  Too late.  One tidy, dry, round turd had been evacuated.  The kids, then aged 5, 7, 9 and 11, looked over to me in embarrassed horror!  I yelled across, "Get him out of there! NOW!!!!"

Justin pulled the leash harder, but poor constipated Scout firmly held his tell-tale stance and released several more as he was being dragged out of view of the meeting room.  Like little chocolate Easter eggs he deposited one after another, scooting and shooting, straining and releasing until he was comfortable.  I popped back into our room, and snatched several paper towels and dashed down the hallway to quickly remove the trail of evidence.  Somehow, the entire scene was more interesting to old ladies than the topic of their meeting.  They watched it all unfold.  I'd be very curious to read the Secretary's report of the minutes from that meeting.

Eventually we found a home and settled down in New Jersey.  We found a home in a suburban neighbourhood with only a partially fenced  postage stamp yard so Scout had to be kept on a line when he spent time outside.  Our street was quiet and safe, but the main streets just a few blocks away were busy thoroughfares.  You can't be a pedestrian in New Jersey.

Sunday was Dunkin' Doughnut day.  Stephen and Scout would walk down our neighbourhood street cross two blocks over and get a variety box full and bring them home.  We'd spend a lazy morning over coffee and doughnuts and Scout would stay close often getting a bite, a munchkin', or if someone wasn't paying attention, he'd steal an entire doughnut.  He was a big fan of the honey-glazed.  It was a nice Sunday morning routine.

And then there was the day Scout was discovered missing.  Panic!  The back door was found open and he was no where around.  He was no genius when it came to navigating traffic, and we feared the worst if he'd found his way to the busy streets.

The kids spread throughout the neighbourhood and called, whistled.  We got in the car and drove around to search for him, with no results.  What a helpless feeling of dread.  We reassured the kids that he was a good, sweet dog and someone surely had taken him inside their home and would call the number on his tag.

And sure enough, not much later the phone rang.  It was a friendly employee at Dunkin' Donuts on that treacherous corner of traffic just two blocks away.  We were all well known there; and now Scout had found his way, alone.  In the ten years we lived in that house, there were many occasions when Scout was discovered missing; we knew just where to find him every time; he just had a hankering for the honey-glazed doughnut.

In our adventures close to home and far away, Scout was usually our companion.  When we replaced the 1964 Rambler with a brand new Dodge Grand Caravan, Scout had his spot in the rear and would readily hop in whenever the back was open.

On a Saturday, we'd all taken a day trip to the historic Canal System in New Jersey that had been made into a recreation and trail area.  It was a great picnic spot and a good way to let Scout off his leash and throw his ball.  He'd tirelessly run full out to fetch the tennis ball and bring it back.  One toss landed in the Canal, however, and floated in a large area of duckweed.  To Scout, this floating expanse of green appeared to be an extension of the grassy bank and he ran hard to retrieve his ball.  But he sank.  Fast.  In an instant, he was gone.

Now this dog had very little experience with water.  We stood watching, dumbstruck. And after a moment, I wondered if I was going to have to go in to find him and pull him out.  After another moment, we approached the edge of the water concerned.  Where was he?  Startlingly, up burst Scout in a frenzy of sputtering water, flying duck weed, legs flailing, ears flopping.  We all burst into laughter.  He was gasping, snorting, slapping at the surface with his paws and we called and coaxed him over to the bank.

He pulled himself up the steep bank tearing into the soil with his strong claws and working his hind legs to hoist himself up.  Stephen reached down to his collar and gave some assistance, and just as all sopping wet dogs do when they're on firm ground, he shook.  Water and the attached duck weed was sent in a shower all around, and there Scout stood, dripping, heaving and snorting, completely bewildered.  But he had his ball.

Even our pal, Paul, was fond of Scout.  Well, not his shedding fur, or his alarming reactions to motorcycles, but generally they got along.  During a visit, Paul joined Stephen and Scout for the Sunday doughnut run.  They made the familiar trip down the street and  passed a hearse and the accompanying black Lincoln Town Cars parked in front of the Catholic Church at the end of our street.

When the three made the return trip, with a full box of delicious baked goods, Scout's knack for inappropriate timing once again took hold, and he squatted.  This time, just as the church doors opened, and the pall bearers, mourners, and grieving widow emerged from the funeral services and descended the steps down to the sidewalk.  There stood Stephen and Paul, helpless, while Scout unloaded a soft, steaming, fragrant, pile.  Prepared with nothing else, the fellows tore off the top of the doughnut box and used it dust-pan style to remove the offense from the sidewalk so the funeral party could pass.  Scout did not get a honey-glazed that day.

We think we figured out his problem with motorcycles, but we can only piece it together.  When he was still a puppy, Stephen was sitting on the couch, drinking a beer from the bottle.  When Stephen got up and crossed the room, Scout quietly got up and skirted the room watching Stephen's every move.  Stephen called attention to it and pointed toward Scout with the bottle and said, "What's wrong with you?" and poor Scout cowered.  Whenever a beer bottle was in hand, Scout was wary.

Later when he reacted so fiercely to motorcycles (you may have read about it in a previous blog entry.) we put together the pieces of the troubled puppy life that he escaped.  We figure that his first owner was a gruff, sloppy painter who had a mean nine-year old girl with long blond hair (he reacted badly to them, too.).  The painter was a mean drunk and probably clobbered Scout a few times with a beer bottle.  When it was time to booze it up for the weekend, our angry painter would hop on his Harley, and bring home a few cases tormenting the poor dog.  It makes perfect sense.

As Scout got older he slowed, but kept his good-natured spirit through most experiences.  Andrew spent a summer living at The Gazebo, an octagonal cottage in rural New Brunswick Canada, putting on siding and building a cold-water kitchen. Scout kept him company.  The floor of the cottage was concrete slab that had been given a coating of linseed oil intended to be a sealant.  The concrete didn't absorb the oil, but instead rendered it adhesive-like and damp.  Every time Scout laid down on the floor, he would stick.  When he stood, again, he left behind a light carpeting of dog hair, in a well defined dog shaped pattern.  A good dog, he never complained.

Scout kept us company for nearly 15 years.  He was the best dog we ever knew.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Ramblin' on.

In a few days, I'm about to embark on a cross-country trip West for a few weeks with Kathryn to attend my nephew Allyn's wedding.  

As I prepare, it calls to mind other trips I've taken over the years- some reckless, some well-planned, others risky, most every one a good memory. An especially memorable one was our family move in the early 90's from Omaha to New York City.......

Begin jiggly memory swiggles as seen on television for comedic subjective recollections....

Cue Narrator as camera pans a suburban Midwestern street featuring neighbourhood children on shiny bicycles or kicking a bright red ball.  Capture summertime trees in full bloom--birds chirping.  Zoom in on smiling woman placing tidy square boxes, matching suitcases, and cat-carrier into a gleaming white vintage sedan, while four young children file into the vehicle followed by romping yellow-Labrador dog.

Aside from the obvious stresses that moving creates from uprooting and starting fresh, I always enjoyed the adventure-- both as a kid and as an adult.  When I was growing up, my family moved seven times and I attended 7 different schools, including two high-schools.  In our adult lives, Stephen and I moved a few times as jobs changed and his education and career changed course.  When he got out of the Air Force in the 80's we had a home and were well settled assuming we'd remain in Omaha indefinitely, but the unexpected loss of his job in the 90's prompted a move from Omaha back to the east where he was starting a new job.

We were hard pressed to leave friends and our lifestyle in Omaha, but financially it was the only option since it was a particularly rough time in our lives then.  We had four young kids, and our youngest, Olivia, was pretty sick with a blood disease that required frequent hospitalizations.  This new job would offer everything we needed most, an income, very good health insurance accepting a pre-existing health condition, paid moving expenses, and the sale of our beloved but rundown home that had exhausted both our skill and finances for all its needed improvements.

Stephen had posted his resume on the internet, and was found by a consulting company based out of Washington D.C. that offered information technology consultants to big name corporations.  He accepted the position through e-mail and a phone calls. 

Having flown ahead of us, Stephen was settled in at The Marriott Marquis hotel in Times Square, Manhattan,  where he was already given a consulting assignment.  Justin, Andrew, Kathryn, Olivia, Scout the dog, Mittens the cat, a few suitcases and some other fragile belongings that we didn't trust to the moving company followed over the next several days in our four-door 1964 Rambler sedan.  Our travel budget was extremely tight having little cash, a small available balance on a credit card, and a small-chain gas card, so we packed in a sack of egg-salad sandwiches to keep us well fed along the road and each of the kids got some money for the trip to spend on their own.  Our adventure was about to begin!

Unfortunately, our departure day fulfilled the predictions for continued rain throughout the Midwest.  Mittens the cat had to forfeit his leash so it could be used to operate the windshield wipers.  For the duration of the rain, who ever sat in the front passenger seat was responsible for pulling the leash that was attached to the wipers, strung through the driver's side wing-window, and across the front of the dashboard. The wipers worked by a failing vacuum pump, so for each pass they had to be manually lifted across the windshield and would drop by their own weight.  It stopped raining when we got to close to Saint Louis, Missouri--approximately 450 miles later.

We traveled south-east through Kansas, St. Louis, and Kentucky so we could visit my sister's family in Tennessee where we planned to stay for a night or two. It was a familiar trip we'd made several times before without any problems.   This time, in Kentucky, we had a small one-- we simply ran out of gas.

Now, before I go on, I should mention that this Rambler was a fabulous car:

Cut to vintage film advertising for the AMC RAMBLER CLASSIC SEDAN automobile while narrator describes the attributes of such a fine vehicle. 

Our Rambler had four doors, a capacious trunk, (Stephen installed rear seat belts for each kid) a powerful V-8 engine that truly hummed, and a brand new brake job with four new 'budget' tires.  Except for a rear-end accident that happened a few month prior, the body was actually in very good shape; it was dull, but not rusted out anywhere except under the driver's floorboard which was only noticeable in torrential rain when water would enter from under the floor mat.  (The driver that hit the Rambler and crumpled its back-end didn't have insurance, so we got a body shop to bang out the worst of it, and make sure the trunk would close and lock.) Oh, and the fuel gauge didn't work.

So, I made a minor error in mileage/gas estimation based on the odometer reading.  We were doing fast high-way driving, and the engine just drank the gas as we hummed along.  So we sat on the side of the highway and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

We sat in the stultifying summertime Kentucky heat and humidity for about thirty minutes (no cell-phone in those days!) hoping a state trooper would soon stop, but instead a very nice non axe-murdering/rapist saw our distress and stopped.

Resume jiggly memory swiggles as camera pans the length of a brand new candy-apple red Dodge Ram Truck slowing down, merging onto the shoulder, and stopping in front of the disabled Rambler.  Cut to close-up shot of driver, as played by Robert De Niro, exiting vehicle and approaching the driver's door of the Rambler.

Our rescuer asked if we needed assistance, and I suggested we'd only run out of gas.  He promptly said he'd tow us to the next exit and produced a brand new tow strap, attached it, instructed me how to steer/brake, while being towed, and just like that we had a full tank and running engine at the nearest service station within 20 minutes!  Crisis averted.

(I still think it was Robert De Niro, actually.  He looked just like him--mole and all--had a mild accent--defined to neither New York or the South.  His truck appeared to be brand-new and expensive.  At the gas station, he made sure the engine started after the tank was filled giving advice to put a little gas on the carburetor to get it primed to start up again.  We shook hands, and he wished us good luck on our trip.  Thanks Bob!)

We made it to Tennessee without further incident, and visited for a few days, also without incident!  Back on the road again, we traveled as far as Pennsylvania, and took a hotel room.  I wanted to be fresh, well rested and ready for our anticipated arrival and meeting up with Stephen in New York City the following day.

But the next day, it was hot.  Very hot.  Traffic congestion increased and slowed as we got closer and closer to the city.  The temperature climbed outside, and as it got hotter outside the Rambler's gauge indicating the engine temperature began to rise--my growing indigestion matching it.

When we reached The Holland Tunnel, I barked at the kids to roll up the windows and lock their doors.  I suddenly felt very vulnerable with our Nebraska license plates, very old car, open windows, and full clam-shell car-top-carrier a beacon announcing to all New Yorkers that we were Nebraskan hayseeds ripe for the picking.

On the approach to The Holland Tunnel, we sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic, the car steadily overheating, as we inched along with windows closed.  I turned on the heat to pull some off off the engine, but it was too hot to bear; we had to open our windows, and I directed the vents to blow the heat down toward our feet.  Our poor Scout was panting heavily, but remained ever patient, and we noticed we'd stopped hearing Mitten's plaintive mews from his carry-box since we left the hotel room earlier that morning.

Cut to cartoon footage of heavy machinery/boilers/steam vents/ pressure valves/factory warning horns all at peak levels about to burst with gauges and indicator needles intensely vibrating at the highest measure of DANGER/RED zones!

In those days, the toll for the Holland Tunnel was three dollars.

Sound Ahooga Horn featuring cartoon face with bulging dollar-sign eyes shooting in and out.

I had just under two dollars left from our exhausted travel budget, and panicked when I saw the toll amount sign.  I asked the kids to fork over any money they had left from their spending allowances, which brought us just a few cents short.  I desperately ordered them to check the seat cushion cracks and under the floor mats for more and they miraculously generated enough coin to match the toll fee.

As we pulled up to the booth, I handed over a dollar bill and the remainder in coin and pennies.  The intensely dis-interested and bored toll-taker pointed with her open hand heaped with our offered coinage, to the dirty, cracked plastic sign that read: NO PENNIES.  I shrugged, and said, "I'm really sorry, it's all we have."  She looked at me, with my sweaty hair plastered to my face, peered in the car to see the panting dog, the four red-faced sweaty kids, then looked at the steam gently rising from the hood of the Rambler, and blankly said, "just go."

Music Cue:  From The Wonderful Wizard of Oz--Optimistic Voices--played as Dorothy and her friends head toward The Emerald City from the Poppy Field.   Camera widely pans the Rambler as traffic parts, the tunnel opens wide, wind blows cooling air through the vehicle and obvious relief takes over as we relax and anticipate the sights of New York City; our final destination.  Jane brightly re-grips the steering wheel with renewed energy.

We're gonna make it!  We sail under the Hudson River through the tunnel and emerge onto Canal Street where we're greeted by stopped-dead traffic.  Horns honking, city stinking, people sweating, cars at a stand-still, visible exhaust waves rising intensifying the heat.  I holler out my window to the pedestrian traffic, "Which way to Times Square?" and several people all point in the same direction.  We turned the corner, and go.

We travel slowly in city traffic, block by block, light by light.  The car is visibly, dangerously, overheating by now, and I see several  parking opportunities and choose a open lot facility near 36th and Broadway and pull in. 

A cheerful lot attendant, all smiles, approached the car with a paper ticket in his outstretched hand obviously expecting the exchange of car keys and ticket, but he stopped short when he spied Scout, panting heavily and slightly foaming at the mouth from near dehydration.  His welcoming smile quickly faded and he said I could not leave the dog with the car.  I explained to him that we'd be right back, we'd leave all the windows wide open, he was on a leash attached to the inside of the vehicle posing no danger;  he was just a good, but very hot dog!  I reached down to the passenger side floor board to retrieve the cat box while the kids gave Scout some water, and saw poor our poor Mittens.  His flat body, eyes closed, his tongue sticking out, and all four feet splayed out wide.  My stomach lurched.  I'd killed our cat by turning on the heat to pull it off the overheating engine and sending it down to the floor right where his travel box was. I immediately felt the crushing guilt of murder by heat exhaustion. 

Quickly deciding it was not a matter to deal with right then, and certainly not wanting any of the kids to see,  I shut the door, and we walked to the hotel asking the lot attendant the right direction to Times Square.

We five chained hands, and walked the width of the sidewalk and within just a block or two, came upon a crew with a film camera taking footage of the bustling pedestrian traffic.  How exciting!  We'd only been in New York City a few short minutes and we were already experiencing the sights, sounds, excitement of activity on the street!  As we approached the squatting cameraman, something came over me.  Perhaps it was whimsical relief and exuberance at having made it this far but not quite knowing what was still ahead, I broke grips with the kids' hands, pulled them forward and close and with wide arms and beaming face stood in front of the camera man, looked directly at the lens, and exclaimed, "HELLOOO, WE'RE FROM OMAHA, NEBRASKA!!"

The cameraman took his face off the eyepiece, bent his head around the camera, looked at me, scowled, returned to his eyepiece, while his crewman with monotone repetition stated, "Keep filming, keep filming, keep filming." and sharply gestured to me that we pass and continue on our way.  We did.

We reached the Marriott Marquis, inquired at the front desk for Stephen's room, and proceeded up the glass-front elevator to the 34th floor. We were hot, tired, sweaty, stressed, road-weary, thirsty, and we all looked it in the highest degree.

Switch to slow motion: imitating the scene from Reservoir Dogs in view of a long hotel corridor,  five Chrysostoms walking abreast.

We knocked on the hotel room door, but Stephen wasn't there!  My heart sank.  Now what?  We waited just a few moments when he emerged from the hallway, carrying his lunch in a paper sack--at long last, we were all re-united! We sum up the excitement of day's events; car trouble, dog trouble, money trouble, (I whispered to him about the cat trouble.) and we settle the kids into the air-conditioned hotel room giving them full mini-bar privileges, while Stephen and I return to the Rambler.

I tell Stephen how I killed the cat, and we'll have to find a vet or something to properly dispose of him.  At the car, we find Scout to be resting comfortably on the length of the back seat and we retrieve him on his leash and collect the cat box.  But wait!  There's movement!  Mittens is ALIVE!!  Oh joy!  I didn't kill the cat, I only nearly killed him! 

Stephen drove us back to the hotel, emptied our luggage from the clam-shell car-top carrier and then strapped it onto the trunk so the car would fit down the ramp to the underground garage beneath the hotel.  He handed the keys to the attendant giving our room number, and we wouldn't see the car again while we lived in Manhattan.  (When we retrieved the car weeks later, the parking fees were far more than the car was even worth.).

We wanted Scout to relieve himself in every way possible before taking him to the room, but the city proved too distracting for him, so we went up the glass elevator without result.  Good Scout, sweet, simple-minded Scout; a true Nebraskan dog.  The only stairs he had ever experienced were in our home in Omaha.  He'd never been in bodies of water, bustling city streets, lobbies, corridors, elevators jammed with impatient people.  He was a good , mild-mannered family dog, and he went willingly into the elevator, sat when we told him to as the elevator filled with hotel guests and their luggage. The Marriott Marquis has an open lobby to the 49th floor, and the glass sided elevators look out on it as they go up and down. Scout was fine until we began to ascend and the floor outside the elevator dropped away.  His eyes widened, his paws and toes outstretched, claws gripped the carpet.  He did NOT like this experience whatsoever.  His blood pressure got so high, he had a slight nose-bleed--this was one stressed dog. Shortly, the elevator doors opened letting some people out and others in.  We continued upward.  Again the car stopped, but Scout saw his opportunity, and bolted.  He would not come back into the elevator.  We let it go without us and pushed the button for another car.  When an empty one stopped Stephen pulled Scout's leash, coaxing and encouraging him to join us.  He refused.  Stephen pulled his collar firmly, commandingly.  Scout let out a quiet, low, sad growl.  No, he just won't do it.

We were only at the 26th floor, so we took to the stairwell.  He can handle stairs and steps!   We began our way, but the stairs all had open risers which Scout's little brain just could not comprehend, so he refused that option as well.  Stephen was forced to carry that fool dog up each remaining flight to our floor.

When we were all finally together again in the cool comfort of the hotel room, we enjoyed the sights of Times Square from high above the city. The cat curled up, happily re-hydrated, the dog safely on firm ground, the kids wide-eyed with anticipation of the weeks and adventures ahead full of pop and goodies from the mini-bar.

I'm sure the kids all have their own jiggly memory swiggles of this adventurous trip featuring a calm, beaming, generous mother with good hair, and sweet voice.  But they can tell their own version.