Sunday, August 9, 2015

Reading, Writing and What!

I never knew about the left side or the right side of the brain when growing up and despising arithmetic. I just knew I could not stand columns of numbers with plus or minus signs or some marked with an X or others with another sign. I never had enough fingers to use when counting. There was no wiggle room when getting the right answer. It had to be exact. Two and two always equaled four. This thing called exactness was why I preferred English-preferably writing. There's lots more freedom. You aren't tied to a formula. Your answers-your essays-whatever it is you write-is all yours. No one else will have the exact same story or essay as yours. I liked that. Life is not exact. Why should what you do be exact?

My distain for arithmetic-for adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing-took a nasty turn once I had to take Algebra. My disdain for exactness had met its match. I was horrified by formulas and rules that made no sense and questions I did not understand. My mother asked my uncle-a high school Biology teacher-to help me but he couldn't. Oh he tried but most times I'd run in my room crying and screaming to the world how I hated everything-in particular, "Dumb Algebra."
I failed Algebra the first time I took it. I failed it again the next year-and that landed me in summer school. I was miserable. I was stuck in school just because of that exactness. I'd made up my mind I was only going to fail again-until the patience of a little old man who was the instructor turned my life around.

At first I thought he was useless. He'd stand there-so short he could hardly write on the chalkboard. His voice was low pitched so I couldn't hear him but I didn't care-until the day he returned our first tests individually to each of us. When he put mine down on my desk he asked me in his low pitched voice to stay after everyone left. I thought this was it. Numbers and formulas were finally going to do me in. Boy was I surprised. In the silence of that room when it was just the two of us, the little old instructor told me I reminded him of himself when he was my age. He told me he'd built up a wall around himself-convinced he'd never be able to do math because math demanded the right answer.

"There was no wiggle room," he told me.

That got my attention as he told me Algebra was easy. All I had to do was learn the basic formulas and he was willing to spend time with me while I got them. And he did! And I passed! I even went on to take Geometry and I passed it a well but that was the end of my math career. I will forever be thankful to that instructor who bothered to spend time with me and teach me the basics. He certainly was a fine example of what teaching is all about.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Ironing in the Summertime-Turning Wrinkles into Magic

When I was twelve, my mother gave birth to my younger brother in the month of May. Shortly after that she was stricken with a blood clot in her leg and hospitalized for a good part of that summer. Thankfully we were surrounded by family. I pitched in the best I could. Once school got out, that summer was all about pitching in. That's when I started to do the ironing.

I'd watched my mother iron. It was more of an art form to her and to her mother and sisters. Whatever it was that my mother was ironing, she'd spread it out on her ironing board as if getting a game plan together in her head as to how to approach the item. Then she'd pat it down-wet her finger and then touch that finger to the iron. If it made a sizzling noise it meant the iron was hot enough for her to proceed. Back then, the ironing board was either up all the time or close at hand because everything was ironed. Bed sheets-pillowcases-towels-everything or anything was ironed. I'd learned the basics just by watching. Now it was my turn-and that included my father's shirts he'd wear to work at his funeral home. But that didn't bother me. I knew what to do.

In the afternoons I'd set the ironing board up in the living room. With both the iron and the TV on, I would stand there for a very long time and iron. Beforehand in the morning-after doing the dishes and then the washing and the drying of the laundry, I would take my father's good shirts and do as my mother always did. While holding a shirt in one hand, I would sprinkle water on the shirt and as I did I would tuck the sleeves in and eventually as I watered it, the shirt would end up being rolled into a tight ball. After the towels had been ironed and folded-after the sheets had been spread out and ironed and then folded and folded again and ironed-as well as the pillowcases and everything else in the laundry basket, it would be time to do the shirts. This became the fun part to me. Every shirt was a challenge. They had to look the best they could. My father was counting on me.

One by one-I'd unroll them. If I thought a shirt was too dry I'd sprinkle it again with water. Then I'd begin-starting with the sleeves-then the fronts. Then I'd spread the back out on the board. Moving it along, the back of the shirt would be ironed. Then, spreading just the collar out, I would carefully iron the collar-trying to avoid any creases. After the collar-came the best part of all-ironing the shoulders-bringing it all together with a neatly ironed shoulder crease. After I'd finished the process, I'd hang the shirt up to dry-and start in on another.

Ironing was never a chore to me. I felt like a conductor of an orchestra-lining the items up and turning wrinkles into magic. A part of my reward was the smell of the iron working those wrinkles out. To this day I love that smell. It takes me back to those summer afternoons ironing in the living room with the TV on.
(The picture above shows my mother just out of the hospital and me rocking my baby brother to sleep in his carriage. I was probably in a hurry. I still had the ironing to do!)

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Amish Man Out In The Field

I was late-in a hurry to pick my son up at the Steps-2-Grow Greenhouse/Garden. As I was going around a curve in the road, coming towards me was an Amish man working a field with his team of horses. As he was about to take the curve on his 'road' which would have led him away from me, we shared a wave and a smile-something most of us do as we pass by our Amish neighbors.

Then I went looking for my camera. Grabbing hold of it, I pulled my car off the road and got out. Running through some weeds and gravel I waved to him again-this time pointing to my camera. Bringing the horses to a stop, he got up from his seat and smiled the biggest smile.
"Can I take a picture?" I asked.
"No. I do not want my picture taken," he replied walking towards me.
"Can I take a picture of your horses?"
"Where are you from?"
 I told him. Then I asked, "Where's your farm?"
He pointed. "The one with all the children!"
We both laughed-two strangers in so many ways laughing like old friends.
"How many children?"
"Ten. Do you have children?"
I told him yes and that I was on my way to pick up my son.
I explained about him being at the garden and greenhouse-and why. For some reason I felt comfortable telling the Amish man all about my son who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia as the bees buzzed over our heads and the horses used their tails as fly swatters.
"I've passed by the garden. It looks peaceful. That is good for him. It is a good place for him to be."
I was speechless.
"You can take a picture-of the horses."
So I did.
When we said goodbye a part of me wanted to stay and talk some more. That Amish man out in the field on a hot summer day got it. He understood about the garden and greenhouse and those involved in that program. I could tell just by looking in his eyes. I must say it was rather refreshing.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

The Spunky American Woman is Nothing New

Back in 1976 Ladies' Home Journal ran a search seeking eight women who represented the Spirit of America. Readers were asked to nominate their choice through a short essay about their selection. I nominated my grandmother-affectionately nicknamed Giddy by my brother when he was little. From that point on-everyone called her Giddy.
When Ladies' Home Journal called to tell me Giddy had been chosen as one of those eight women I then had to tell my grandmother I'd entered her as my nominee. To say she was surprised does not describe her reaction-that same reaction was repeated when a Ladies' Home Journal editor-her assistant and photographer came to Ogdensburg to interview my grandmother and do a photo shoot.
In July of that year-in their Bicentennial Issue- "The Real Beauties of America" appeared. It was not my essay that landed my grandmother in that special section. Rather it was my grandmother herself who'd made it happen by her example of Grit-Strength and Love of Family.
In the introduction to that section, the editor wrote, "When we visited our nominees-all but 84-year old "Giddy" Burns felt that they'd been influenced directly or indirectly by the women's movement. As for Giddy, who raised six children and ran the tractor on the family farm, she reminds us that the spunky American woman is nothing new!"

And that certainly was the truth when it came to Giddy! 

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Echo of Piano Keys

There was a piano in the front parlor of my grandparents' farmhouse. All of us little ones would take turns sitting on the bench pretending to play except for one cousin who really could play. Sometimes I would sit with her. She'd nod her head when it was time for me to turn the page of her songbook. When she put her fingers on the keys and started to play Rhapsody in Blue I'd be mesmerized straight through to the last note. Over the years, I never did learn how to play the piano but I've always loved listening to someone play. I thought I'd heard it all until coming down a narrow flight of stairs to the main area of a local psychiatric center. I was in a hurry. The monthly meeting had run longer than I'd expected.
I was aware of the piano's existence. I'd heard someone playing it awhile back when I was standing-waiting for the elevator to take me to the 2nd floor. But this day was different. There was no hustle or bustle. No one was sitting or sleeping on the benches. There were no clusters of people or attendants walking around. The double set of locked doors were quiet as were those in charge behind protected windows. .As I came flying down those narrow stairs I heard a few sporadic notes. Then, as I opened a door leading into that area, a few more notes struck on those ivory keys lead to even more beautiful notes and soon I was stopped cold. Turning around, I looked towards the piano and saw a young man with his back to me sitting on the piano bench. A bit hunched over-with his head down-his hair in place, his fingers were moving those keys as if they were free-weightless-dancing in a meadow on a warm summer day-feeling the wind-chasing butterflies and laughing without a care in the sunshine. But the young man was not free. Yet that didn't stop him. As I stood there I realized I was listening to a master of his craft. Every key struck-every chord played echoed through that facility with its drab walls and sterile presence-creating a sense of a great stage on which sat a most grand piano player.
When the young man finished he stood and walked away. I started clapping as tears filled my eyes. I'd never heard Rhapsody in Blue played so beautifully.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Funeral Director with a Sense of Humor

All of us have our ways of dealing with life when life doesn't go the way we want it to or when the unexpected comes at us like a hurricane. My father chose humor as his way of dealing. I'm not even sure he knew he did that but looking back, I'm certain that's why he'd do his "Tricky Dick" imitation-and joke with my mother who hardly ever thought he was funny-but we did! My father was a dedicated funeral director. His profession was his passion. The families he served became his families. The care and concern he expressed was genuine. When the phone rang and he was needed, my father was there in an instant. He also loved his hometown. He knew every street-every family and where they lived and who married who and when someone had died right down to the date and where they were buried. It wasn't gossip when he'd go on about a family. It was because he looked upon those families as an extended family of his own.
By virtue of being a funeral director or a member of that funeral director's immediate family, one is aware of that thin line between life and death. You learn the truth in-"You never know"-"Live each day to the fullest"-"Go for it" and so on. I've written before about the call my father received on one particular Easter morning-a call of a family in great need-in unspeakable sadness-as their little girl choked on a jelly bean and died. My father received so many-so many tragic calls as funeral directors do. And my father stayed by those families long after the calling hours were over and the headlines faded.
Perhaps one of the hardest things my father had to do when called upon in his role as funeral director was to tend to patients who passed away at a nearby psychiatric center. His compassion would be on overload for normally there'd be no family involved. He'd be quiet for awhile after their burial-their place in the cemetery marked not by name but by their patient number. That to me is dedication-compassion for human beings most turn their backs on.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Growing Up With June's Creators



Richard Scarry

It can’t be in the water for they were all born in different places. It can’t be one particular year in which they were all born because the year differed. I’m certain it has nothing to do with the fact that June is the month with the longest day of the year or that no other month begins on the same day of the week as June. The common denominator simply is the fact that all these famed creators were all born in the month of June.

 Richard Scarry-(pictured above)-author and illustrator of over three hundred books with over one hundred million books sold worldwide, was born in Boston June, 1919. He lived a large part of his adult life in Switzerland which shows in his amazingly creative artwork. His animals and imaginative houses and modes of travel continue to delight children-and the young at heart. Busytown and the Best Ever series were favorites in our house and remain on my book shelf. My kids and I loved searching for Lowly worm.

 Bob Keeshan was born in Lynbrook, NY  in June of 1927. He started out playing Clarabell the Clown on the original Howdy Doody show. Clarabell spoke by honking his horn. To our good fortune, Bob Keeshan had the idea for what became a classic television show for children-Captain Kangaroo. For three decades beloved characters such as Dancing Bear, Bunny Rabbit, Grandfather Clock, Mister Moose and Mister Green Jeans joined Captain Kangaroo in fresh, creative programming that remains beloved by generations. Later on in life, Keeshan became an advocate against violence in video games and joined parent groups in protest of TV shows geared to children based on toys in the market place at that time such as He-Man and Transformers. He felt toys turned into TV shows didn’t teach children about the real world.

 Maurice Sendak, children’s writer and illustrator, was born in Brooklyn in June, 1928. Sendak described his childhood as a “terrible situation” because his extended family died in the Holocaust. His love of books developed when he was young and confined to bed due to health problems. At the age of twelve he decided to become an illustrator after watching Disney’s Fantasia and Mickey Mouse. That decision continues to influence children everywhere. Sendak is best known for writing and illustrating Where the Wild Things Are first published in 1963. To date it has sold over nineteen million copies worldwide and has been adapted as an opera, animated short, and live action feature film. Upon his death, Maurice Sendak was called the “most important children’s book artist of the 20th century” by The New York Times.

 Eric Carle whose brilliant illustrations of beloved children’s picture books was born in Syracuse, NY in June, 1929. During his career he illustrated more than seventy books and most of those he also wrote with more than one hundred ten million books sold around the world. Carle’s, “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” remains a beloved children's book everywhere.

 Whatever it is about the month of June we continue to reap the rewards no matter how old we get. Thinking back to when we were first inspired by a hungry caterpillar or a very busy town or a funny worm with a hat or really wild things or a dancing bear or cute bunny rabbit or a captain who visited our homes on a device called a TV, fond memories are tapped as that place in our hearts called childhood-where we never grew up-is once again visited and it doesn’t even have to be June to go back there.