Friday, January 27, 2017

The Old Neighborhood Corner Stores

When I was growing up it seemed as if every block around where I lived had a corner store. None of them were alike. There were no neighborhood corner store chains back then so each had its own personality. More often than not the actual store was located in the front part or the side part of the owner's home. When you walked into the store you might have been able to smell dinner cooking beyond the closed door leading into the home. You might have found a bell on the counter next to a manual cash register and underneath the bell there might have been a sign telling you "Ring if you need service." Most always the person waiting on you was the owner himself. That was his full-time job and if he had to be out of the store for some reason, his wife or an older child would be the one waiting on you. Neighborhood corner stores were family businesses. You were called by your first name. You were asked about your family. And if you didn't have enough to cover what you were purchasing, it wasn't a problem. "Just pay me next time," you were told.

None of the old corner stores that were in my neighborhood exist anymore. Some are now homes. Some are gone completely. All that remains are vacant lots. Some were bought out-demolished and replaced by the modern day version of a neighborhood corner store. In other words, a chain where all the stores look alike inside and out. They have to. That's part of the plan.You'll never meet the owner. He/she is at corporate headquarters. You might get to know some of the clerks or the manager but they come and go so you can't count on them remembering your kids' names or remember where your grandparents lived or remember where your parents worked.There are no creaky, old floors or candy cigarettes or cats sleeping on scatter rugs or curtains in plate-glass windows with plants in pots perched on window sills or an old chair sitting out front where you might find the owner taking a little break between customers. Instead the modern day versions offer you lottery tickets, pizzas, subs, a zillion brands of beer and chips, novelties that cost much more than 25 cents as well as gas, propane, bagged ice, flavored coffees in fancy Styrofoam cups and a feeling that you are just another customer.

When I think about it, I can remember every one of those old corner stores in my neighborhood. I loved them all. I miss them all. I miss the feeling they gave me. It was like going back home.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Christmas Reindeer & The Christmas Fox

For the longest time now my granddaughter has called me Gra-Gra Reindeer. I think it started with her being aware of my book, 'The Reindeer Keeper'. She asked me for a copy. She'd go around her house pretending to read it. She'd even bring it to the table when it was time to eat. A few years ago we went to McDonald's for a 'Christmas Breakfast.' Besides the food, I brought along some little surprises. Her favorite surprise turned out to be a decorated box from the dollar store. I don't remember what I put in it. It turned out that wasn't the attraction. What caught her eye was the sweet Christmas artwork all around the box featuring a Christmas reindeer with a Christmas fox. At that time her nickname was Melanie Kitten but as soon as she saw the fox with that reindeer, she became Melanie Fox and has remained so ever since. Her mommy even had to create a fox costume for her last Halloween. And the theme continued once again this year on Christmas Eve.
  • At her school they hold a sale of sorts before Christmas. People donate stuff for the students to buy as gifts-not for themselves but for others in their family. The merchandise is priced to sell. Last year Melanie Fox bought me several stunning bracelets held together with string and two porcelain reindeer which I keep out all year long. This year Melanie Fox bought me a bright red key chain with the words Mary Kay in sparkling silver, two beautiful pieces of jewelry-and three adorable, decorated reindeer with a sleigh. I will keep the three adorable, decorated reindeer with a sleigh next to the two porcelain reindeer. Some gifts are priceless, especially when you look into the eyes of the little one watching you open her gifts she chose just for you.
    Melanie Fox liked her fox headband and fox pajamas and fox outfits and fox books. But as her daddy was tracking Santa on his cell phone and told her Santa was over Paraguay, she panicked:
  • "Do we live in Paraguay?" she asked.
  • They quickly packed up and headed home in hopes to beat Santa Claus making his yearly stop at the home of Melanie Fox!

  • Sunday, December 11, 2016

    Tinkling of the Angel Chimes

    I can't remember where my mother bought what turned out to be one of my favorite Christmas decorations when growing up. As a child you don't wonder about that. You only look for it every year when the biggest fresh cut tree ever is brought into the house and the decorating begins.

    Our Christmas trees always reached about to the ceiling and took up more space than needed in the living room. My mother was the official decorator. She was quite particular as to what went where-except for the angel candle chimes. At some point in my young life I'd made it apparent that I wanted to be in charge of taking the parts to the chimes out of the same old box as the year before and the year before that. So from that point on, my mother would hand me that box without saying a word. She'd relinquished her role of official decorator to me-at least when it came to the angel chimes. I'm thinking now it might have been because that responsibility was one I took rather seriously and because it kept me busy and quiet. I would sit at the dining room table and carefully take out every piece of that decoration one at a time. Then I would spread the pieces out and take a minute to look at them-back again to welcome Santa Claus and relatives coming for the traditional Christmas Eve dinner that included oyster broth served with a silver ladle.

    I'd slowly begin the process of putting the angel chime decoration together for another Christmas season. I went at a snail's pace because I loved playing a role in our Christmas celebration. I loved every piece of that decoration. When it came time to put the delicate little angels in place I'd feel my heart beat a little faster. And when I'd slowly put that certain angel on the top I felt a happiness like no other. When all the pieces were in place I'd go the highboy, pull open a drawer and take out a cardboard box holding the small white candles. Those candles were just for the angel decoration. They were always in that drawer waiting for me.

    The angel candle chime was the centerpiece for our Christmas Eve dinner. My father would light the candles. My older brother and I sat in wait as the candles created enough heat to make the angels go fast enough around so they'd gently hit the chimes and magically create the most wondrous sound ever. It was the sound of Christmas. It was Hope and Wonder and Magic all wrapped up in a little decoration of twirling angels tinkling the Spirit of Christmas-of true Peace on Earth, Good Will toward Man and an unflinching Belief in Santa Claus.

    Monday, November 7, 2016

    The Year My Father Ran For President

    I remember how nervous I was the night before that election so many years ago. I knew with all my heart my father was the better candidate. Now it was up to the voters. While the campaign had been a long, hard battle with late hours and strategy sessions, there's one particular day on the road I will never forget. It was supposed to have started at 9 a.m. but because of having so much to do-needing to gather so much to take along, we didn't get going until after 11:00. You see, the problem wasn't politically related. It had all to do with diapers, bottles, snacks, wet washcloths, gas in the car, and those homemade political signs which meant we needed stakes and nails and lots of patience. There was just so much we needed to take along for the ride that my then sister-in-law and I were late getting out of the driveway and on the road with a car full of babies and toddlers. But we finally headed out, full of hope and change and burbs and dirty diapers.

    We did have a plan. We'd stop wherever we felt one of our signs should go. But one particular location was a must-the lawn of my father's opponent which was about 45 minutes away. We knew the address and once we found it, that sign was up and we were gone! And we kept going while bottles with plastic liners were filled with Tang, cheerios were passed around and diapers were changed as the car kept going and laughter mingled with giggles and cries and toys taken from one child by another. While exhausted when we made it back home, we couldn't stop. Babies had to be fed and put to bed before the returns came in.

    By the end of that night, results didn't go my father's way. He lost his run-not for the White House-but for Corner of our county. While it wasn't for President, it might as well have been. I was so excited that he took the step-that he put himself out there-that he gave it his all. So to me, he didn't lose. No one ever loses when they try their best and that's just what he did!

    It took a few days to clean the car out. Cheerios were everywhere!

    (The attached photo features my parents. Please note my father is doing his "Tricky Dick" imitation.)

    Sunday, October 23, 2016

    A Rusted Old Can Full of Water

    My cousin and I had organized what we thought would be an amazing circus combination spook house in our grandfather’s old barn. He’d shut the farm down so we were able to occupy every nook and cranny of that wooden structure. The main event was aimed at a particular uncle we'd singled out. He and his wife and daughter didn't live nearby like we did. Rather, they were some forty-five minutes away, far enough for us to consider them distant relatives. Our cousin was younger than we were. She was an only child. She'd sometimes wear a dress and her hair was always in place as were her polished shoes and fancy socks. Her father most always wore a suit and most always a tie. He’d smoke a cigar after dinner and then fall asleep until it was time for them to leave. We considered him to be an odd duck with that suit and tie. That's why he stood out and that's why we planned on dropping a long piece of twine down from the hayloft above the doorway he and the others would be walking through on their way into the main part of the barn on the day of our colossal event. On the twine we would attach a note saying, "Pull this!" Of course we would have to wait for him to be the one walking through before lowering the twine. When he pulled it, a rusty old can full of water would drop down, soaking him from head to toe.

    Finally the day of our long anticipated circus/spook house event arrived. We waited as adults took their time walking by empty chicken roosts, reminiscing of days gone by when chickens ruled the coop. I was up in the hayloft. I’d be the one dropping the twine. My heart was beating a little faster hiding behind leftover bales of hay so no one could see me. Finally I heard him laughing. He was approaching the doorway! I could smell the cigar rising up to the rafters. It about gagged me. That’s all I needed. I moved as close to the edge of that hayloft as possible without giving my presence away. My palms were sweaty as I moved the twine to the edge of the hayloft and slowly lowered it down. I couldn't wait to see him drenched. But nothing happened. I knew it had to be in front of him because we’d measured the distance. He couldn’t miss it. I wiggled the twine trying to get his attention. But it didn't work. Finally after wiggling it a little more, the twine tightened. He was pulling it but still nothing happened. The can didn't budge. It was stuck. It couldn't get over the edge of a board in front of the hayloft. If I moved I’d give myself away. We didn’t have a back-up plan and he didn’t wait around to see what was at the other end of that twine jiggling in mid-air. Could he have caught on to the fact that the sign was meant just for him? Whatever the reason, our devious deed failed. The show went on to be a great success despite our disappointment.
    Turned out a few weeks later that uncle and his family were back for another dinner. As they were getting ready to leave my aunt asked if I’d like to go with them for a sleepover. She’d checked with my mother. She told me my uncle could bring me home the next day. I did like going to their house. It was a break from my older brother. Even better than that I was certain my cousin had every Little Golden Book ever printed. Soon I was off to stay with my distant relatives.
    During the night I woke up. I was scared. The wind was hollowing. I could hear the rain hitting the windowpanes. I wanted to go home. Those forty-five miles felt like a zillion. I started to cry. I tried not to. I didn’t want my little cousin to hear big brave me, who was going to drench her father with an old can full of water, crying but I couldn’t help it. Once I started I couldn’t stop-not even when I heard the door open-not even when I could see my uncle who wore suits all the time standing there, whispering, “Are you okay?”
    The tenderness in his voice made me cry even more. In an instant he was by my side comforting me.

    “Do you want to go home?” he asked.
    “Yes,” I whimpered, explaining I was afraid my brother was going to make fun of me.

    “Don’t worry. I almost had to take him back home not too long ago.”

    I never realized my brother got homesick. Knowing that made me feel a little better. Without hesitating, my uncle wrapped me in a blanket. He grabbed a pillow and collected my belongings. Covering me up in his raincoat, he carried me to his car after making a bed in the backseat. As he drove me home, I kept watch of his silhouette when passing headlights lit up the dark. I couldn’t see any wings but I knew my uncle was my guardian angel. He wasn’t wearing a suit. He didn’t smell like a cigar.

    Saturday, October 15, 2016

    Inside My Mother's Cedar Chest

    At an early age I was aware the big box thing sitting in my parents' bedroom was called a cedar chest. I even knew it was made out of mahogany. I didn't understand what any of that meant. But I did understand how much it meant to my mother because she told me it was where she kept her favorite things. When you tell a kid that, curiosity sets in. I know it did with me.

    Every year, somewhere between spring and summer, my mother spent a Sunday afternoon gathering her good sweaters. There were quite a few of them. My mother loved sweaters. She'd wash the sweaters one at a time in Woolite-then spread each one out on the kitchen table on top of a towel. Once she had a sweater just as she wanted it, she'd roll it up in the towel and go to the next. After she'd rolled the last one, she'd set the towels with the sweaters on the dining room table to dry. Then a few days later she'd unroll the sweaters. If need be they were put outside on clothes bars to dry some more. The end of the sweater process was the folding of the sweaters and meticulously placing them-one at a time-inside the cedar chest. And there they stayed until the season demanded their return. Whenever that was it never failed-they all smelled like moth balls.

    Sometimes I'd spend time with that mahogany cedar chest. I'm sure my mother knew since the moth ball smell probably gave me away but she never said a thing. Maybe she liked knowing I was curious to see what she considered her favorite things. Truth be known I was never disappointed since she was always putting things in it.While there was a key in the lock, it was never locked. Maybe that was because the top was heavy. It took both my hands to pull it open. Once I'd secured it in place, I took my time examining the three small compartments greeting me. They were like little drawers without the drawer. One time I found my father's good cufflinks. I think they'd belonged to his father. Usually there'd be fancy hat feathers wrapped in tissue paper. Back then, women made their own hats and wore them when shopping. I'd also find linen handkerchiefs and fur collars to attach to good sweaters and fancy plush boxes holding strings of pearls. One particular compartment held a small photo album. She never changed the photos. They were of her wedding to my father in the dining room of my grandparents' farmhouse.

    The rest of the cedar chest was full of good blankets and quilts and embroidered tablecloths starched and ready for the holidays. My most favorite of my mother's favorite things were the Christmas stockings. I never disturbed them. I wanted to make sure they were there when needed.

    I have no clue what ever happened to my mother's cedar chest. I am thankful I was curious. I'll never forget her favorite things.

    Sunday, September 18, 2016

    Still Twisting the Night Away

    There was a place located in the downtown of my hometown where most all the popular teens-and those who liked to be seen with them and those who thought they themselves were popular-went after school. There was a jukebox and a soda fountain and plenty of room to dance. I only saw the inside of that place one time because of my older brother. He told me I couldn't stay. He told me to go home. I've since figured out that was because of the girls. He didn't want them to see me anywhere near him. That didn't bother me since I had my own thing going on after school right in our living room on the TV set with the b/w screen. And even though I'd usually be taking care of my little brother, I'd still be able to watch Dick Clark's American Bandstand. I'd get something to eat, turn the tube on and get lost in the music, the cute boys dressed in suits and ties with greased-back hair and the pretty girls-some with pony tails and some with hair that flipped up on the end. Little did I realize that most of the unknown singers and groups introduced by Dick Clark on that show would go on to become Music Legends-some still singing today.

    I loved  the dance contests. I loved checking out the fashions those pretty girls wore every single day. The problem with that was we didn't have stores where I could go find what I saw. Since that was pre-internet, I couldn't go searching for them-then click, use a credit card and have them in a few days. But there was one exception. When Cher first blasted on the music scene with Sonny, singing, "I Got You Babe", I was desperate for a pair of bellbottoms and a short-sleeved, rib sweater just like hers. To my amazement I found them in our downtown. And even more amazing, my mother bought them for me.

    Probably the longest lasting effect that show has had on me is the dancing. Back then, dancing was how I kept my little brother happy. I'd pick him up and twirl him around doing the jitterbug. We'd cha-cha and do the stroll. He'd laugh out loud as we did the twist-the mashed potato-the wah-watusi.To this day I'm still dancing. It might be in the kitchen while getting dinner. It might be in the dining room folding laundry. Point is I'm still strolling and jitterbugging; twisting the night away or doing the cha-cha and I don't even need a partner. Dancing never gets old and neither does the thought of American Bandstand with those cute boys dressed in suits and ties with greased-back hair.