Intergeneration Storytelling Contest 2013 Winning Stories
The Intergeneration 2013 Storytelling Contest was an enormous success, once again garnering stories from around the world. Intergeneration Foundation would like to thank all of the storytellers and the organizations that helped spread the word of the Contest to help make it another very successful event.
The 2013 Intergeneration Storytelling Contest Winners are:
Certificate Winners (alphabetically):
Here are all the Prize Winning Stories for Readers’ Enjoyment:$100 CASH WINNERS:
“Grandma Rose and Aunt Janice”
Matthew inspected the pictures scattered over three shelves in Mom’s home, most framed but some orphans propped up against mounted photos. Predominantly colored snapshots, a few black and whites adorned the collection.
Suddenly Matthew piped up, “Why is Aunt Janice wearing that funny dress?”
Mom and I looked at each other and walked over to Matthew. He pointed to a 5”x7” faded black and white in a Victorian frame.
We stared at the picture.
A pretty young woman gazed at us. She wore an ivory dress cinched at the waist, with long, billowy sleeves and a high collar, the skirt falling in soft pleats to the ankles. White stockings and shoes completed the outfit.
I met the woman in the picture decades later.
“That’s not Aunt Janice. That’s Grandma Rose, your Great-Grandma and Grandma’s mother.”
“But why the funny dress?” Eight-year-olds are clueless concerning women’s fashions.
The picture was taken around 1920 when Grandma Rose was about twenty years old. Judging by the dress and formal studio pose, it was captured for a special occasion, probably a graduation or engagement.
Staring at the woman’s face I saw why Matthew believed she was my sister Janice. I never noticed the resemblance before, but the similarity was unmistakable.
Janice’s eyes, nose and mouth graced the woman’s face. The woman staring at us was slim, like Janice. I remember Grandma with an ample frame. She was about 5’3”, and Janice is a couple of inches taller. The picture portrayed the young woman before a baby, car accident, decades of substantial cooking and eating, and age added pounds and changed her body.
Janice has light brown hair. I remember Grandma’s silver gray strands, but it looked like she had long brunette tresses when young, piled high on her head in a bun.
Grandma Rose was injured in an auto accident in the 1920s, after Mom’s birth, damaging her pelvis and hip. Subsequently she walked with a limp, but physical limitations did not slow her down. We walked long distances together; at least the hikes seemed long to a young girl.
Staring at the picture evoked memories of almost idyllic summers my sister and I experienced, although we did not think of them that way at the time.
We spent summers for years at Grandma and Grandpa’s bungalow in the Catskill Mountains. Grandpa drove to Long Island on the last day of school and transported us to their mountain sanctuary. We stayed until Labor Day. Grandma, Janice, and I walked to the egg farm. We strode to nearby bungalow colonies to visit friends and swim. We strolled around town, built on a hill. It always seemed we were climbing uphill.
Years passed and when teenagers my sister and I drifted away from the mountain bungalow.
My freshman year in college Grandma Rose died of breast cancer and my grandfather sold the bungalow the following year.
Grandma Rose’s picture still graces Mom’s apartment. Someday it will enhance Aunt Janice’s home.
“An Act of Kindness”
When I was in my early 20s, I flew from New York City to California to visit my cousins. To come back east, I traveled cross country through Canada by railroad. It was a frigid and blustery November. Arriving in Banff, Alberta, I was dog tired. The train had been stuck on the tracks for 24 hours near Revelstoke, British Columbia, because of snow on the tracks. My backpack and heavy valise were filled with crackers, peanut butter and oranges, among the clothes, so I could eat without spending too much money. I lumbered to the Banff station’s information counter, and learned that the hotel where I had planned to stay was 10 blocks from the station. I sighed, crestfallen, at the prospect of trudging that distance through deep snow.
Sitting on a high stool at the other side of the information counter was an elderly woman. She was slightly disheveled, but I was used to seeing older, eccentric people at Grand Central and Penn Stations in New York City. Her eyes twinkled as she asked me, "Do you believe in miracles?" I laughed, but secretly thought she was a batty old woman. Still, I smiled and said, “What do you mean?” She repeated the question, “Do you believe in miracles?” And in that inimitable 22-year old way, I said, "I don't know."
The woman then said, “You should believe in miracles! Here, take this. Take a taxi to your hotel.” She handed me a $5 bill, which in the mid ‘70s was like handing someone a twenty nowadays. I smiled and said, “No, thank you, I can't accept this. That’s too generous of you – you don’t even know me.” She proffered the bill again, smiling encouragingly. I was paralyzed with uncertainly. But the other woman, the one staffing the information counter, said that I should take it, that she likes to help people who are in need. I hesitated.
Then I accepted her $5, and thanked her sincerely. I was amazed that someone my grandparents’ age would show such a kindness to a denim-clad young person with long, straight hair. The woman said, “Bless you.” And then she added, “Just remember me.” I have not forgotten her, and never will. She showed me that anyone can show thoughtfulness and generosity, even to a stranger, long before it became “cool” to do so. Since then I've tried to pay it forward whenever possible, always remembering that sweet, elderly woman in that snowy mountain town.
“I know of so many sunsets. I’ve climbed all the mountains which loom over you.” These are the words I’ve grown so fond of, have become so used to hearing. My weathered, wrinkled neighbour, stooped and almost child-like in her stature, never ceased to amaze me with her toothless, garbled version of some story or the other.
Five years ago, I walked into the one-bedroom flat, thousands of miles away from my beloved home Africa, scared and unsure of whatever my dark future held. There was no light for me. I had dived, recklessly into an idea, and when it was too late to back out, I realised my stupidity. But God has his plans for everyone. Instead of the friend I was hoping for, I found my darling grandmother in the Shakespeare-styled neighbour upon my doorstep. Heidi never spoke, unless in metaphors.
On rainy, cold nights when I had no-one to turn to, her rough hands would smooth my hair and in her rough voice, she would ooze uplifting poetry. It wasn’t just a union. It was two worlds coming together. My rowdy, African world had quietened to accommodate her peaceful English one.
Heidi was there when I married my English love Simon. It was she who advised me, loved me, taught me what I did not know and it was she who on that fateful day in July, that the bombings ripped apart. The memory is crystal clear in my mind, the overcast day, the phone call and then my heart exploding. It wasn’t just Heidi who died that day, it was a piece of me too. Just how marrying Simon had torn the relationship between my family and I, so had Heidi’s death terrifyingly cut any connections I had with this world.
I love fiercely, I miss deeply and I grieve forever. This is not a plain story of grief, it is of guilt too. My Heidi had opened her heart and house to me, a foreign Muslim, but it was people of my own kind who stole her life from her. For years after she was unfairly snatched from me, I felt the guilt and shame of losing her. The same world she had accepted, had closed in on her, robbing her of her life.
But why did this impact so harshly on me? Losing a friend is difficult, but losing family is heart wrenching. Heidi didn’t step in for a parent, she stepped in for a grandparent. A Grandma, who in everyone’s mind is too sweet and innocent to hurt.
Imagine the agony of my nights, trying to feel how the fire must have spread through her gentle, fragile arms. My only way to vanquish my guilt is to beg every young person to respect, love and care for any old woman (or man) you have in your life. Help me love and care for my Heidi on this world, while she rests in Paradise.
“Our Christmas Angel”
Grandma wrapped me in a tree skirt and placed me under the Christmas tree. An ornament engraved with “My First Christmas–1983” dangled above my head. The branches muffled the noise from our family and allowed me to hear her whisper, “Merry Christmas, Angel.”
I loved when Grandma came over to decorate the tree with us. We listened to “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” by Dr. Elmo and Patsy, and I teased her. We dressed the tree in colored lights. Each time we unwrapped an ornament, we “oohed” and “ahhed.”
I remember the first time the tree fell. Mom and I had just gone to bed. There was a loud crash. At first I thought it was Dad, who had started coming home late at night. Mom and I found the tree on the floor. The dusting of shattered glass looked like snow. Mom cried. After a few minutes, she stopped. We picked the tree up together. Mom moved slowly and her shoulders sagged.
I remember how cautiously we decorated the tree the next year. We didn’t play music. We didn’t “ooh” and “ahh.” Instead, we carefully balanced the heavy and light ornaments, so the tree would not tip.
I stayed up extra late to make sure the tree would not fall that night. I was up when Dad came home. He smelled like he had drunk a bottle of Mom’s cologne. He swayed as he walked and didn’t seem to care how we had balanced the ornaments. His arm brushed one of the branches and the tree swayed like him. I held my breath.
The next year the tree fell twice in one week. Mom tied it to the window with rope. This was the last year we spent in our house.
I see that desperate tree tied to the window as a symbol of strength and hope. We all go through stretches of life where we are not willing to stay on the ground amongst broken glass; and we are not yet ready to stand up on our own.
Mom and I moved in with Grandma, and we took the tree with us. By some miracle, the tree stayed standing the first couple of years.
Our first Christmas with Rick, Mom’s new boyfriend, the tree fell. I remember Mom crying. This time she didn’t stop. She didn’t look like she was going to get the rope.
Rick left. I heard the familiar slam of the door. But he came back. He took out his power drill and screwed the tree stand to a piece of wood so firmly, it never moved again. Grandma looked at Mom and smiled. Mom and Rick have been married now for sixteen years.
I miss Grandma, yet I know she is still with us. When I look at my tree, I hear her whispering, “Merry Christmas, Angel.” I know where Mom got the strength to tie the tree up with rope. Grandma watches over us and will always be our angel.
She said she wanted an ice cream. It’s February; an unforgiving month in England. Whatever the lady wants, the lady usually gets.
“I want an ice cream.”
“‘I want’ never gets.”
Now the sulk. I could have a full-blown tantrum on my hands. Or I could get lucky and be given the silent treatment. Surely, some brave entrepreneurial soul has sussed that an ice cream cornet is an integral part of the seaside experience, regardless of the season; evidently not.
I find an open shop. Life does go on outside of the summer season.
I emerge triumphant; with a magician’s flourish, I produce an ice-lolly. She’s not impressed. Only an ice cream will suffice, apparently. She takes it from me thanklessly. In the name of appeasement I let this manners misdemeanour slide. I help with the wrapper. In this temperature it won’t melt. Sticky hands avoided. We head towards the pier. There is fun to be had, somewhere.
“That’s your lot, a pounds worth.” I hand her a small plastic bag from the change kiosk. She is engaged in feeding the grubby coppers into the slot machines. Can’t move on until they’re spent. The rides are too scary. Food is a safe bet. Sharing a bag of doughnuts is the closest to togetherness, taking shelter against the wind, both with sugared lips. Barely midday, the first fish still unfried. I promise we’ll come back later and eat vinegared chips; always taste better out of paper.
She is reluctant to walk and happy to be wheeled. Safely strapped in, she gazes at the sea far below between the slats of flooring. Conversation is restricted to naming things; candy floss, helter-skelter, fortune teller.
We reach the end of the pier “Which way is France?”
“Fancy a swim?”
“Forgot my costume.”
Quick as a flash for her age: I like that.
We eat lunch on a bench. The gods favour us. It is a minor miracle to feel the sun’s rays, however weak, on our faces. I hold her drink as she wrestles with her fish. She picks off the batter and is mostly interested in the chips. The cheekiest of the gathering seagulls swoops and almost succeeds in claiming her exposed piece of cod. She swipes the air; her reactions are good.
We leave the pier; all pleasures exhausted. We feel spots of rain and neither of us has a raincoat. We need a dry sanctuary. I wonder whether the museum is still here. We cut through semi-familiar streets. Nostalgia never provides accurate directions. Finally I spy a sign and we enter just as the heavens open.
Random artefacts of the past do more to jog her memory than my incessant commentary or bygone holiday reminiscences. She reaches behind to touch my hand as it rests on her wheel chair handle.
“Thank you for bringing me here today.”
“My pleasure, Mum. I was worried you’d forgotten everything.”
Little Red Hen was my favorite nursery rhyme. In Mom’s version, after each potential helper friend of Hen's refused, Mom, as Hen, would ask me to help. I aided Hen’s planting, harvesting and grinding wheat to make bread.
After Hen’s imaginary bread making, Mom and I shared a slice of real bread slathered with butter and jelly. Afterwards, we talked. I liked the talking, best.
By second grade, Red Hen was too babyish. One Saturday as I was playing in the family room, Mom walked in wearing a bright Red Apron.
Mom turned toward chair: “Chair, will you help?” Next, she leaned out the doorway: “Car, will you help?”
She turned to me. “I’m Red Apron. Chair and car are too busy to make cookies. How about you, Gabbie?”
We baked cookies and talked. After that, whenever “Red Apron” appeared, I knew I was needed. Dusting, weeding, baking--every Red Apron chore included a sharing time with Mom.
High school activities left little time for Red Apron moments. After college, Red Apron disappeared. My father died after I finished college. I met and married Joe and moved six hours away. Joe suggested that my mother live with us. Mom replied, “Three's a crowd!”
Two years later, our argument had a new twist. "Your granddaughter, Vicki, misses you.”
Then Mom broke her hip After two months in a rehabilitation facility the doctor told her to stay with us for two weeks while she learned to switch from a wheelchair to a walker.
“I’m coming for two weeks. When I get back, I'll look for an apartment. Let's clean out some drawers right now."
Mom directed what to keep, give to me, or donate. As I worked, she fussed. "I tire so easily. How could I move in with you? I would be useless.”
"We want you because we love you--not to be a maid!" That answer seemed to make her feel worse. As I sorted her holiday linens, I tried to think of how to convince her. Tucked between the Easter and Christmas tablecloths I found the answer.
As Mom wheeled into the kitchen for lunch, I put on Red Apron.
I shouted, “Chair, can you help?”
Mom looked up.
I leaned out the door into the driveway and called, “Car, can you help?”
Before I could address Mom, she interrupted. Her mouth was frowning. “I can’t help. I'm useless.”
“Mom, 'Red Apron' time was about talking to you. That's what made it so special. What Joe and Vicki and I need and want is time to BE with you!"
Mom was quiet for a minute. “I could wheel up to a table to mix cookie dough."
“We'll see how it goes these two weeks. Maybe I will stay. Be sure to Pack the Red Apron.”
These rings represent my engagement and wedding rings. It is significant to me to take these pictures here in Washington, DC because this is the city where I got married to Andy. You were not there because you died before I was born. I love these simple rings and the feel of them on my hand. I wear them every day.
I am sad that I don’t have your old engagement ring anymore. It was passed down to me by my mother before college and I lost it there. I didn’t care enough about it and take it seriously then. Now that I am married and I feel a connection to the symbolism and emotion behind the rings, I regret that I didn’t care for your ring enough to treasure it and keep it safe. I hope that when I am a grandmother and my rings are passed down to my grand-daughter that they are treasured.
I wonder if my carelessness was in part due to the fact that we never met. I wished I had known you and I had heard your stories first hand. I will ask my mother for more stories so that I can tell my daughters. I hope to pass on more family stories now.
“East Juneau Avenue”
On July 29, 1943, in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, I was celebrating my nineteenth birthday with the twelve girls with whom I worked at the Lycoming Motors Company. The following week I was fired. Losing my first job after being employed for eight months, earning excellent wages and benefits, and enjoying my independence was depressing. At the time, I was renting a room in the home of Jane and Joe Stanzione. Joe was serving in the Coast Guard and stationed in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Joe received a seven-day pass, and he and Jane returned home for a visit. Jane suggested it would be an opportunity for me to join them on their return to Milwaukee. She made arrangements for me to rent a room for two weeks. I had my first train ride, dinner in the diner, and a grand tour of the Coast Guard station. The view of Lake Michigan was overwhelming. The room was large and on the fourth floor of a walk-up apartment building managed by Carl and Elmira Hamm on East Juneau Avenue. Their daughter Sharon was four years old at that time. The Hamms treated me like family and included me at meals. They showed me all over the city. I felt at home and decided to look for employment. Carl got me a job at Cleaver-Brooks, a company that helps companies solve their boiler room problems. Carl and Elmira had sisters who were also employed there. It turned out to be a great job, and it lasted until the War ended. When Joe was discharged from the Coast Guard, he and Jane moved back to Pennsylvania.
My mother came to Milwaukee to see me, and she decided to stay. She got a job at the Knickerbocker Hotel on East Juneau Avenue. Her sister soon joined us as did my oldest brother Robert after his discharge from the Army. My brother Ward also came to Milwaukee when he was discharged from the Navy. He stayed only a year and then went back to marry his high school sweetheart. Finally, my sister Lila and our youngest brother Dan joined us. There was never a dull moment with celebrations, graduations, marriages, babies, sickness, and deaths— the kinds of events that are a part of one’s life. As time passed, my husband and I were blessed with nine children, ten grandchildren, fifteen great-grandchildren, and one great-great granddaughter.
Here it is November, 2013. My parents, husband, three of our children, my brother Ward, and many other family members and friends have passed on to eternity. I hope I will join them some day. For the present, I am grateful to my Creator for all the blessings I have received in the past and the opportunity to live in the same location on East Juneau Avenue where I had lived before. It’s not the same apartment building at which I once lived, but I am delighted to call Apartment 114 my home. My windows face East Juneau Avenue.
My hand rested on the crash bar as I braced myself for the putrid smell. Taking one more breath of fresh air, I asked myself again why I couldn’t have a regular job like other sixteen year olds.
It was my sister’s fault. She was making me do this. “Two weeks,” she said with that determined look in her eyes. “You will work here for two weeks, and if you don’t like it by then, you can look for another job.”
Even though she was only four years older than I was, I’d learned long ago never to cross her. I squared my shoulders, went inside, and walked down the bleak hall. Seeing my sister, she smiled and nudged my arm. “You came in.”
Confused, I stammered. “I…didn’t think…I had a choice.”
Still smiling, her eyes bore into mine. “You don’t.” She leaned in and whispered, “But I told you, when you walk in those doors, you leave your attitude outside. I want you to be a ray of sunshine to the residents of this nursing home.”
She was right, she was always right. I nodded and tried to smile back at the toothless grins greeting me from the wheelchairs. Taking her lead, I learned to help them with their daily needs. Before long, my sister and I no longer argued. I knew what was expected and I did it with a smile. Even though I was counting the days until I could quit, I was learning that this job wasn’t all bad. Helping them, made me feel good about myself, which was something new.
Walking to work after a particularly bad day at school, it started to rain. My white uniform was soaked, and the chip on my shoulder was bigger than normal. It was a good thing my sister was off that day because I was determined not to be anyone’s “ray of sunshine.” I grumbled and complained throughout most of my shift.
Feeling sorry for myself, I walked into a patient’s room, who due to a stroke, was bent into the fetal position. Following protocol, I carefully rolled him from one side to the other to relieve pressure from his bedsores. Now facing the window he said, “Isn’t it a beautiful day.”
“What? It’s pouring rain,” I exclaimed.
Talking through his pain he said, “Just think how happy this is making all of the farmers.” He continued to stare out the window. “And don’t you know how much the little children are enjoying playing in it.”
As I looked into his gentle eyes, he squeezed my hand. “You can always see the good in life,” he paused for a minute, “if you only try.”
Tears sprung into my eyes as shame washed over me. This man, who many thought, had nothing left to give, changed my life that day.
"I rose through dead bodies as from the bottom of the sea. Black blood crusted the back of my head."
"Grandfather, why are you telling me this?"
The old man turned his head. "The world is cruel and you must live in it."
The boy nodded.
The old man continued, "Crows scattered as I burst free of the dead and stood dazed on a ruined plain, alone except for feasting birds."
"I don't know. Grandson, it may be your fate to become a soldier, though that is never a grandfather's wish. If you become the sword in a great man's hand, you will find that swords do not remember."
"What did you do?"
"I left. Night came. Jackals yipped from rocks above and a great thirst gripped me. Before dawn, I fell into fever blackness. A trickle of cool water sliding over my swollen tongue and down my throat was the greatest bliss I've known."
Then a calm voice spoke, 'Slowly, friend, too much will harm you.'
"I drank again and fell again into darkness.
"The stranger fed me, placed mashed figs and pine nuts upon my blistered tongue. Death gripped my hand, but I was young.
When I was nearly well, my benefactor and I sat together beneath pines as the moon filled the world's cup with silver light. An owl hooted behind us.
He asked, "Was it a great battle?"
I shrugged. "A battle is a battle. We fought the Philistines. Some fool with a mace tried to separate me from my head. I'd like to meet him again."
"And kill him?"
He sighed, "Why not spare him?"
I snorted. "That's ridiculous."
"He was a soldier like you, only doing his job."
I shook my head. "War is not about sparing the enemy."
"Where does it end?"
"When one of us no longer moves."
Wings flashing moonlight, the owl dove below us on its hunt. He said, "I treat men as I would have them treat me."
"Is it? Often, not always, I receive kindness in return."
"What of murderers? What of tax collectors?"
He looked at me. "Do you wish your children to honor you?"
"I have no children!"
"You will someday."
I shrugged. "Perhaps."
"Show mercy. Your children will see this and grow to your credit and theirs."
"That may be true if I also beat them enough."
He laughed. "Your father beat you?"
"Sometimes more than I needed, always more than I wanted."
We both laughed until a jackal on the desert yapped an answer. Silence settled between us like an old dog.
"I took my leave soon after."
The boy asked, "Did you meet this man again, Grandfather?"
The old man smiled. "Not yet."
"Do you think you will?"
"Anything is possible. Bah! Storytelling is thirsty work."
The old man patted the boy's shoulder. "I keep a jar of cool water always, for passersby and for grandsons. Come, let us drink together."
WINNERS CERTIFICATE OF DISTINCTION:
"Bad Hair Day"
At this point, I stopped her. I said, “Daughter, for the last six months I have been saying the same thing to myself every time I look in the mirror.” We both burst out laughing! We hadn’t seen each other for a year. At this time, I was a brunette with a few patches of white. It was a long and tiring trip to Illinois: my body needed rest more than my hair needed to be “fixed”.
The next day we bought a color rinse and conditioner. This was the beginning of a two-week restoration of my hair. Every evening I sat with thick gobs of conditioner on my hair, then washed it out, colored it and set it.
One evening at a concert, I realized under certain lights that my hair looked green. I fit right in because some of the people at the concert didn’t look much better.
We repeated the process over and over—by the second week my hair was brown with red highlights. Our daughter’s friends were amused since every time they saw me my hair was a different color. We visited in October and my hair looked like a straw field—perfect for Halloween.
My doctor ordered me to swim to help with my body aches. The chlorinated water and the sun ruined my hair color. The real damage was when I decided to get a perm in my hair. Big Mistake! First my hair was cut then permed—the opposite should have been done. I ended up as a “Frizzy Head” with short, burnt and discolored hair!
One evening as my daughter was working on my hair, she started to laugh hysterically. She finally got control and shared with me that she had accidentally leaned on the tube of conditioner and it all went down the drain. Without the conditioner, we couldn’t get a comb through my hair! She said, “Mother, this is so much fun—are we bonding?” I said, “No, this is more like torture.”
I spent half of my vacation with my head in water, soap, oil, color and rollers. When we left, I did look better and my hair was nicer but far from “fixed”.
That was October 1999 and I am still struggling with it. Because of my hair, I have cried, laughed, was angry and ashamed. One frustrating day, a man said, “Honey, be thankful you have hair.” He removed his cap and exposed a very bald head!”
Praise the Lord for hair! Bleached, chlorinated, sun and perm burnt discolored hair is better than “No Hair!”
After years of futile attempts to get pregnant, my husband, Jim, and I decided to adopt a baby girl from China. While talking to the social worker about our plans, I saw some photos of adorable, dark-haired children on her desk. I asked where they were from, and she said Bulgaria. Those big brown eyes got to me, and that’s when I knew we would adopt a child from Bulgaria.
After a year of red tape, we were shown photos of a Bulgarian child named Nikolai, who was crying in each shot. Those tears and sweet face melted my heart, and Jim agreed that he was “the one.” So we arranged to go to Varna, Bulgaria, on the Black Sea, to meet him. We met Nikolai when he was two, but he looked half that age. I had brought him Animal Crackers, which I thought would be a treat for him, but all he did was touch them with his tongue. I didn’t know then that he could not chew food.
We spent three days visiting the orphanage, playing with our future son, but had to leave without him. It was required that adoptive parents confirm their desire to adopt the child before additional paperwork in Bulgaria would be processed. Finally, six very long months later, we got the call that we could pick up our Nikolai.
We flew back to Varna, signed papers, and were driven cross country to Sofia, the capital, for more paperwork. Nicky spent most of the trip sleeping on my chest. On my heart. (There’s no such thing as a seat belt or car seat in Bulgaria.) Nicky and I bonded more on that six-hour car ride than at any other early moment. For the first time in my life, at the age of 44, I was truly a mom!
That summer was magical. We spent weekends taking our 2½ year old Nicky to the local park, letting him splash us in his wading pool, and visiting with friends and family. I brought him everywhere with me. He developed slowly, always the smallest one in his classes. He started looking healthier and happy, and eventually he began to talk. Today, he is a warm and caring young man of integrity.
When I was younger, I was driven to succeed in my career. I did it all backwards – instead of having kids young and developing a career later, I became a young professional, and had a child when most people are looking forward to an empty nest! I’m nearing senior citizenship, and I am cringing at the thought of my son dating! My timing has never been very good.
The role of “mommy” is the most rewarding role in my life. Hearing Nicky say, “I love you, mommy” for the first time was more fulfilling than any professional or educational achievement. Knowing even now that my son loves me, and always will, gives me profound and unfathomable joy.
While sitting with my granddaughter one afternoon, I began to tell her of the time my mother stripped naked.
On a clear sunny day my mom and dad decided to go fishing one weekend. Since mom didn’t enjoy fishing. She packed a nice picnic lunch and placed clean overalls in there too incase Dad fell into the water. She took a book and blanket to settle down for an afternoon of good reading.
They arrived at Dad’s favorite fishing spot and threw in his hook and waited for the first bite. Mom stood tall and smelled the fragrances coming from the flowers and pine trees. She hummed as she watched the bees flutter from plant to plant. Mom grabbed her book and blanket then headed for an old broken down sheepherders wagon. She settled down on her blanket and opened the book. Soon she was engrossed in the story when she felt something crawling on her arm. Thinking a fly had landed on her arm she absentmindedly brushed it away. Again she felt something crawling on her back. Swiping at it only caused more discomfort when she realized that the hairs on her body were standing on end everywhere. This time her attention was drawn to the creepy things that mingled against her body. Jumping up she looked inside her blouse and found that she was covered in wood ticks. Grabbing at her buttons she pulled off her top and as she began to run across the grassy meadow back to the car she climbed out of her denim jeans and undergarments.
“Mom, you mean she didn’t have any clothes on. I can’t imagine that of Grandma, she was always so prim and proper.” Candice said while laughing in surprise.
“Yes, my mom did. Now let me finish my story,” I said.
“Where was I, ah yes?”
Mom ran across the meadow to the car by that time she didn’t have anything else to remove. She brushed every critter from her body and began screaming for Dad to get her home. He looked in horror as his fair skinned wife’s behind slid into the backseat of the car. Mom quickly put on Dad’s extra pair of overalls. Reeling in his line he splashed his way to the vehicle.
I don’t remember the move at all. I was only two years of age in the spring of 1955 when it happened. After WWII my parents lived in Minneapolis, MN. My dad got a job on the Milwaukee railroad after the war and my mother a Registered nurse, worked part-time and proceeded to have 4 children of which I was the youngest and best.
Both my parents grew up on small dairy farms near Sparta, WI. My mother’s parents farmed in the Valley of Daneville where her paternal grandfather came from Denmark to homesteaded land there in 1882. My Dad grew up about 10 miles away in a beautiful area called Big Creek.
While living in Minneapolis my parents visited their families in Sparta quite often and for 10 years they worked and lived in Minneapolis. Whether they missed their families, or country life, the decision to buy the farm my mother grew up on was made, and the move happened with little or no impact on me at the time.
I don’t remember my parents talking about the move much while I grew up, but they kept in contact with their friends from the city. My mother had two brothers and their families who lived in Minneapolis, so that was an easy way to keep the connection to the city. We didn’t visit Minneapolis as a family as vacations weren’t a part of farming. As a child I was able to stay with my cousins in the city quite often especially during the summer months. If they visited our farm, I would go back with them, or sometimes my mother put me on the train in Sparta and I would ride it to St. Paul.
After we moved to the farm, my mother began working at the local hospital three PM shifts a week. Her parents had retired into the village of Cataract just a mile away, so my grandma came to the farm and provided care for me while my mother worked. My grandma was a great cook and seemed to be always in the kitchen, but I preferred being outside with my Dad or in the barn. I have always been very verbal and talked a lot with my Dad asking questions and just chattering. I would follow my Dad most everywhere. When he was plowing I would follow behind the tractor pulling the plow, walking in the plowed furrows. The farm was a wonderful place where I could play in the hay mow and play school in the barn, or ride bike, or sit out under the elm trees.
My parents always had lunch together and after lunch would take a nap together on their bed. They never slept long, but I understand now that a nap rejuvenated them for the rest of the day and night. My mother had to be at work by 3:00pm, and I remember watching her get dressed in her white uniform and white support hose. Even in the hot summer days, this is always what was required to wear.
In the evening after the cows were milked, my parents often sat under the elm trees shucking peas, picking over strawberries, or just visiting. That was one time of day they sat down, but never idly. To this day the evening time is my favorite time of day.
I was fortunate to have both sets of grandparents close by. My grandma Johnson who lived closest made the best donuts and blueberry pie and I could have a treat most any time. I remember playing checkers with my grandpa Johnson and also his made up game of “penny on the crack”. He would give me a few pennies and ask me to throw them one at a time on the wood floor. Any pennies that landed on a crack I could keep. I always thought this was our special game and it wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned from my siblings that he played it with them too.
My dad’s parents lived in Sparta about 15 miles away. I don’t remember seeing them as often as my mother’s parents, but my Grandma Morgan made the best sugar cookies in the world. She always put a raisin in the middle and I didn’t like raisins, and she never made me eat it. Grandma Morgan lived in a big house and I remember cousins being there all the time and we could play and laugh and be loud and never be scolded. I always felt welcome there.
My parents left many conveniences in the city; indoor plumbing and bathroom, central heating, and cement sidewalks. I often wonder how different my life would have been had they remained in Minneapolis? I would not have known farm animals or where my food comes from. I would not have had the time with my Dad in the barn and would not have been as close to my grandparents. I would not have the respect for the earth that my parents taught me. I believe it was a sacrifice for my parents to make the move, but their decision gave me the best of both worlds: living in the country and spending time in the city.
“Such lovely hands!” exclaimed the aide as she carefully worked to remove Mom’s rings from her limp fingers. With hand lotion and a gentle, circular motion the woman maneuvered a silver pinkie ring over Mom's knuckle and off.
The aide handed each ring to me as she removed it. As she did, I recalled the Sunday morning so long ago that this ring had served as my key to understanding how my mother selected each day’s rings.
Mom's hands, usually so animated, were now so still! As a child I had loved to follow the flash of flashes of light as Mom moved her hands and the swatches of colored light that flashed from her rings made it seem to me as if she were speaking in rainbows.
I remember watching as my mother studied her jewelry box each morning. It was that silver dogwood pinkie ring that revealed the secret of her choices one Sunday morning. She looked over the rings, thinking a while and finally also pulled out the oh-so-plain silver pinkie ring.
I blurted out: “Why that ring, Mom?”
She answered: “The rings are more than just jewelry to me, my dear. Each one tells a story of where and how it came to be mine. Each ring connects me to the person who gave it to me.”
The silver, dogwood pinkie ring was a gift from my Dad on their first vacation in Ashville, N.C.. I begged for stories about the other rings. Blue sapphire--a graduation gift from her dad. Blue and white enamel on gold --a trip to Greece with her Mom. White enamel, her honeymoon trip to Pisa in Italy.
The commitment never to remove the gold band—that is all about Dad and her. She missed him. I took over removing the rings. When I pulled off her wedding band, I read the inscription, from Song of Songs: "I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.”
I heard some commotion in the hall. A nurse came in to take Mom to surgery. She picked up Mom’s chart: “Do we have her whole history here?”
“Yes, “I replied, feeling less than truthful. The chart held her medical history but the history of her heart was now in my hands. They wheeled Mom to surgery, I went to the waiting room.
My husband asked, “How is she?
Before I could answer, our four-year old daughter threw herself into my arms.
I pulled one of Mom's rings out of my pocket. “I’ll tell you a story about Grandma.” I put on the dogwood pinkie ring and began to tell of the Ashville trip. Rings on Mom's fingers; keys to her heart.
“She Rode Like a Queen”
Our 1948 trip from Bucks County, Pennsylvania to my sister’s wedding in New York City presented serious challenges for my parents. Dad drove the treacherous roads in Bucks County through a snowstorm. Atop a hill we experienced a spin-out which turned the car in the wrong direction. In spite of our screams, Dad kept his head and righted the car, keeping all of us safe and intact.
Truthfully, all of us were intact except Mother. She was making this trip to her daughter’s wedding on crutches following a recent hip fracture and hospital stay. Sister Nellie and I, both of us younger than eight, sat in the back seat next to Mother’s crutches. How long before we’d arrive at the church. I‘d asked three times. Finally Mother shushed me. “Dad needs to keep his attention on the road. Now keep still!”
We arrived at the Park Avenue sanctuary too late for the ceremony, but in time for an exciting wedding reception where people repeatedly toasted the bride and groom. I hadn’t realized people do that much toasting at weddings. I also hadn’t expected the skyscrapers to be quite that high, and, other than that my new brother-in-law wore kilts to his wedding, I wasn’t too surprised by anything. Not until the final leg of our return trip, that is.
With snow persistently falling, adding layer upon layer of icy crusts, Dad made the last turn into the lane leading up to our farmhouse. Like a stubborn four-legged animal, the car balked and stopped dead in the snowdrifts. Dad restarted the engine, but the car wouldn’t budge. “Now what do we do?” Dad said. In the back seat, Nellie and I woke, aware that something had gone wrong.
Dad kept the heater running, but we knew we’d soon run out of gas. Father was good at figuring out solutions, but this situation appeared to have him stumped. He could carry mother several feet, but not the length of a half-mile lane, he said. My sister and I had boots in the car. We could walk home, if necessary. But here sat Mother, incapacitated.
Dad soon left us, cautioning us to keep each other warm. A half-hour later he returned riding our tractor and pulling an old sledge. To its side slats he’d roped a BEACH CHAIR. Dad lifted Mother into the chair and rode her home like a queen. Nellie and I pulled on our galoshes and trekked in the lane, following in the tracks of the John Deere.
As we entered our chilly farmhouse, we found Grammy and Pappy waiting by the coal stove with hot chocolate ready to be served. Grammy’s head did its usual almost imperceptible head-quiver as she waited for us to relate our adventure. I curled up in Grandpa’s lap. I’d never expected such a cozy ending to my big sister’s wedding day and my first trip to the Big City.
“A Quiet Man”
My great-grandfather, Mahlon Robeson, was born October 8, 1864 in Benton County, Iowa. He passed away from pneumonia on August 25, 1936 near Washta, Iowa. In his 72 years on Earth, we never had the opportunity to meet or interact, since I wasn't born until September 15, 1942. But my parents and other relatives kept photos of him, that are now over 110 years old, which I inherited. It's still possible to learn a great deal from century-old photos and comments by family members. This has allowed me to visualize him and briefly enter his long-ago world.
Both of his parents were born in Scotland and immigrated to America by different routes in a quest for opportunities and a better life. Mahlon was the youngest of six children. His mother died when he was eight years old. When his father remarried he was sent to live with his oldest sister, Buena Vista Shoemaker and her family, in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
As a young single man, Mahlon started out on his own in Furnas County in the extreme southern part of Nebraska near the Kansas border. Here he became a sod-buster by breaking the tough prairie grass with a team of horses and plow.
In about 1887, he wrote to his nephew Frank Shoemaker and sent him money to buy a train ticket for a former schoolmate. He wanted Georgia Anne Heth to travel to Nebraska and marry him. There was no dating or extended engagement period for this couple. It was a different world in those days based on practical and immediate needs. They lived in this area for three years in a sod house far from civilization on the open prairie.
Partly due to drought in Nebraska around 1890, they left and traveled with my grandfather, Ralph, in a one-box wagon drawn by a team of horses through the scorching summer heat to Cherokee County, Iowa. This is where they took up residence on two farms for the rest of their lives in those hand labor days.
Elsie Robeson Haight paid tribute to her father in a historical document by affirming that Mahlon was "a quiet man." She said he was the kind of person who would loan neighbors a horse, scythe, plow or share his valued seed with them. He was a hard-working and honest man who taught his children those same values.
A lot of water has flowed under the proverbial bridge since then and I've nineteen years of my own life as a U.S. Army aviator flying helicopter medical evacuation missions on three continents. I wish I could have taken him for a flight over his cherished farmland. He'd probably be shocked at how quickly he could be flown from his former sod house in Nebraska to those farms in Iowa. I also believe he'd be astonished at how much more convenient flying is than traveling in a horse-drawn, one-box wagon in dust and summer heat.
“The Milk Bar Man”
“I can't have been older than 19 at the time.” Her eyes crinkled like tinfoil. “He was so handsome in his uniform. I felt like it was meant to be- I was going to love this man forever!”
Grandma's eyes drifted as her needles fussed over a mossy green scarf.
Clackety clack, said Grandma's needles.
Click, click... click, replied Sarah's.
“It was in a milk bar. That's where all of us young things spent our free time back then. Oh, it was lovely, with red vinyl seats and metal tables. I would order- let's see-” Clackety, clackety... “A vanilla shake. He always gave me an extra cherry!” Grandma bit her lower lip as though it was the cherry and Sarah laughed.
“So, did the soldiers go there too? Grandpa was a soldier, wasn't he? I've seen those pictures of him in his uniform. He did look handsome.”
“Yes, he was a soldier for a while, but that was after this. I suppose sometimes soldiers went to the milk bar. I was too taken by him to notice though, dear.”
Click, click... “Taken with him?” ...click.
“Oh, his uniform was very smart, you see, not just any old shirt like they wear today. He had a crisp blue collar and a starched hat.” She winked at Sarah. “And I suppose the cherries helped.”
“That's so funny! You fell in love with the milkshake man!”
“We fell in love, dear. I spent every day down there, sitting at the counter, making cow eyes at him.” Grandma bent close to her granddaughter's ear and whispered, “I got quite fat from all the milkshakes!” The half-made scarf wobbled as she laughed. “He'd take me dancing afterwards. Oh, it was so much fun.”
The clackety paused for a long moment and Sarah glanced up from her narrowing ribbon. Grandma gave a little sniff and made a resounding CLACK.
“Well dear, it was a long time ago.”
They knitted in mutual contemplation for a moment.
“But...” Sarah began.
Before she could finish, her grandfather strode through the door.
“And how are my two favourite girls?” Grandpa stooped to kiss each one on the cheek, his wool vest tickling Sarah's arms. She held her misshapen ribbon up for inspection and he put his hand to his mouth as though overcome with pride.
Sarah clicked with a new-found ferocity.
“Grandma was telling me how you guys met, Grandpa! In the milk bar.” Sarah bent to a particularly stubborn stitch. Her grandmother's needles flickered as though she was conducting a tiny orchestra. She made a small ahem, but did not look up.
Clackety, clackety, clackety, clackety, clackclackclack...
“Milk bar, eh?” Grandpa murmured. “That's funny, I don't remember a milk bar...”
The sea holds all of us together; everything that ever lived.
It’s where the first stirrings of life occurred, in that primordial star juice smoothie of precreation. Clouds rise from its salty surface and deliver rain. It may taste fresh as we hold our noses and lie back in the bathtub – but it isn’t.
It is thousands of millions of trillions of billions of years old.
We are none of us new.
I was three months old when my grandfather first took me to the cave behind his house,
swaddled in my mother’s arms. I don’t remember, but the evidence is still there.
She held out my hand, pressed firm to the cool rock, whilst a dozen candles caused our shadows to dance.
My grandfather had been an extraordinary man. I know this, because I never met another like him. He spent ten years with the Gundungurra tribe, half the world away in the Blue Mountains of Australia. As an anthropologist, he was supposed to study their customs and write research papers on their language, back in the days when they took aboriginal children away from their mothers and tried to make them white.
After a year, they declared him dead.
He wasn’t dead.
He’d just gone ‘walkabout’.
He had discovered the immortal starfish. A cave full of them: women, warriors, infants and elders. Hundreds of them, dating back a thousand years or more. It’s a tourist destination now, but they hadn’t invented tourism then.
When I was eight, he taught me how to make them myself. It was a warm, balmy night. Fireflies
lined the entrance to the cave like the landing lights to an airport, only I thought of it more as a
portal. A mystical, magical entrance to the underwater world of our imagining.
You need to get the consistency right. You stir in powdered ochre with fresh water from the spring in the woods. The pigment turns it red like blood, or yellow as butter if you use turmeric.
Then you press your palm against the rock, fill your mouth with liquid, make puffer fish of your cheeks, and blow.
Capturing history is a messy business, it goes everywhere. When you remove your hand – there it is. An immortal starfish. A fragment of time that says ‘I was here.’ A moment that never ages.
There’s a lifetime of them now. The last starfish my grandfather made before he passed away is a big blue one right by the entrance. Even now, as an adult, my own hand is much smaller than his. There are starfish from when my mother was a girl, and two that she did much later, when she had us – blue for me, and pink for my sister. Even though I never met my grandmother, I can place my hand over hers and know that we are touching through the generations.
We hold our history in the palm of our hands.
“In the Garden”
While on a flight to Seattle on October 3, I wrote a few prayerful notes. “May I be worthy of this trip. Let my enthusiasm shine and touch those who are looking for Jesus.”
I arrived safely in Shelton which is a two hour drive from Seattle and a long way from my Florida home to visit cousins Marian and John. They have helped raise three delightful neighbor girls: Selena age 15, Yesenia age 10, and Arianna age 3. Yesenia--Senie for short--and I had an instant rapport, possibly because I really love children after a 20 year stint as a nanny.
The first Saturday I was in Shelton, Senie was so excited. She waited patiently until I woke from my afternoon nap. John would drive us to Hoodsport, 20 miles away on Puget Sound to eat at El Puerto de Angeles IV, the restaurant owned by Senie’s dad. This sounded great to me. On this lovely drive we would see autumn leaves, and then have real Mexican food for dinner.
During the ride, Senie pulled out a folded sheet of paper from her pocket and said, “ This is my favorite song.” On the paper were the words to the old hymn “In the Garden”. So now we started singing Senie’s song “In the Garden” over and over again.
Our friendship grew during my two week visit. Senie even talked me into giving her my daily devotional Jesus Calling so we could be on the same page each day. I signed the book “To Yesenia from Dear Dorth.” I am a devout Christian, and it was so special to share Jesus with a 10 year old. Senie was to be the answer to my prayer on my flight to Washington.
A few weeks after I returned to Florida, I received a delightful note. She started, ”Dear Dorth, from Senie. It was a joy to know you, plus we had so much time and fun together.” This brought tears to my eyes. But, the part of the note that really tickled me was, “I never knew I could have so much fun with an old person. Ha! Ha! Just kidding.” She continued, “But, I did have fun a lot--thanks for that fun.”
This 81 year old person was truly moved. I do hope I’ll influence her spiritual life, and she’ll always remember me as the fun old lady who loved the hymn “In the Garden”, too. And, that’s where I found Senie, who has grown in my heart.
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