Mr. Wolfe, my high school math teacher, sometimes started class off with the dreaded “take out a sheet of paper.” This meant that we were about to have a “pop quiz,” the bane of every unprepared student. A collective gasp accompanied the putting away of math books and the retrieval of a single blank sheet of paper. I remembered this first when I thought about posting about a piece of paper. Apparently that experience overrode my previous positive associations.
But long before high school I, along with every other kid in my class, learned how to make a simple paper airplane. Although it was certainly possible to make complex folds, I stuck to the model pictured above. It worked fine and sailed across the classroom when necessary. Of course we all knew how to look completely innocent when a missile flew around the room. Making an ordinary plane ensured anonymity.
I have no idea how kids learn ways to torment teachers. I am not referring to actual bad behavior such as talking back or using physical force. In the 1950’s we were really still in awe of teachers. But we did sometimes toss a paper airplane or spit a wad of paper at another student. Of course teachers had appropriate punishments for such stunts. I remember one boy having to take a sheet of paper and make spit balls one after another and send them into a waste basket. He probably has as bad a sense about “take out a sheet of paper” as I do.
Speaking of rocks yesterday led me to think about rocks, paper and scissors for three days. Above you can find me exploring the edge of a wave looking for rocks. By the way I no longer had the itchy wool bathing suit but rather a cotton one with a ruffled back and seahorse print. I remember it clearly since it was such a welcome change from the red wool one.
I always collected rocks wherever we went. However, I chose them when they were wet and really appealing. Often I was disheartened to find the rocks rather ordinary looking when I got them home and they dried off. Occasionally I would find a piece of obsidian which kept its gleam when dry. At the beach I found agates which looked better wet but still attractive when dry. I still pick up rocks when we travel, putting them in my pockets. I still wonder when I take them out why I chose those drab specimens!
The other play with rocks was learning to skip them. My father was an expert stone skipper and spent quite a lot of time teaching us how to find the perfect skipping rock, flat and semi round, just the right size to fit our palms. He demonstrated over and again the proper stance and the correct arm movement needed to let the rock dance over the water. His would bounce several times in a row. Despite his excellent tutelage, I rarely got the rock to do more than go ker-plunk. While I have never mastered the art, I now have a grandson who excels at the throw. “It’s not really that hard,” he says. “Look.” And I am back many years watching my dad execute the same perfect pitch.
As one of four kids my life was filled with repeated claims of “it’s not fair,” “you always go first,” and “it’s my turn.” We ended up with several methods of solving these minor disputes by ourselves. Our parents were steadfastly uninterested in the debates.
“Rock, paper, scissors” was usually played by two of us for the best two out of three. (Unless the loser insisted that what they really meant was best three out of five.) Rock(clenched fist) smashes scissors. Paper(flat hand) covers rock. Scissors(two extended fingers) cuts paper. I would like to say that this ended the disagreement. However, there seemed to be new complaints such as “how come you always choose rocks?” Irrational I know, but the loser had to think of some way to confuse the results. (Here I consciously avoid present political parallels.)
Coin tosses were another decision maker. I still was regularly tricked by my brother’s quick “heads I win, tails you lose.” As I watch my grandchildren use the coin toss to settle questions that old phrase still hangs on. And a new complaint is added to the list: “that coin only has heads!” (My brother did buy such a penny at the novelty store we both loved.)
Finally we used “eeny meeny miny moe.” In the mid-1950’s our family was considered progressive because we said “catch a tiger by the toe,” instead of the much more commonly used racial slur. It never occurred to me to figure out who should go first in this rhyme. It took 60 years to learn from my young granddaughter that where you start determines who wins. I’m glad we didn’t know that as kids. We would have had yet another round of : “you always go first.”
I would love to know any other ways you resolved issues of fairness when you were a kid. Violence not included!
Having cleared up any thought that I was just going to wax nostalgic about the past, I begin my posts on fun and games with a consideration of shoe strings. These long cords, capped with eglets(a word only useful in crossword puzzles) were a constant irritant in my childhood. If I tied them too quickly they came undone and threatened to trip me. If I tied them too tightly I ended up with a knot I was unable to undo. I clearly remember believing that I could never be a mother because I could not get a knot out of a shoelace.
But shoelaces were just right for the hand game of “cat’s cradle,’ pictured in the illustration above. The game took two people, both of whom needed to know how to make the moves and both of whom were willing to play at any given time. I rarely found another girl to play this with, so I usually only got through the first steps, the one’s I could do alone.
One summer, however, when we spent six weeks at my grandparents’ home in the country, my mother was unusually relaxed. She patiently went through the whole process with me with a grand flourish of “ta da” when we finished. After that she showed me “Jacob’s Ladder,” another string design. I was amazed at this playful side of my usually harried mother. I remember the game with fondness as I see the two of us under the large sycamore tree playing with a shoestring.
I have started to blog again after a week off and I realize I want to write quite a bit about the past. But I want to make a distinction between remembering and nostalgia. Nostalgia connotes a longing for the past, an often idealized past. Remembering, on the contrary, takes account of the whole spectrum of experience, both good and bad. Even when many of the memories I share in my blog are joyous or humorous ones, I have no desire to go back to that time. I harbor no illusion that the past was any less complicated or complex than the present.
I love this portrait of my great-grandmother Florence Hiltman Carpenter and the first six of her children, including my grandfather on the right in the back row. While Florence has managed a half smile, the baby is complaining, two of the siblings are grumpy and the others are beyond bored. Despite her probable desire to have this formal studio picture show her growing family in all their fancy clothes pleased to be photographed, the picture instead reflects the reality of life in a busy household.
So as I begin to share a new series which am calling “Fun and Games,” I invite my readers to join either in remembering or learning how it was many years ago. We did have many ways of being entertained before television or electronics and I love thinking about them. But we had polio, diphtheria, small pox, measles, chicken pox, and scarlet fever too. We were worried about nuclear war, watched many of our war veteran fathers drink themselves stupid, saw many of our mothers discouraged by the demands of large families, and have trouble knowing why anyone would long for that time to return. There’s no nostalgia on my end.
I have been writing sporadically for a couple of weeks as I got ready for surgery which I had on Tuesday. All looks good; it was a preventive measure. I am still pretty wiped out and will take a couple of days longer to recover before I rejoin the wonderful community I have come to know and love.
So Merry Christmas or solstice or mid-winter or mid-summer wherever you are. May you experience the awe I show in the picture when I was one!
For most of my life I followed an academic schedule. The year began at Labor Day and ended mid-June. I had an ingrained sense of time from that routine. After I retired and began attending the Catholic church pictured above I learned to move to a different schedule. There the year begins in Advent, the time leading up to Christmas, usually late November and runs until the next November. This new calendar has now been imprinted in me and I am comforted by the predictability.
Which brings me to the sense of being completely out of sync during this year. We went into isolation in mid March and missed the great feasts of Easter and Pentecost. We are nearly through Advent and are still unable to gather for worship. After Christmas season we will enter what the Church calls Ordinary Time, but there will still be nothing ordinary about it for us.
Catholic worship is very physical. While we joke about standing, sitting, kneeling, repeat, our bodies are quite accustomed to the practice. And the pinnacle of worship is a walk to the front of the church to receive Communion, a physical wafer in our physical hand. And much physical action happens before and after the service as we greet one another, often with a hug. We are an embodied religion and we experience much of our faith through our body.
While I watch Mass streamed on television, it becomes a listening experience rather than a fully embodied one. I am not surrounded by music: I can’t smell the incense or oil used at special times; I can’t take the bread and wine into my body. While seeing and hearing the Friars is much better than no contact, much is missing. That makes my worship feel as out of sync as the calendar.
Here’s hoping that enough Americans get vaccinated that it is safe to return to church or any other activities that people need to feel grounded once again. It turns out that routine is underrated. I miss it terribly.
Reading about the possibility that Donald Trump would refuse to leave the White House(on the right) to allow President-Elect Joe Biden to move in, I thought back to 1955 and the house on the left. Our next door neighbor’s aunt had died and left him her house. It was an enormous place, filled to the brim with her hoards including ceiling high piles of old newspapers, and the neighbor wanted nothing to do with the place. Meanwhile with my mother expecting her fourth child and us living in a small two bedroom house, my parents were willing to buy the place, hoards and all. He only had two stipulations. He didn’t want to have to go in the house himself. And we had to continue to let Norman live there.
Norman, an odd man in his late 30’s, occupied a bedroom on the third floor. Perhaps he was the last resident of the boarding house that our neighbor’s aunt ran. He was a small man perpetually smelling of cigarette smoke. My desperate parents took up the offer and we acquired a new house and a new boarder. He paid no rent and made his own meals.
Norman gave me the creeps, though I couldn’t have told you why. He regularly baby sat us, apparently having earned my parents’ undeserved trust. One evening as we sat on the sofa watching television he bent over me and started kissing me. No fool I, even at seven, I pushed him away in disgust. Then I told my mother. Norman left. The house was ours for the first time.
Let’s hope it takes much less than that appalling scene for Trump to move out!
Two winters had passed with little or no snowfall. People began to talk as if New England was the new mid-Atlantic with a milder climate. Fortunately, for those of us who like New England, the snow delivered overnight, dumping 12 inches in our neighborhood. The little window thermometer reads just over 20 F degrees, but it is next to the kitchen window so is a little warmer than the real outside reading. Thanks to their overhangs, the three feeders in the picture continue to feed the visiting birds.
We have one neighbor who always likes to be the first on the street to clear a path. This morning I looked out and saw that there was a path clearing half of the sidewalk next door. He and my husband take care of that widow’s walks and driveways, so I knew he had been out. My husband commented that the man has a “little snowblower,” hence the half done job. At my encouragement, my spouse had purchased the Cadillac of snow equipment–a much larger machine. In the middle of a pandemic you take your bragging rights where you can!
If we can’t celebrate in any normal way this Christmas, at least we have snow. We can truly say “it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas” around here.
Most of my reading of late has been nonfiction. I seem to be sitting either with long biographies or serious histories. The biographies center on authors, the histories on immigration. But occasionally I find a novel that is worth the time it takes to read it. (For me, a lot of them aren’t) The Midnight Library by Matt Haig, written this past August, passed my test.
The premise of the novel is intriguing, and it is no spoiler to reveal it here. From the start of the book we learn that Nora is about to die. (If you really need to be completely surprised, stop reading now.) When she does, she finds herself in the midnight library, a place between life and death. There she finds the very helpful librarian who allows her to relive any part of her life about which she has regrets. Suddenly she finds herself back at those junctures.
While I often wonder “what if” about various times in my life, as do most I imagine, I have never encountered such a witty treatment of the questions. The book comes closest to the classic movie It’s A Wonderful Life, but departs from it in an intriguing way. Here Nora ends up time traveling and remaining both her old self(her root self) and the new one. My mind enjoyed the conundrums that arose thinking about that dual consciousness.
Great literature? No. But neither is it completely formulaic. If you need to depart from the crazy pandemic and political chaos surrounding us, you could do worse than to spend it in the midnight library.