Sunday, November 29, 2009

Christmas 1940

What makes this season between Thanksgiving and Christmas distinctive one year as opposed to all the other years is when the unexpected happens, when plans and traditions have to be scrapped. In the end that Christmas is often special and, yes, memorable. With two broken legs, it is expected that this Christmas will be one of those unpredictable ones. And it brings to my memory another unpredictable Christmas.

In September of 1940 my father hemorrhaged from his lungs.. I was four and my sister was six. The country was still in a depression, and money was tight. Dad was an intense young man who had spent long hours making his way in the corporate world.

The hemorrhage changed everything in an instant. The diagnosis was tuberculosis which had attacked my father in a vulnerable spot, causing the hemorrhage. The doctor felt this was fortunate, inasmuch as it led to the discovery of the disease at a relatively early stage. However, tuberculosis was tuberculosis and at that time there were no cures. This was before there were drugs to treat the disease. The treatment then was food, bed-rest, sun, often relegation to a sanatorium. For many people TB was a death sentence.

Later in the day after the hemorrhage the family gathered its resources. George and Marjorie, Mother's brother and his wife, arrived, and my grandmother, whom we called Minna. Uncle Don and Aunt Jane, not relatives but friends, came. I have no idea who else came, but there was a lot of activity which I recall as being confusing.

There were decisions made in those first few days, and I have no idea how they were made or what went into them, but my parents established a pattern. They were not going to be defeated. They were going to make this altered situation work. The family would remain intact. And, where they could, they would enjoy the process.

First, Dad would get to stay home. He would be confined to his room. His dishes would be boiled. We were not allowed beyond the door to his room – but we could go that far. During the months of his recuperation, he was still very much an involved father.

The doctor came frequently and checked up on us. Ann and I were repeatedly tested (the scratch test). I would hide when Dr. Bartlett came, but he managed to find me in whatever closet I was secreted, and administer the test.

Minna came to stay. I think for a while there were nurses, and other help, but if there were, I don't think they were there long. Minna was Mother's support and confidante. She was convinced Dad would recover. Her optimism was catching. The trays that went up to my father were elegant – little touches, cloth napkins, covers over the plates.

The owner of my father's company offered to keep him on half salary during his recovery. What my parents didn't know at the time is my father would have to pay that half salary back by working at half salary another year when he returned to work. Money during the year of my father's TB was tight, and I'm sure it was a worry. My parents were survivors, and what fear they had that year they did not transmit to us. Cutting back became almost a game.

Mother and Dad played board games and cards, and listened to the radio together. Dad listened to football games, and charted them using a red and blue pencil. Their friends and neighbors gathered around. There were visits and gifts, often in forms of food. Someone brought Dad a “Dutch wife”, a pillow to place under his knees. I hid it. Dad did not need another wife, even a cloth one. Sometimes friends and neighbors took Ann or me for an outing. Uncle Don, who worked with Dad, came every day on his way from work.

Ann and I were part of the recovery plan. We were expected to behave, and I think Ann did. We both had birthdays that fall. I think we both had birthday parties. I don't remember mine, but I do remember Ann's. That was when I found that if you chew a sterling silver spoon, you can actually change its shape. When the crime was discovered, I blamed Nancy Renkinberger, because I knew my mother didn't like her much anyway. It took years before the Statute of Limitations would allow me to confess. Nancy wasn't invited back.

With the approach of Christmas, Dad was given permission to come downstairs for the first time. He had his choice of coming down for dinner or earlier, for the opening of gifts. He chose to be there for the gifts.

Friends who probably would not have given us Christmas presents in ordinary circumstances did that year. Ella Hume, across the street, gave us each hand painted soldiers that she had painted herself. She also gave us hand painted wooden ornaments, some of which I still have and treasure.

The picture I have carried of that Christmas is the family listening to a recording of Peter and the Wolf. I can see my father in his chair, listening with us. He is wearing his Christmas robe. Mother is beside him. Ann and I were acting out the parts. We circled the dining room table, being hunters, carrying the wolf, with the duck inside, to the zoo.

Then Dad went back upstairs, and his dinner, as usual, was served to him on a tray. We knew he would be down again. It would not be long.

Friday, November 20, 2009


In junior high in the late 40’s, there was in me a consistent conflict between who I thought I was and who I thought I should be.  So I went about the business of inventing myself. I dressed like Mary, laughed like Kathleen, tied my thick curly hair in a pony tail like Nancy’s, ignoring the fact that her hair was straight and much better suited to a pony tail.

Sometimes I would hear something, see something, and tell myself, “I can do that, if I only try hard enough.”  I watched Esther Williams swim. She was graceful, with a dazzling smile as she languorously stretched her arms in a backstroke.  If water got in her mouth, she gently blew it out. 

I grew up on Lake Michigan, with waves and undertow, not suited to languorously backstroking and blowing.  Nevertheless I tried.  Too often there was so much water in my mouth that I resembled a whale spouting rather than Esther blowing.  Diving like Esther was out of the question.  There aren’t diving boards on Lake Michigan, and if there were, my instinctive fear of jumping to my death kept me off them.

One day, before junior choir, I heard a friend of my mother’s, Peggy McKee, practicing.  She was on vacation from New York, where she sang professionally.  Her voice was rich, warm, expressive.  Listening to her, I was transported. Could I sing like that?  Could I make people feel the way I felt listening to her? 

Why not?  She had to start somewhere. I practiced.  I belted out Old Man River.  (I knew the words.)  I decided I was a contralto, like Peggy.  My sister, Ann, held her ears, and begged me to shut up.

We had one bathroom, shared by four people.  The bathtub had claw feet (when claw footed bathtubs were not stylish), and no shower.  Hair washing was done in the bathroom sink with countless cups of water poured over my head.  I would gaze in the mirror, arranging my soapy hair in the style of Marie Antoinette, and sing rising scales.  Well, almost scales.  They got a little flat in the upper reaches.  I would imagine myself living in Manhattan, catching a cab for rehearsals, dressing in elaborate costumes, being adored.

“Peggy doesn’t sing at the Met,” my mother told me.  “She sings professionally at big Manhattan churches.”

“She’s good enough to sing at the Met,” I said, starting another trill.

“Very few people are good enough to sing at the Met,” Mother said.  “Kay, it is possible to admire someone, without having to compete with them.  You can love good singing, and still not be able to hold a tune.”

Eventually, with a lot of family pressure, my singing career ended.  Sometime later I took up the cello. 

While at a music camp I heard Mary Ellen playing Malaguania on the piano.  Wow.  I had never heard the piano sound like that.  Could I do that?  If I memorized it? And practiced hours every day?  Could I play just one piece like that?  Well, that’s another story.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


My grandkids wonder what will happen
When we're gone -
Is there Heaven, is there Hell
Will we come back someday as someone else?
I wonder too, but not for long. I say
“If I'm so busy worrying and stewing
Over what it isn't ours to know
What is going on right now that I might miss?”

And God, the longer that I live
The more I see and learn, the less I know
Or care about who God is or not.
I know that when I pray I feel heard.
When I'm afraid I know I'm not alone
That courage comes to me from somewhere else
Sometimes I say what I hadn't thought before.

Today I watched fall fattened, well-furred squirrels
In our back yard.
They sprang and climbed and flew from tree to tree
First one in front and then they'd turn
And go the other way; they danced and spun
Their gray flag tails beckoning each other,
As they flew along from rock to tree to rock.

Do these gray squirrels cogitate on what's ahead for them?
No. They fly, then dive, are here, then over there
And up then down,
They are absolutely now just where they are,
One second more the squirrels are somewhere else.

I look around my world, at squirrels, and folks I love,
And people I don't know, who smile at me,
And I say, Thank you God. I have no need to know
Just who God is, or whats ahead for me.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


As I’m getting more “mature”
 I can admit to certain things
I lied about before – Like this –
I never learned to ride a bike.
In my young life I hid that fact,
Would make excuses not to go
On bicycle excursions.

I have the penmanship, not of a doctor, no,
Far worse – My writing’s not too unlike
A boy in the second grade, or third.
It is absurd when my offspring say
It’s my fault that they’re handicapped
By the hand they got from me.
I tell them, “Well, then, type.”

The worst I guess, I must confess
Is sometimes when I read a book
I read the ending first.

Our three kids are grownups now
With children of their own.
That doesn’t mean we’re less concerned
Than when those three of ours were new!
If truth be told, I must admit
It worries me we cannot read
The unlived pages of their lives.

Nor can we wrap the grandkids up
In bubble wrap so they won’t break
Their bones or hearts along the way.

Life's a book that can't be read
From back to front.

Monday, November 9, 2009

13 Ways of Looking at a Broken Leg


Six strong and strapping EMT's
Carry me down the outside steps
Welcome heroes and I owe them
Cookies, Station One and Station Three
When I am whole again.

Two legs casted, sticking out
When they operated, couldn't they
Have done a pedicure?

I am useless, I can't walk
Can't run out and get something,
Can't lean down, pick up something
I have to ask for help.

I have a wheelchair, it's black
And scarey, too, says Blue the cat.
Five other folks came home with me.
That's scarey, too, says Blue.

Two legs casted, sticking out
I can't make corners in our house.
Parking's never been my strength
I've got a lot to learn.

My chief caregiver's the best
The guy I married can never rest
He picks up this and gets me that
And don't forget to feed the cat
My poor Fred will celebrate
When my two cast legs ain't cast no more!

Two legs casted, sticking out
One is gray and wears a boot
(Although I'm told it can bear no weight
for another two months from now).
The other's red with matching toes
They are getting in my way.

Two legs casted, sticking out
Now and then bump into things
They sometimes seem to me
To be no part of me.

Two legs casted, sticking out
But if you take me knees to head
The rest of me is just the way
It always was, says Fred

Inside my two well casted legs
If one could look inside,
Not flesh and bone, but screws and nails
And screens and plates in there.
My doctor is a carpenter.

Two cast legs upon the bed
And one is gray, the other red
And each one weights 200 pounds
At least.

I should enjoy my two cast legs
They get me out of lots of stuff
How can I entertain Book Club
Or donate blood, or clean the house
With both my legs encased in casts?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Coming Home Broken
or An Update on Cleaning for the Cleaner

The best laid plans go awry. After I got my book printed, the next great project was cleaning my house enough to have a cleaning person do it. Instead, I fell on my front porch and broke the foot on one leg and the ankle bones (that's right, two bones) on the other.

Usually when you know you are going to have lots of visitors, Thanksgiving,Christmas, a party, you have days and days to prepare. When you break your legs all at once the game is over. People are coming to your house, wanting to help in any way they can, and I had no time to pretend to be the organized woman I'm not. Worse than that, we lowered our bed to make it wheelchair height, and that wonderful storage spot for boxes of out of season clothes and also often the storage place for a frightened cat, was gone. Not only that, all those other neat little storage places for souvenirs and junk we don't know what to do with in the bedroom were gone as well. The room had to be made wheelchair accessible, and I wasn't around to make it happen.

The big day arrived Saturday. Elizabeth and her husband, Gregory, and my neighbor, Ro, were here as we proudly drove up. They stood by and cheered as I gracefully skidded across the transfer board from car seat to wheelchair. Graceful could be an exaggeration. It is kind of a skid, a swivel, a lift, and grunt, and a lot of talking to myself, “lean forward, lean forward.” Greg and Fred wheeled me up the drive, across the lawn, down the dirt track beside the house, across the ditch newly dug by Matt, up the two ramps constructed by Fred and my son-in-law, Joe, onto the back deck and into the house.

Judy arrived with dinner, and she and Ro arranged the kitchen, Elizabeth and Gregory settled me inside, the across the street neighbors came to welcome me home, and I had had absolutely no time to clean for all those guests who, in fact, cleaned for me.

So here I am, home, with a lot of help from very many friends. And, guess what, I think I am as ready as I'll ever be for that house cleaner to come in.

I do not recommend this particular method of cleaning for the cleaner.