Sunday, April 19, 2015

House dresses and divorce

This is a socio-anthropological study. My study group is people in the United States of America in the post-World War II era to the present. My thesis is that there is a direct correlation between women wearing house dresses and the divorce rate. My primary sources of information include Wikipedia and my mother.

My mother recently told me that when she got married she was confused about what to wear. I’m not referring to her wedding dress—that was easy—she borrowed it from her friend Gertrude McIntyre Catucci. She didn’t know what she should wear in her new role as a married woman.

My mother was 19 when she married my father in the rectory of St. Francis de Sales Church in Northeast Washington, DC, on June 30, 1945. Their reception was in her parents’ backyard. The idea of being a married woman meant that her wardrobe would have to change dramatically. She thought that having that gold band on her left hand meant she would have to wear house dresses.

I know what house dresses are—they are simple, washable dresses, sometimes with aprons attached, that women wore to do their house chores. (I verified this description by reading a brief entry on Wikipedia. Where else would I go for a serious study like this?) Some women bought these dresses from the Sears or the Spiegel catalogs. Other women made their own dresses. Mama Riley (my cousin’s grandmother with whom I spent a summer in Silsbee, Texas—another story—hot and lots of mosquitos) must have made her own houses dresses. She made my cousin and me skirts out of feed sacks, she milked the cow, and she slaughtered chickens before my very eyes. Women who both wore and sewed their own house dresses were hard-core, not to be messed with, the queen bees of house dresses.

In the early years after the War, women stayed home to care for the children, polish the furniture, and make Jell-O concoctions for dessert. They were called housewives, an archaic term no longer considered politically correct. But in time these women became dissatisfied with their domestic roles and their daughters, the next generation, went bonkers—they started movements for equality for women, they burned their bras, they used contraceptives. I can guarantee you they weren’t wearing house dresses.

When I was growing up in that post-War era, I didn’t know anyone whose parents were divorced. None of the mothers worked outside the home, and in the early days they wore house dresses. Fast forward 50 or more years. No one wears house dresses any more. Even if a woman doesn’t work outside the home she wears jeans or—heaven forbid—yoga pants. And the divorce rate has soared.

I rest my case.

(Photo is my grandmother, Rose Blain, with her cow.)

Monday, April 13, 2015

Back into the raw

There she was, sitting by the back door in the waning afternoon sun, probably watching the chickadees building a nest in the birdhouse in the cherry tree. I caught only a quick glimpse of her, took her for granted, just part of the rhythm of my life. In that brief moment I didn’t even get enough time to savor her existence. It’s early spring now and she died just before Christmas. My mind and my old eyes were playing a nasty trick on me—it was a bag of things from the hardware that I had dropped inside the back door. It wasn’t my sweet cat sitting in the sun on our first beautiful spring day.  

I’m sure it’s not unusual to think we see someone we love after they have died. I was almost certain I saw Mike driving his truck down my street one day. Not long ago I saw a man who looked so much like my former husband that I gasped. There was man in the parking lot outside my mother’s apartment recently who walked like my father and seemed to be wearing my father’s clothes. And occasionally I will feel a presence, a hovering in the house that I can’t explain. Sometimes it’s comforting; sometimes it’s unsettling. 

“Seeing” my cat made me ache for her soft, warm little body. Once again I slipped back into the raw familiar territory of inconsolable grief. I thought it was gone, finished. All those deaths in such a short time have been hard to process. There are a couple of things I am learning about grief. One thing I’m learning is that it takes much, much more time to heal than I ever imagined. Sometimes it’s two steps forward, two steps back. But another thing I’m learning is that the resurgence of deep grief doesn’t last as long now; it isn’t the same paralyzing anguish that it once was. I don’t want to learn any more lessons. I just want it to be over.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Farewell to Forrest

He died a couple of days ago. A big, strong guy taken down by brain cancer—glioblastoma, the same cancer that killed my husband. Cancer sucks.
I am proud to be among what must be a huge number of people who called Keylon Thompson a friend. There is no exaggeration when I say that Keylon was the kindest, most compassionate person I have ever known. He was so full of life and a spirit of adventure that we all felt like slackers in comparison to him.
He would post those crazy photos on Facebook—Keylon at the National Spelling Bee, Keylon at the Special Olympics, Keylon on the top of some mountain somewhere, Keylon biking in a cancer cure fundraiser, Keylon in Times Square, Keylon at a music festival in Mongolia. (I made up the Mongolia thing, but he went to music festivals and concerts with no regard to geographic restrictions, especially if Bela Fleck was involved.) I compared him to Forrest Gump because seemingly he was part of everything fun that was happening everywhere. So I started calling him Forrest.
Then one day in September of 2013, a gunman came into a building at the Washington Navy Yard and killed 12 people. That was where Keylon worked and he was there when the shooting happened, but he was not injured. It was a bad day for Forrest.
The gunman didn’t kill him, but cancer did. For me, I’m crushed to know that I’ll never see him again, never get one of those world-class hugs from the nicest guy in the world. The only thing I can do is carry a little ray of his sunshine, try to remember to do what he would do—live a big life with a big, big kind heart.
I’ll miss you, Forrest.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The view from here

When one has had the opportunity to live a significant number of years, the overview of life becomes different than it was in younger years. This my 68th year on this planet. How can that be? And how will I see things in another 10 or 20 years, if I am still hanging on to this spinning hunk of rock?

From this vantage point, at age 67 years and 8 months, these are some of my observations:

(1) I can now begin to see the fruits of my life’s work and it’s a glorious thing. My children are adults. Out of my body sprung two amazing people. They weren’t the size they are now when they were born. For that alone I am so grateful. They grew up and had children of their own. I sometimes have this image of those nesting Russian wooden dolls with a big doll that contains a smaller doll, and inside the smaller doll, another doll . . . me, my kids, their kids . . . a seemingly simple yet incredibly complex story of the perpetuation of the human race. And I see that I not only created a family, but I also forged life-long friendships. I created things with my own hands, I gained knowledge and skills. So, looking down from the hilltop, I see that some things worked, some things didn’t work, and that some things may endure beyond my lifetime. But I know that my existence mattered; I have left an imprint, however small it may be.

(2) From this vantage point I see the unending horrors of life. The hate and pain inflicted by some people on others never stop. The horrors morph and grow—different people in different places and new, hideous means of inflicting harm—but the human race seems incapable of living in peace. It seems we’ve been praying for peace since the beginning of recorded time and we never get one step closer.

(3) The enduring love of God has become so much clearer to me as I grow older. I see how he has blessed me by sometimes not giving me the things I wanted. Just looking back at prayers not answered gives me a small glimpse of His plan. His plan is so much better than any plan of mine. He has such incredible surprises for me, things I never could have imagined. I really am beginning to see that all things work together for the good of those who love Him. Seeing that love from this vantage point has given me an almost giddy joy. It makes me want to sink deeper and deeper into that peaceful surrender that only comes from a total trust in God. Sometimes being old has its advantages.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Just like Scout

A few nights ago a dear friend called me just to chat and catch up on life. He said he had been watching the film To Kill a Mockingbird and he paused the film to call me. He said that it suddenly struck him how much Scout, the girl who is a major character in the film, reminded him of me, what he imagined I was like when I was a kid. He said she looked somewhat like me, but that it was her personality that seemed so much like me. I do believe this is the nicest compliment I’ve ever gotten from anyone.

The fluky thing about his comment is that when I’m writing fiction I often write in the voice of a 12-year-old girl living in the mid-20th century in a small town on the Chesapeake Bay. And I realized that this girl who occupies my brain is much like Scout Finch. So when I write I do look like her, I act like her, and I write in her voice. I never had put two and two together before.

I posted this piece of quickie little piece of fiction on this blog once before, quite some time ago. This is an example of something I have written in the voice of my alter ego, that 12-year-old girl who could be Scout.

Sammy and Angela were sitting on the front porch of the store when I walked by. They had obviously stopped talking when I got near enough to hear. I walked past them, let the screen door slam, grabbed an RC Cola out of the ice chest, and dumped an orange juice can full of pennies on the counter. Miss Dixon always tolerated me. She just chuckled and counted the pennies.
She said, “Well, you’ve got 24 cents extra. How about I throw in a penny and give you five nickels in trade? You want to play the slots?"
Of course I wanted to play—I’m a preteen slot machine junkie. Ever since the time I hit the big jackpot down at the amusement park, I’ve been expecting to hit it big again. I figure I’m just lucky.
So I walked over to the nickel slot machine by the front door. First nickel, nothing. Second nickel, nothing. Third nickel, I got straight cherries and nickels started pouring out of the machine. 
Miss Dixon said, “Girl, if you just aren’t the luckiest kid I’ve ever seen. You must have been born under a rainbow.”
She handed me a paper bag and I sat on the floor by the door putting all my loot in the bag. I could hear Angela crying on the front porch.
“Sammy,” she said, “I just can’t understand why you won’t believe me. I don’t care who told you and I don’t care what they said. I did not kiss Bo Maltby, I swear. Some of the girls think he’s cute, but not me. Tell me who told you. Tell me!”
Geesh, Angela was such a liar. I saw her kissing Bo Maltby just a couple of days ago, out behind the tobacco barn on the road to the store. I’m like a cat, just walk around with no shoes, not making a sound. I see all kinds of things I’m not supposed to see. Like the time I took the shortcut home and saw Mr. Morris sitting in the sun on his lounge chair wearing only what God gave him. Well, he was wearing sunglasses—I suppose God didn’t give him the sunglasses. He was all smeared in oil and had some big aluminum foil contraption all wrapped around him. And if you want to know the truth, I really did see his wiener. I’ve only seen one before, but that was my brother’s and that hardly counts because he was a baby. Mary Francis told me that her uncle showed her his wiener and it was ugly and hairy. So now I’ve seen one too and I don’t hardly care to ever see another one again.
I did see Angela kissing Bo Maltby, but I didn’t tell a soul, and she was flat-out lying to Sammy out there in front of the store. Sammy just shook his head, got up, put his hands in his pockets and walked away, leaving Angela crying. I grabbed my bag of nickels and sat on the front porch to drink my RC.
Angela sniffled, looked at me, and said, "You heard that, didn't you?"
I just drank my soda. 
She said, “You are evil. Everyone thinks you’re just a goofy, harmless little kid but I know about you. I’ll bet you’re the one who told Sammy about Bo and me, aren’t you? I’m going to get back at you for this, just you wait.”
Her dark eyes glittered at me, but I wasn’t afraid.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Sassy oatmeal cookies

By request, I'm posting this recipe. I put the recipe in my book (unpublished) but didn't realize I hadn't posted them on the blog. Quite interesting . . .

Love, love, love these cookies. No one can figure out what’s in them, where the kick is coming from. These are not old-lady oatmeal cookies!
Sassy Oatmeal Raisin Cookies

 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cumin
a pinch ground cloves
½ teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 cups old-fashioned or quick-cooking rolled oats
1 cup raisins
½ cup chopped walnuts (optional)

Preheat oven to 350°F.

In a bowl sift together flour, spices, baking soda, and salt. In a large bowl beat butter and sugars with a mixer until light and fluffy. Add fresh ginger, egg, and vanilla. Add flour mixture and slowly beat until just combined well. Stir in rolled oats and raisins.

Drop tablespoon-size pieces of dough 2 inches apart on parchment-lined cookie sheet. Bake 10 to 11 minutes, until light brown. Cool cookies on baking sheet for one minute and transfer to racks to cool completely. Makes 4 dozen.


Sunday, March 15, 2015

Abandon hope. Or not.

Today at church our pastor was preaching on hope, a hope that the author of the letter to the Hebrews calls “an anchor for the soul.”

I have read several of the books written by the Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön, including her book When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, which I have read more than once. The book has been helpful to me as I try to develop an attitude of detachment about life’s trials. And when our pastor was preaching today about hope, I recalled what Pema Chödrön had to say about hope. She’s not a fan of hope. Yes, it seems strange, but her reasoning is that we should be living in the present and having hope is a way of not accepting what we have, longing for something more. She writes:

“Hope and fear come from feeling that we lack something; they come from a sense of poverty. We can’t simply relax with ourselves. We hold on to hope, and hope robs us of the present moment. We feel that someone else knows what is going on, but that there is something missing in us, and therefore something lacking in our world.”

Although I think some of aspects of Buddhism are noble and unselfish, I am grateful that I am a Christian and I can have hope, that I have that “anchor for the soul” and a promise for the heart that holds on in faith. In 1 Peter, Scripture describes for us the reason for our hope:

“What a God we have! And how fortunate we are to have him, this Father of our Master Jesus! Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we’ve been given a brand-new life and have everything to live for, including a future in heaven—and the future starts now! God is keeping careful watch over us and the future. The day is coming when you’ll have it all—life healed and whole.” 1 Peter 1:3-5 (The Message)
It is the hope of eternal life with God that keeps us going, through whatever life hurls at us. And even now, our lives are better because we have that hope, that blessed assurance that binds us to Him and gives us purpose. I’d make a terrible Buddhist if it meant I would have to abandon hope. That longing, that promise that I will one day be with God makes it bearable. I love what C.S. Lewis wrote in his book, Till We Have Faces:

“The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing—to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from—my country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back.”

That sounds like hope to me.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Loneliness, solitude, and Thomas Merton

When I am deep in prayer, feeling connected to God, not doubting His existence, basking in the glow of the Holy Spirit, often I cry. But those prayerful tears are not an everyday experience. They only come out of a profound sense of connection.

Lately I have had discussions with friends about the complexities of living with someone, presumably a spouse. And the question always comes up about whether I would ever get married again. In the early days after my divorce I would have answered differently—yes, I feel that I am hard wired to be in relationship and I want to get married again. But years went by and it didn’t happen. By default I have lived alone now for many years. It wasn’t my choice but it has become familiar.

And for so long, that aloneness seemed a curse, an emptiness. I cried out to God, asking him whether He really intended me to be so lonely. There came no earth-shattering response, no voice from heaven telling me to wait because He had great things in store for me. Just day after day, year after year, and I was still alone, still achingly lonely. But with time there came an answer. The loneliness became solitude. It changed from sorrow to joy. When life is hectic, now I return to solitude with a joyful yearning for peace and quiet. I come back to the simplicity of quiet time with God, with my projects, my music, my books. So God answered my prayers, He heard my cries in the dark loneliness, not by changing my situation, but by allowing me to appreciate the solitude.

Thomas Merton’s name has been popping up frequently lately. It is an intriguing intrusion. For example, I am reading a book by the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who refers to his association with Merton. And today, I found a prayer, attributed to Thomas Merton, that I had folded and slipped into my Bible. This prayer has a strong resonance with how I am feeling, what I am thinking. I don’t think any of this is a coincidence. It is God’s way of getting my attention.

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I have that desire in all I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore, I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. – Thomas Merton

Saturday, February 28, 2015


This morning, as I was ironing pillowcases, it suddenly occurred to me that for all of my adult life I have been missing the one home appliance that symbolizes true womanhood—a mangle. A mangle is a large ironing appliance that has a heated roller contraption. It is especially useful for ironing large flat items like tablecloths and sheets and it occupied a considerable amount of space in our basement laundry room.

When I was growing up my mother operated the mangle like an artist. It was a thing of beauty to watch her. She ironed sheets and handkerchiefs, of course, but she also was able to iron my father’s cotton boxer shorts—surely a lost art. She taught me how to use the machine. I sat before it, pushing the various levers with my legs and feeding in the fabric with my hands and smelled that glorious aroma of a hot iron on freshly laundered linens.

So today, as I iron my pillowcases with a simple iron and ironing board, I feel a bit of nostalgia. I miss our phone with the party line. I miss the old powdered Spic n Span that would take the paint off your car. I miss Teen Twists at the Mighty Mo. And I miss my mother’s mangle.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The nonsense of tidying up: A book review

The thrill is gone. The New York Times Best Seller List no longer impresses me. How low can American readers sink? Apparently quite low is the answer. This is my review of a book that has sold millions of copies and is highly ranked on Amazon—where currently it is ranked the #1 best seller in the Motivational/Self-Help category. I have read about half of the book and re-read sections just to make sure I wasn’t missing something. It is perhaps the most inane book I have ever read. Just to prove my point and to keep you from wasting money on this nonsense, here are tidbits of the author’s “revolutionary” and “life-changing” discoveries.

From The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, by Marie Kondo

Permit me to illustrate the author’s strange inclinations, even in her childhood:

  • “I started reading home and lifestyle magazines when I was five . . .”
  • “At school, while other kids were playing dodgeball or skipping, I’d slip away to rearrange the bookshelves in our classroom, or check the contents of the mop cupboard, all the while muttering about the poor storage methods.”
  • “The subject of tidying first caught my attention when I was in junior high school. . .” after reading a book entitled The Art of Discarding.
The author describes the stress and frustration in her youth as she tried to get rid of as much as possible. She even extended her decluttering efforts to her siblings’ rooms and the communal storage lockers at school—without asking the others if she could discard their things. She writes: “Far from apologizing for discarding their things without permission, I would retort, ‘I threw it out for you because you weren’t capable of doing it yourself.’” I only can imagine what would have happened in my home if I had thrown out my brothers’ possessions.

She had trouble deciding what to keep and what to discard. She became so stressed with her failed efforts that she heard a voice telling her, “Look more closely at what is there.” Then she fell asleep on her cluttered floor. That was the moment of her great epiphany. “Through this experience, I came to the conclusion that the best way to  choose what to keep and what to throw away is to take each item in one’s hand and ask: ‘Does this spark joy?’ If it does, keep it. If not, dispose of it.”

At that point, with this moment of clarity when she understood that possessions must “spark joy,” her decluttering system evolved and became her theory, the practice that resulted in a successful business and spawned this best-selling book. Some of the techniques that she insists her clients use (with the air of a demented prison matron) include:

  • When sorting through clothing, you should throw every item of clothing on the floor in one big pile.
  • If you decide an item does not bring you joy, you should gently touch each item and thank it for a job well done before discarding it.
  • She is not in favor of hanging most clothing. She recommends folding. “When we take our clothes in our hands and fold them neatly, we are, I believe, transmitting energy, which has a positive effect on our clothes. Folding properly pulls the cloth taut and erases wrinkles, and makes the materials stronger and more vibrant. Clothes that have been neatly folded have a resilience and sheen that can be discerned immediately, clearly distinguishing them from those that have been haphazardly stuffed in a drawer. The act of folding is far more than making clothes compact for storage. It is an act of caring, an expression of love and appreciation for the way these clothes support your lifestyle. Therefore, when we fold, we should put our heart into it, thanking our clothes for protecting our bodies.”
And then she tells us, those of us who are among the uncouth, disgusting sock rollers, about the client who left her “speechless.” That client rolled her socks into balls, not allowing them a chance to rest. “The time they spend in your drawer is their only chance to rest. But if they are folded over, balled up, or tied, they are always in a state of tension, their fabric stretched and their elastic pulled. They roll about and bump into each other every time the drawer is opened and closed. Any socks and stockings unfortunate enough to get pushed to the back of the drawer are often forgotten for so long that their elastic is stretched beyond recovery. When the owner finally discovers them and puts them on, it will be too late and they will be relegated to the garbage. What treatment could be worse than this?”

What treatment could be worse than this? I feel like I’m being accused of tying puppies to a tree and leaving them in a blizzard with no shelter. Rolling socks and letting them bump into others in the sock drawer is the equivalent of genocide. I don’t feel guilty about the socks. I don’t regret not cleaning out other people’s lockers in junior high school. And I really don’t feel the need to caress my clothing and express my appreciation to that dingy old t-shirt before I throw it in pile for the thrift store.

So in my indignant little snit I close the book at page 92. Throwing the book in the trash might spark joy. My only regret is that I paid good money for this nonsense and I added one more sale to keep this ridiculous book on the New York Times Best Seller List.