“There Are No Small Things”

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Yesterday afternoon I answered a knock on the front door and opened it to a friendly woman holding a brightly wrapped package. She introduced herself as a member of our church and said she was there to recognize that I had lost my sister in August. The women’s ministry meets once a year to package egg bread and personalize a letter to each parishioner who has lost someone dear to them. Then women volunteer to drive around the state delivering the loaves with a condolence note and a warm compassionate smile.

My little sister loved Christmas. In the above photo she is two and examining a toy phone, probably wondering why she can’t hear anyone on it. She wears her favorite one piece pajamas which she demanded each year until they no longer made them big enough. Eventually she was rewarded when they started manufacturing adult size one piece fleece pajamas.

I hadn’t realized that I was resisting decorating the house until I was handed that loaf of bread. My grief had been latent, preventing me from really enjoying the season, but I was unaware that it was affecting me. I took the bread and had a good cry, remembering how much she delighted in Christmas.

Then we loaded our grandchildren in the minivan, drove down our country road, went to our favorite farm stand, and bought doughnuts and a lovely noble fir. It is actually beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Thinking of you with love, Patsy.

“I Get No Kix”

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Long before drive-through restaurants began promoting “Happy Meals” with a toy in every box, cereal manufacturers came up with a similar lure. In this case, Kix cereal ran an irresistible promotion with a miniature state license plate in every box. You could attach these little license plates to your bike and you could try to get all 48 states.(Yup. Only 48. Alaska and Hawaii were territories. Maybe that was Trump’s problem with Obama. He thought territories were foreign countries!)

So after endless begging, my mother capitulated to our request, buying Kix cereal. Of course, we needed her to buy a lot of Kix cereal boxes in order to collect all the plates. I don’t remember if there was only one plate to a box or if several came at once. All I remember is promising my mother that we would eat all the Kix cereal that she bought. So she stocked up on what must have been six months worth of Kix cereal.

Sixty years later I still feel queasy when I pass a box of Kix at the grocery store. We only ever ate cold cereal for breakfast, and true to her word, my mother bought no other cereal until the Kix was gone. Each morning my brother and I ate a big bowl of Kix, grimacing as we chewed, ruing our decision. We wondered why we had insisted on getting the whole series, and we fought over who got to attach the Wyoming plate to their bicycle.

We never bugged our mother again for any cereal box premium!

“Saving Green Stamps”

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During most of my childhood in the 1950’s, businesses rewarded shoppers with “green stamps.” Pictured above, they came in long strips depending on the amount of your purchase.  They had a glue backing and were licked and pasted into books. My mother couldn’t stand pasting them in the books, so they piled up. When we complained about boredom (a perilous complaint in our house!) we would be offered the task of licking the green stamps and putting them in their books.

With four kids we did a lot of business with the local pharmacy which was the source of many stamps. The grocery store gave them out as did the gas station. Most businesses proudly displayed the “we give green stamps” sign hoping it would draw you in. What exactly was the appeal that would convince anyone to save and then lick hundreds of these little stamps?

The reward came in what you could “buy” with filled books of stamps. As usual, my brother and I aimed big when we looked at the catalog. For a billion(or so it seemed) stamps, we could each get new bicycles. Or maybe some extravagant toy set. Unfortunately, as soon as we had filled the books, my mother took a keen interest in what she could get in exchange. So we ended up with picnic jugs, a coffee pot and a toaster. Oh well. At least they were free (if you ignored the child labor!)

 

 

“Stamps On Approval”

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Once we had exhausted our supply of free stamps, my brother and I began sending away for stamps on approval from a couple of stamp companies. I remember Harris Stamp Company in particular, though there were others. The company would send several little glassine envelopes of stamps with such various assortments as “birds,” “Kings,” “Bulgaria.” and “sports.” Usually the packets had five or so stamps each and cost between 10 and 15 cents. We would pour over our possibilities, count our money and mail back those we didn’t want along with coins to cover the ones we were keeping.

It is amazing to think of the workers at those stamp companies opening countless envelopes from kids, returning the unsold packets to their slots and counting the money. I assume, however, that this was a lucrative business, no matter how labor intensive, since it lasted throughout our childhoods.

Needless to say, this produced my rather haphazard collection of stamps which I am looking over today. Clearly I favored colorful stamps and those from British colonies. But today my stamp album is intriguing for the global history it reveals. I find King George on the Australia postage. Eva Peron shows up on my Argentina stamp. Queen Elizabeth reigns over Basutoland. Hitler adorns German stamps. A haughty Franco faces us from Spain. Countless colonies have now become countries since I collected their stamps, and no longer does Queen Elizabeth show up all over the globe as she does in my album.

While my grandchildren will probably never collect stamps, I can give them a fascinating history lesson when we look at my album. And I can remember having to memorize the world map full of countries long since made independent and renamed. So much for the lasting value of that 7th grade African geography test!

 

“Stamps, Stamps, Stamps”

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My grandfather collected stamps, my mom collected stamps, and they passed their stamp collecting passion on to my brother and me. I was given a blank stamp album, probably for my eighth birthday, and encouraged to save stamps.

At first I was dependent on my grandfather sending me the torn off corner of correspondence he had received in the mail. He was a Dean at the University of Buffalo, and had world wide connections. He and my grandmother also traveled widely, and he sent me letters from his travels. My first collecting skill was learning to soak this fragment of a letter to loosen the glue off the stamp. Then I took the wet stamp and pressed it flat between two pieces of paper with a book on top until it was flat and dry. Then I could use a special paper hinge to attach it to the appropriate page in my album.

I learned about commemorative stamps and looked forward to my mother bringing one home from the post office when one caught her eye. When I was a child, the first class rate was 3 cents, then 4 cents, so this was a small expenditure.

I suppose that stamp collecting has disappeared as a hobby. At least I know of no children who are interested. But looking back over my collection, I am struck with how much history it reveals.

More on that tomorrow.

“On the Rocks”

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Another free hobby was rock collecting. Although my brother and I often schemed ways to earn enough money to buy a rock tumbler, we never did. We just enjoyed finding and saving rocks in their natural states.  One of our favorite hunting grounds was at Agate Beach in Oregon. Here the entire beach was covered with thousands of agates and we hunted to our hearts’ content. Many years later, I took my husband back to that beach to show him the plenitude. There were no rocks on the beach at all. Either they had all been collected(doubtful) or they had been covered over by shifting sands.

Another bounty of rocks was our own driveway. Years before my parents had our long driveway paved, they ordered a truck load of dredged river rock dumped on the muddiest section. We couldn’t believe our good fortune, and spent long hours sitting out there, finding rocks, smashing rocks and saving rocks. Sadly, one box of these rocks in my closet was mistaken by my sister’s cat as a litter box and had to be discarded.

Fortunately I married a man who has a passion for rocks. He collects them wherever he goes and uses them in the yard. We always bring stones home from our travels, so it is advantageous to drive rather than fly. Who wants to pay to transport free rocks?

The only disappointment I ever encounter with my rock scavenging comes from when I have gathered them wet. Sadly, many an exquisite wet rock looks quite dull when it dries. I take it out of my pocket and am bewildered by its prosaic appearance.

“A Penny Saved…”

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Another collection I amassed as a kid was pennies. I had a blue holder with a slot for each year’s pennies in it. I learned to distinguish the pennies minted in San Francisco(s), Denver(d) and Philadelphia(no mark.) I learned that during the War copper shortages led to pennies being made from steel. The folder gave the number of pennies minted each year in each mint so I could tell each coin’s relative scarcity.

In those very pre-internet days, the public library had a book of coin values that my brother and I consulted to see what our pennies were worth. During one of these searches at the library, I learned that the 1931s penny was worth $22.50 in 1957. Needless to say, I began my search for a 1931s penny.

My parents let us rummage through their change as long as we only kept pennies we hadn’t yet collected. Of course, most were duplicates, so the coins usually went back. And then I struck gold–a 1931s penny in 1958. I thought a long time about whether to sell it or keep it hoping it would be worth more in the future. At last I decided that I knew that $22.50 was a fortune for me and that I would sell my penny to Gerson’s coin store, which I did.

I knew exactly what I would buy. The Montgomery Ward catalog had a home darkroom kit for $20.00. I bought it, set up a little darkroom in the bathroom and developed snapshots from my Brownie camera. I don’t think I have ever enjoyed $22.50 more in the years since. My 11 year old was right to sell “when the selling was good.”

“Pop or Soda Pop or Soda?”

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I have noticed in recent years that children are being encouraged to build collections of things. These things, unfortunately, cost money and are only sporadically available. Beanie Babies were an early type of this salesmanship. Now, the proliferation of things like Shopkins are becoming even cagier. Children are asked to buy the toy without knowing which one they will get, possibly a duplicate of one they already have.

You could argue that collecting baseball cards was a similar activity. However, baseball cards were connected to actual athletes a child could connect with. I, for example, loved Brooklyn Dodgers’s cards, though I never much liked Topp’s Bubble Gum.

But it got me thinking about my own collections as a child. I had very little money for most of my childhood, so my collections needed to be free or nearly so. One favorite was my brother’s and my pop bottle cap collection. Our dad played golf and there was usually a pop chest(a large horizontal freezer-like container you had to wiggle the bottles around to get the one you wanted)at the end of the course. This was ideal hunting ground for bottle caps scattered on the ground. We would squeal with delight over rare finds like Nehi Strawberry pop.  We had to do our scavenging out in the world since we never drank pop at home.(Kool-Aid was as close as we got.)

For even more fun, the caps had a cork lining you could remove. Then, placing the bottle cap on the outside of your t-shirt and the cork on the inside, you could wear the bottle cap like a campaign button. Silly maybe, but great fun.

Somewhere along the line, my collection disappeared. But I remember when each bottle cap find was treasured–and free!

“Ad Nauseum”

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I thought I had seen all the ways that advertisers try to get my attention, but I was wrong. This week I went to fill my car with gas and was assaulted by a new barrage of noise and image. Apparently, it is not enough that I am spending a lot of money to purchase gasoline. I am also seen as a captive audience for advertisements.

In this case, it was a very loud television(with no volume controls) blaring a series of ads and pictures at me while I stood helplessly by my gas tank. The kiosk also helpfully offered business cards that I could take to contact the various advertisers. Interestingly enough, none of the businesses offered were within 25 miles of my home. Perhaps the intention was that I would use some of my newly purchased gasoline to take a long drive!

City buses drive by plastered with full ads that even cover the windows so that you can’t see into the bus. The grocery cart has an insert showing me a friendly insurance agent. It appears you can be paid to paint your car as an advertisement and drive around town. I even saw a portable billboard on the back of a truck trailer.

I remember the first time I saw the name of a company on an article of clothing and was astonished that anyone would pay to advertise a manufacturer. Little did I foresee how normalized that would become, nor that it would become an opportunity for “status.”

Curmudgeonly yours, I remain, looking for a new gas station.

“Wasted on the Young?”

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When I went to high school in the early 1960’s, the English curriculum hadn’t changed much from that read by my parents and grandparents. We read several novels each year, one Shakespeare play, and much poetry. I read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, therefore, when I was 15 years old. In college, I majored in English, not American literature, and didn’t review Hawthorne at that time. So by last week, it had been 55 years since I had read The Scarlet Letter.

I have been enjoying courses offered here through The Great Courses, which I listen to on my ipod. I was partly through an excellent course on American literature when the lecturere said he was beginning five lectures on Hawthorne. Before listening, I decided to reread The Scarlet Letter.

I find it difficult to believe that present day American high school students read the book. The sentences, long and meandering, full of challenging words, would try the patience of texters. Even the plot of deep shame and ostracism because of adultery might confound current students. What, they might ask, is the big deal?

But for me, the most compelling thread of the story is the slow poisoning of one mind by another’s. Reminiscent of Iago’s patient unraveling of Othello, Chillingworth’s attack on Dimmesdale’s soul horrified me to a depth I never plumbed as a teenager. He manages to capitalize on Dimmesdale’s susceptibility to endless guilt and self-hatred while he purports to be “curing” him.

If you, too, haven’t looked at this book as an adult, I recommend that you give it a read. Not easy, but eminently rewarding.