Thursday, July 31, 2014

Snoops



My sister and I as children were indefatigable snoops. I've written before about breaking into our brother 's sacred closet office. We also seemed to be curious about our parents' lives before we were born. They were still young, in their thirties, when we were wondering what they'd been like when they weren't so old.
We looked into the large trunk and found things like my mother ,s wedding dress, or at least pieces of it. She had cut it down to make a regular dress for herself, so the trunk contained what was left of it- large sections of midnight blue silk velvet. We loved the feel of it and what the dress must have looked like. Both she and my father had photo albums, filled with small black and white pictures of them as young adults, but they looked pretty much the way they still looked, which was, to us, old. Their wedding picture showed them in front of a church in Holyoke,, Massachusetts, way up north. Daddy was wearing a suit, much like the suits he wore to work. Mother was wearing her velvet gown, with long, open sleeves, tied with ribbon at the wrists, and a wide brimmed hat.
We used to go through those little albums. Most of the photos in my father's were taken during his days at Auburn and was full of high jinks and silly poses. Mother's were from her late teens and early twenties, equally full of stringing poses, in middy blouse and bloomers, with her and her friends, hiking, swimming, and pretending to  smoke with rolled up paper "cigarettes',  dancing like Isadora Duncan in a meadow.
Our absolute favorite resource was their yearbooks. We practically memorized the names of some of their classmates. We loved the little paragraphs about each of the students. My father's claims "and his soul is full of automatic fire extinguishers." The yearbook also included each young man's nickname, which my father claimed were made up by the yearbook staff. His was "I . W . Harper," which we didn't get until we were much older. His best friend was " Swede" "Nelson, who became Uncle Nelson to us. Also pictured, as a sponsor of a ROTC unit, is Miss Zelda Sayre, of Montgomery. She would come up for the dances. My father knew her from home and was one of her partners on the dance floor. She later married a Yankee from Minnesota by the name of Scott and became a notorious representative of the Jazz Age.
Mother's high school annual was smaller, but we did the same thing, reading about all the old looking boys and girls of the class of 1917. When she went to her 25th reunion, we asked her especially find out about one Ambrose Shea, whose glossy black pompadour fascinated us. I think we knew these students better than she did. The little  squib accompanying her photo mentioned her "three cornered smile," which she couldn't explain.
I still have one of the photo albums and both yearbooks. All are falling apart from our incessant paging through them all the years of our childhood. The young people in all of them still look old to me. My own children, so far as I know, have not found my own yearbooks interesting at all. They have probably done their share of snooping, and that's all right. Parents are mysterious creatures.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The War to End All Wars



Today is the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of World War I- which we have to enumerate because it was not the war to end all wars. (Makes your head spin to think of all the wars that have followed and which continue to rage around the world.) When  I was growing up, that 1914 - 1918 conflict was just" the war." By my teen years, we had to add the "I" Both my and my mother's high school years coincided with war years, even though in her case, the United States was not actively involved until 1918. Both wars had to do with Germany, too. She remembered calling sauerkraut "Liberty cabbage," a ridiculous euphemism of the type that resurfaced not long ago in calling one of America's favorite bad- for- you foods "freedom fries."
Apparently, the popularity of Downton Abbey's WWI episodes  and ""War Horse" have sparked an interest in what is also called "The Great War" to go along with this sad anniversary. The Kent State Fashion Museum is featuring an exhibit  of women's fashions from that era. Their advertising touts the Downton Abby connection, hoping to attract fans of Lady Mary's and Lady Edith's costumes to pour into the display.  They will be disappointed, I fear. It's a fine exhibit, but the emphasis on the clothing of women who served during the war-nurses, canteen servers, auxiliary aides and the like. There are some absolutely stunning posters by artists of the period, some great gaitered, high-buttoned, pointy toed shoes, a few big hats I would love to own and about a dozen dresses, none of which are anywhere near as spectacular as the ones we saw on TV. So it's  an interesting exhibit but DA does not loom large.
Since it was the era of my parents' youth, I dug up some artifacts of that long past time to ponder.
The picture above is one my mother did in her high school art class. The assignment was to design what I think was called a walking outfit, although those shoes don't look that comfortable, though tres chic.

That's my father perched jauntily like a hood ornament. He is wearing his ROTC garb. He was a college student during the war, commissioned a second lieutenant upon graduation, by which time the war was over. What he is wearing is pretty much what the WWI doughboys were wearing in the trenches. He has on what look like gaiters instead of those wrapped puttees.
My Uncle Ed, my mother's older brother, was in the army and was sent to France. He was traumatized by fear of poison gas, and couldn't wait to get out of there. The picture below is on of the souvenirs he brought back from France to my mother.

 

Friday, July 25, 2014

Luncheon Guest



Alert: Some may find this post disturbing/ Don't say I didn't warn you.
For the past several years I have joined a group of convivial, bright, interesting and accomplished women for lunch on Fridays. Several of them are in my water aerobics class, and others I have known slightly from other activities in town or from the university. Our ages range from late 50s to 91, and in the summer the delightful and intelligent 12 year old daughter of out youngest member of the group. Conversation ranges from fluff to serious issues.
Sadly, one of the most interesting and brilliant women is in hospice, and not expected to be in the world much longer. She does not want company, other than family and a very few close friends. Before her rapid decline early this summer, she talked about her frustration with
 the world situation. She is one of those people who believe that if everyone would  just think rationally, we could deal with complex problems and improve the lot of the world's citizens. She's a writer of rational polemics, a musician and a scholar. It's not enough that she has personally spear- headed some incredible improvements in the quality of life in this community, but feels that she has not made a dent in the world at large. It's made her what my friend Nancy calls a COW:Cranky Old Woman.
The conversation began with a report from one of those close friends on Caroline's current condition. This sparked a discussion of what's now called "end of life" issues, and how one handles them, spanning "drug  the hell out of me" to "just bring me a gun." Right now Caroline is heavily medicated, receiving palliative care, but is able to talk, but not about her impending death. Among this group of women, there is no talk of "heaven" or any kind of afterlife. The majority of them are Unitarians, and the Episcopalian   joined that church just to sing in the choir. (Caroline is a Unitarian, and the first time that minister came to visit her, Caroline threw her out. Last week, she let her stay.)
Another woman  who overheard our discussion- she was at the next table and someone we all know- and knows Caroline, joined us and talked about the death of her partner of 42 years who died this past June.
At this point, I remembered an incident in another restaurant some 20 or so years ago. I was visiting my sister in Corning. Our mother  had died a few months earlier. My brother- in- law and she took me to dinner in a very nice, rather small restaurant. It was mostly empty with only one couple at a table way across the room. We were talking about our mother's death (she was almost 91 and had been in failing health for over a year, since our father's death and was in a nursing home.) Our oldest brother, a doctor, had come to Ohio from Montana to visit her, and she died just after  his visit. We began to talk about the possibility that perhaps he had helped her in some way. We were not speaking loudly, but the couple across the room had apparently overheard us. At any rate, the man suddenly appeared at our table and requested that we stop talking about this subject, as his wife had recently lost a favorite aunt, and found our conversation upsetting. My sister apologized and I stifled my impulse to ask why they were eavesdropping and why weren't they  talking to each other about something pleasant? Or at least eat something crunchy so they couldn't hear us.
I guess restaurants should have a "No Talking About Death" section.
Today's lunch talk didn't seem to bother anyone. We are all concerned about our friend and only want peace for her, and soon. We have missed her already.
But we had Death at lunch today in her honor.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Expanding Mystery Lily

A few years ago, a strange stalk appeared in my small side  garden. This garden has some beautiful, short lived, purple swamp iris, and some overgrown Stella d' Oro day lilies, which I should really thinned out. Over the years there have been zinnias, black- eyed Susan's and forget-me-nots.


This new intruder grew taller and taller and finally produced one orange-peach star shaped lily. It was beautiful, but was chomped up by a deer after a few dazzling days. The next year, there were three stalks and the original stalk produced a cluster if lily blooms, as did the new stalk.
Every year another stalk emerges and now for a few weeks I have these lovely blooms to brighten this little garden, while the poor Stella d'Oro blossoms in spite of being packed together.
I finally figured out how this mystery plant appeared. Since it's a bulb, it couldn't have sprung from bird droppings, at least not without  a lot of squawking  from the dropee bird. Now I think a deer dropped it while fertilizing my garden. Since that one bloom was chomped, none other has been eaten . I think the original gifter came back that first year to feast on its gift, just to let me know where it came from. Could be. Why not?
Thank you, Bambi.
the picture at the top was taken 2 weeks ago,, and turned into what's in the bottom picture a week later.


Monday, June 30, 2014

Forbidden Paradise


I mentioned the Sewer Creek Woods in my last post, so I thought I'd better write about it. I don't know why it had that name. There was a small creek that ran through it, and it didn't look as bad as I have pictured it. It was clear and their were craw dads living in it. We were not supposed to go to the woods, and were especially warned about stepping into the creek.
Our street, Sells Avenue, ended at Hopkins Street, and Hopkins Street ended at the railroad cutting, which had created wonderful red clay cliffs. You could make your way down a path through the cliffs, cross the tracks and take another path through the opposite cliffs and there you were, with Sewer Creek Woods right in front of you. The woods were mostly scrub pine, bushes and a few real trees. The red clay ground, before you entered the woods, which were set in soft sand, would dry up in the summer, making interesting patterns of cracked pieces of clay. I liked to pry these pieces out of the ground to see what I could make with them, but they just crumbled when they were handled.
In the woods, we just explored the terrain, finding interesting stones, some with crystal embedded in them, bits  of colored glass from who knows where, and mica, which you could peel apart.
My older brother collected chameleons, which he kept in wooden and screen cages. We would catch flies to feed them and got quite good at snagging them live in mid-air.
My older brother and sister had an ongoing, evenly matched feud most of their childhood, both of them smart and clever. He had taken over a large closet in the central hall. Our father had given him an old desk. Billy had wired the closet to install a lamp and had "found" an old telephone which he had tied into  the house phone system. My sister and I were forbidden to enter, naturally, so we kept snooping every chance we got, trying not to leave evidence. But he knew.
One day we found a map, carefully coded. It looked like a treasure map, with arrows. It didn't take Mary Lucille long to break the code. Decoded, it contained directions...to the Sewer  Creek Woods! Once there, the map told us, you needed to locate a certain tree, take a specific number of paces in the direction the arrows pointed to, then turn another way, and take another number of paces there, etc., etc., and you would find The Treasure, which was marked on the map with a big "X." The anticlimactic result is that we flew to the woods, found a lot of trees, paced in all directions and found nothing. Our brother looked smug that evening, but I don't think we ever talked about it. We knew he'd planted the map for us to find, but we'd had a good time anyway.
We have a wonderful few acres of woods across the street It was full of children all year long, finding their own treasures and exploring nature, sneaking smokes, and who knows what else.  Every kid should have a place like that, with or without a "sewer" creek.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Things We Did



 Either the world was a safer place in the 30s or our parents were just plain careless. We had an enormous amount of freedom as children. When we weren't on Sunday drives, we walked everywhere by ourselves, once we were school,age. I remember walking by myself to kindergarten, once my mother had walked me  me there a few times. It was not just a couple of blocks, but it never occurred to me that I wasn't safe. I had to cut through a golf course, where I once helpfully picked up a ball and handed it to the golfer who had just putted it. He thanked me and didn't kill me.
The walk to our elementary school was  quite a few blocks and involved a few busy streets and there were no crossing guards. We were very bright children, and knew enough to look both ways. However, I did once misjudge an approaching street car, dropped my books as I skittered  across
and lost a corner of my 4 th grade geography book as the trolley screeched to a halt. Not sure why I did that because I was on the right side of the street at the time. This happened in front of The Wren's Nest, the home of  Joel Chandler Harris, the journalist who recorded African folk tales and saved them for posterity in the person of Uncle Remus, who is not politically correct today. The house was then and is now a museum. Our little nearby branch of the Carnegie  Library was also called The Wren's Nest in honor of Harris. We also walked to the library, which was near our school.
We were always looking for interesting ways to walk to and from school, since there were a lot of different ways to get there, all of which took about the same amount of time. Our school, St. Anthony's was on a major street, Gordon Street. It had been used by the Yankees as they marched in to burn Atlanta 70 some years earlier. When my parents first married, they lived in a boarding house on Gordon Street, owned by two old ladies. They told my Yankee mother how terrified they had been at the sight of those soldiers, pointing out to her the route they had taken right in front of their home. But  I digress. One of my very favorite routes was an alley behind some of the big houses along Gordon Street. Along these alleys were cabins, which were inhabited by people who worked in the big houses. The alley was unpaved. The dirt yards were fenced and contained chickens and small  vegetable gardens. In the winter there was smoke curling up from pipe chimneys, with  great smells of burning wood, and a faint scent of kerosene.  I loved those aromas  and tried to imagine what these little houses looked like inside. I never saw any people around outside, because they would have been working. I found the whole thing mysterious and can still see it in my mind.
In the summer we swam at Mosley Park. It was free before noon, so that's when we went. We always got typhoid shots from my father's cousin' s  husband, who was a pediatrician and apparently didn't trust Atlanta's public pools. Our route to the pool was as varied as our route to school. My sister and I would start out while it was still cool. We discovered Chicamauga Street, an unsaved lane of very soft, dusty, pale, whitish sand that felt so good on our bare feet. There were weathered, dilapidated houses on either side, with no visible inhabitants.  When I think of two little blond girls walking through this deserted area, I have to think of the possibilities that could have happened. If course, one of the things is that we never told our parents about these excursions, because we never felt there was any danger. We were forbidden to play in the sewer Creek woods (don't ask) so, of course, that's where we went...adventure was our aim.
I think how the world is such a dangerous place for children today - or does it just seem that way, with constant news available with the press of a button, bearing fearful stories of abductions and assaults. Were we just lucky? Or did those prayers to our guardian angels actually work?

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Sunday Drives (cont'd.)


There were other pleasures and sights on those week-end drives into the countryside around Atlanta in the 3os. At that time, before food regulations made  "amateur" food vendors unable to peddle their wares on the roadside, inexpensive treats were available to a car full of  overheated family members.
By far the favorite, to me, was iced sugar cane. Along with cotton, Georgia farmers grew sugar cane and peanuts. The sugar cane stalk was cut into 6 or 7 inch long pieces, and kept in ice chests. When you bought a piece, the vender would peel back the tough outer layer, revealing the sweet white pith to suck on. To me it was as good as ice cream
Farmers would sell raw peanuts, the soft green shells hanging from bushy green stems,. My father was the ultimate peanut lover, and figured he could roast these peanuts as well as Planters, which he bought in  two pond bags. However, as I remember, the home roasting experiment did not turn out to match the flavor of the commercial product. The green shells turned the right color, the peanuts turned brown, but they still tasted "raw."He never tried it again. (When he died many years later at the age of  91, my older brother and sister and I took part of his ashes down to Montgomery, Alabama, to the family plot. My sister first went to a peanut store and bought a small bag, of in the shell peanuts,  which we sprinkled on the plot along with the ashes. As we left, a few Alabama squirrels  were having a little celebratory party.)
Another common roadside treat was watermelon, sold by the slice,kept nice a cold in a big wooden  box full of chipped ice. It was always the perfect treat, given that there was in those days no such thing as automobile air-conditioning, other than opening the windows to the hot Georgia summer air.
In the heat, in a car full of sweaty kids, there was often  behavior that evoked the  perennial Dad threat from the driver: "If you don't stop that fussing, I'm going to stop the car and put you all out! "  It never happened, but we could never be sure he wouldn't do it.
A more sobering sight, not involving food treats, was the sight of chain gangs. Never on Sunday, though, Georgia being full of Baptists who took  the Sabbath very  seriously, as in no dancing, and no playing card games. Apparently the chain gang guards were home and not dancing or playing "Go Fish ,"  as the prisoners were hanging out in their luxurious  wooden  bunkhouses behind the barbed wire fences. When they were working along the road, it generally involved shovels and pick axes and guards keeping their eagle eyes on the prisoners. I don't remember if the prisoners were integrated racially, because that would n't have registered with me. I suspect not, because I do remember some which were all African Americans, then called "Negroes."Who knows what their crimes were? During the Depression one could get thrown into jail for stealing a loaf of bread.  One could be thrown in jail for being Black.
It  was like "Les Miserables" in the 20th century. It was a common sight along  the red clay back roads of Georgia.  And bing Black was a perilous condition, rich or poor. The sight of these men, of whatever race, was saddening, and for once, we in the back seat were quiet.
By the way, the Klan, in all their white sheeted glory, marched in the annual Decoration Day (the South's version oh Memorial Day) parade. Since they hated Catholics, too, having burned a cross on the grounds of Christ the King Cathedral, they were roundly booed  by us as they shuffled by. I remember one woman shouting, "Shame on you!" She was white, thus safe from being taken away to a chain gang.
This was the South in the 30s, with pleasant country drives, and unpleasant realities.