Outhouse Adventures

Outhouse Adventures

During the heat and humidity of an Iowa summer, Aunt Dee gave birth to her seventh child at home. At the age of eleven, I knew only that babies were cute. I had no idea how much work they were or that a mother was worn out after her baby was born. Aunt Dee was no exception. She wasn’t at all up to par, and she slept most of the time. Her husband, Uncle Connie, really needed help with their other kids. He had no hired man and too many farm chores that were not getting done.

So Grandmother (known as Josie Peal to her family), agreed to stay and help out for a week. She’d done it after each of her thirteen grandchildren came into the world. She was getting used to helping Uncle Connie and Aunt Dee because they had more kids than anyone in the family. A dog named Spike would show all of us just how far Josie would go to help her children.

Keeping track of all the grandkids and their mischief was not easy. And since cooking nonstop and staying ahead of the laundry was getting harder each year, looking after the needs of sickly Aunt Dee and the new baby just about wore her out. She knew she could get through it because she had done it before and wasn’t about to allow herself to get discouraged. Each night after all of my cousins had been sent to bed and Aunt Dee and the new baby were down for a few hours, Grandmother had her nightly meditation. First, she read from the Bible. When that was finished, she knelt by her army cot with elbows on the blanket and prayed, “Lord, I love my grandchildren, but give me the strength and good humor to get through tomorrow without smacking one of these kids.”

While Josie Peal, volunteer rescue worker for all of her grandchildren, was praying for courage in the country, her daughters, Laura, Edith, Sarah, and Naomi, stayed home to help our family. Mom had run away again, so my brother and sister and I were staying with them at Grandmother’s house. While we were there, Aunt Edith called Grandmother to find out how she was doing on the farm.

She replied, “Well, it depends on what hour it is. This is no picnic.”

That was a sure sign that help was needed. So Aunt Edith left my brother and sister with our three aunts and took me to the farm to play with my cousins while she helped with whatever had to be done. There would be vegetables to pick, corn to be shucked, laundry to be washed, and a baby to bathe.

I didn’t care about any of that grownup stuff. I was beside myself with excitement because I could play on the farm with my cousins and eat fresh corn on the cob from Aunt Dee’s garden.

It was a wonderful plan. But when we finally arrived at the farm, my grandmother didn’t even have a chance to look relieved that help had arrived. My cousins slammed the screen door open, yelling, “Help! We gotta pull Spike outta the toilet!”

Her shoulders sagged. “Oh no … not again.”

I was kind of confused. Who was Spike and what was going on? I had a feeling that my fun afternoon might not happen after all.

Grandmother yelled for us to stay put as she rushed into the yard. Aunt Edith and I obeyed and watched from a safe distance. Even though we felt guilty, we were glad that we’d been left out of whatever was going on outdoors. Soon my curiosity started driving me crazy. I just had to find out what was happening. So from the safety of the back porch, I watched my cousins dart this way and that like disorganized ants as they tried to follow our grandmother’s orders. It was as much fun as watching a movie.

She hollered, “Clara, Dora, Hubert, Elma, Connie — come quick! Somebody pull the hose up close and somebody getcherself over here and give me yer ankles. The rest of you, grab holda my skirt and don’t let go!”

My eight-year-old cousin Hubert saved the day. What a little hero. He volunteered to be lowered headfirst through the hole in the outhouse. It was the only way to rescue Spike. Grandmother grabbed Hubert’s ankles, and three kids hung onto her long skirt to anchor the whole lot. We could hear him yell from down below, “I’ve got ’im!” It sounded like his voice was coming from a cave. I was in awe as I watched them pull my cousin and the family dog out of a pit full of summer-heated body waste.

Hubert was pretty yucky. He just stood there because he didn’t know what to do next, but Spike knew exactly what to do. Once he found his legs on firm ground again, he shook his icky coat at high speed, projecting disgusting stuff everywhere.

I couldn’t believe my eyes and yelled, “Oh, my gosh!” Spike was splattering the bushes, the cat, and every kid within range. Grandmother grabbed the smelly dog and helped hold him captive while my cousins hosed him off the best they could.

Although she was as stinky and repulsive as Spike, Josie Peal was still in charge. She yelled orders, which we all obeyed. My aunt and I helped hose off my cousins before they stripped naked. Then they put their filthy clothes in an old barrel filled with water. Next, they scrubbed their bodies with soap. Nobody cared one bit that they were all buck naked in the country air. It was way more fun than I thought it would be. After one last hosing off with cold spring water, they used up all the family towels. Doing the laundry added another hour to what was eventually referred to as Josie’s Nightmare. I called it an adventure.

After the kids got dressed, Hubert the Hero decided to play Indian with one of his sisters. She had stolen his lucky ring and wouldn’t give it back. So he tied her to a tree and started laying out dry kindling to build a fire to sacrifice her to the gods. Luckily, Grandmother heard about his plan after the prisoner had unwillingly returned the loot. By that time, she was a nervous wreck even though she tried to hide it. I could tell she was near the end of her rope because she sighed a lot and said “good grief” more than usual.

When things had calmed down, she invited us for supper. Aunt Edith said, “We can’t, Mother. I need to get back and help the girls with Bob and Patty.”

I really wanted to stay since they were having all the freshly-picked corn on the cob they could eat. But I could tell that my aunt wanted to leave as much as I wanted to stay. I think washing all those stinky kids and clothes had made her lose her appetite.

Grandmother Peal later told us that her evening meditations that night took longer than usual. After reading extra chapters from the Bible to get God’s attention, she prayed again for strength and wisdom and added a P.S.:

Lord, while I’m still sane, I want to thank you for sending help when I needed it. But I have another favor to ask. Please don’t send any more babies to Connie and Dee. I’m too old for these outhouse adventures. Ay-men.

 

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When I was a freshman at Colorado State College of Education in Greeley, I took long walks to put off my homework, and to avoid learning how to play bridge. During one of those flights, I discovered an enormous multistory home perched on a rise above the corner of 10th Avenue and 17th Street. The huge structure reigned like a queen over all the cottages in the neighborhood. I often wondered who owned it. Obviously, only a wealthy family would live in a place the size of a ship.Union Colony 3 001I had no idea that I would soon live there.

A few years later, I learned that the college had purchased the building. They named it Union Colony Apartments and rented out furnished units to faculty and married students. Denny and I would be eligible for one of those apartments, because we would soon leave Nebraska and the twelve men in Thompson Hall for a move to Greeley, Colorado. Our next job was living with thirty-six women in a girls’ dorm. That’s where Denny would also finish his masters’ degree and start working on a doctorate.

But, our new job didn’t start until September, so during July and August we had to find somewhere to live. Before leaving York, we reserved the last apartment available in Union Colony: number 303. While living there for two months, Denny would prepare for his oral exams in mathematics. At the end of August, we would pack up our belongings again and relocate to Gordon Hall, a girls’ dormitory.

Moving three times in two months would be a challenge, but our future looked better than ever, and my insides were so full of smiles that I felt chubby.

When we opened the door to unit 303, we didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. We settled on laughter because it was easier. Our new temporary home was in the attic and had a far-fetched floor plan consisting of a fifteen-foot corridor with a cubicle on the left side that housed the bathroom and a space on the right for a bed.

The bed was a mere forty-eight inches below the roof. We kept forgetting where we were sleeping. Each morning, we’d throw off the covers, sit up, and bump our heads on the sloped ceiling. We must’ve whacked ourselves stupid a hundred times. My husband said, “I’m gonna be brain damaged before taking my orals.”

Living in our crowded corridor reminded me of playing house in my grandmother’s attic. We cooked simple meals on a two-burner gas stove that had four short legs. The stove sat on a ledge instead of the floor, and we had no oven. The cute refrigerator that stood as high as my waist turned out to be the perfect place to set a dark green fan Denny had rescued from a fire on campus. Nobody had claimed the heavy, old, ugly thing, but it worked, so we kept it.

A wobbly card table with a couple of folding chairs claimed a place next to the attic window. We ate meals there and watched the world go by three stories below. Elm twigs brushed the screen, and the view made it seem like camping in a tree house. That end of the living space became my favorite spot.

Den and I became friends with neighbors, Claude and Anna Schmitz, who lived in 302, a “standard” unit. Claude, who went by the nickname Schmitty, had a wondrous tenor voice and had sung professionally in New York, but he longed to be a teacher.  They’d been dying to compare apartments. After a tour of the fifteen yards from our entrance door to the window, I could tell they were stifling either laughter or shock in an effort to avoid hurting our feelings. When they invited us to have iced tea in their apartment, we could stand up straight everywhere. Their ceiling was clearly better than our ceiling. In spite of my envy, we grew very close to Claude and Anna.

We also befriended Hank and Marty, a young couple on the second floor. He had a job in town, and she was studying for her teacher’s credential. Unfortunately, Marty got polio and ended up in the hospital. The residents of Union Colony were like family, so we helped Hank by making meals for him. When his wife finally returned home and had to stay in bed, we pitched in to help feed her, too. A few weeks later, Fern, another woman who lived in the building, came down with sleeping sickness.

Word got around that two other couples in the house were so afraid of catching one of these maladies that they moved away. Den and I had been blessed with good luck and didn’t worry a twit about catching polio, sleeping sickness, or anything else going around.

As planned, my husband spent most of that summer preparing for his master’s degree oral exams. His flair for mathematics, my most feared subject, put me in awe of his intelligence. Just the thought of taking an oral test in arithmetic caused my blood to run cold.

He reviewed everything he’d ever learned about advanced mathematics so he would pass with high marks, and I helped by reading from a long list of questions that he practiced answering. During all the questioning and answering, the only thing I learned about mathematics was that it was over my head. No surprise there.

The evening before the big day, he said, “Let’s go to the movies.”

“Tonight? Shouldn’t you keep studying?”

“Nope. If I forget about it for a while, I’ll feel more relaxed.”

We saw Annie Get Your Gun, a perfect film for getting your mind off exams.

His orals started at 10:00 the next morning. He sat up, bumped his head on the ceiling, flopped back down, and said, “I just knocked everything I knew about math out of my brain.”

“Oh, no! I hope you’re kidding.”

I made a mental note to move the pillows to the other end of the bed, where there was a little more headspace.

After pulling himself together, he ate a bowl of Shredded Wheat and left for a few hours. When he strutted back through the door, beaming, I said, “You’re finished already?”

“I’m finished, and you won’t believe how much fun I had.”

“Fun? How could you possibly call a math test fun?”

“Betty, it’s hard to explain. I’d taken classes from the four professors, so they knew me. It was more like a conversation about the pure science of mathematics than a test.”

“What did they ask you?”

“They took turns asking me to elaborate on certain mathematical concepts. I really enjoyed explaining each topic, pretending they knew nothing about the subject.”

“Did you pass?”

“With high marks.”

Each successful step toward our future filled me with confidence. With Denny at the helm, we would never be as poor as either of our families.

*     *     *

Story and illustration by Betty Auchard

 

 

 

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Wet Weather Report…

Wet Weather report 1

Wet Weather Report

Dad found a new job at Whiting’s Dairy, which meant we could move to a nice house on Center Point Road. It had a few more rooms, and the best part of all was the indoor toilet. Bobby and I were so excited that we pretended to go potty just so we could flush, causing Mom to say more than once, “You kids stop flushing that thing.” With an indoor toilet, our future looked good.

Moving to a new place meant I had to change schools, and walking to Garfield Elementary took longer than walking to Lincoln. But, it was an easy walk on sidewalks, with no gravel roads to fall down on and no confusing corners to turn. I couldn’t get lost going to the new school. The only problem was that I usually had to go to the bathroom before I got home, so I often wet my pants.

My mother was frustrated. “Betty, why don’t you go to the bathroom before leaving school?”

“I don’t have to go then.”

She sighed like all the air was coming out of her.

“What’s wrong, Mama?”

“Every time something good happens, a snag comes with it.”

“What’s a snag?”

“It means that nothing is ever perfect.”

“This house is perfect.”

“Yes, it is, but it’s too far away from school.”

To solve the problem, my mother wrote a note to my teacher. Before pinning it on my blouse, she read it aloud:

“Dear Mrs. Martin. Please tell Elizabeth to use the toilet before leaving school. She has a very small bladder and a long walk home.”

I was worried that some smart kid in kindergarten who knew how to read might rip it off my blouse and tell everyone I had a small bladder. And I didn’t want Mrs. Martin to guess that I wet my pants every day after school.

I always tried really hard to hold it, but after walking several blocks, my urge to pee was too strong to ignore. The first time, there wasn’t a good place to relieve myself, so the only thing I could do was squat down and pretend I was tying my shoe and just let it go. I was shocked at the big puddle on the sidewalk. From then on I pretended to tie my shoe on the grass — and never on the same lawn twice.

When I reached our house, my legs, socks, and shoes were usually soaked. Mama didn’t ask; she just waited for me to tell her whether I was wet or dry. It was kind of like doing the weather report.

In the winter it was awful since there was a lot more stuff to get wet when wearing snow pants and boots. The worst part was that it sometimes froze, which made the inside of my thighs red and chapped. I always had a runny nose in the winter, too, and it froze on my upper lip. My lips were so dry and chapped from the cold that my bottom lip had a permanent split in the middle. I couldn’t smile or laugh without causing it to bleed. My mother said, “Good Lord, Betty. You’re a mess in the winter.”

Each afternoon, my kindergarten class lined up at the door to wait for the dismissal bell to ring. After receiving the note, Mrs. Martin started asking right there in front of all my classmates, “Elizabeth, do you need to use the bathroom before you leave?” Everyone would look at me as though dying to know the answer, and each time I would shake my head with an expression that said, “What a silly question.”

I wasn’t lying. I never had to go to the bathroom until I was halfway home. Besides, none of the other kids had to use the toilet after school and I didn’t want to be the only one. I really dreaded that long walk.

I wet my pants after school every day for the rest of the year. But before first grade started, I had it under control. Mama said it was because my bladder had finally grown up to match my body. I was so relieved. My teacher wouldn’t have to ask that embarrassing question anymore, and my mother was happy again.

Our move to Center Point Road was finally perfect.

*     *     *

 

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Meet Mona Lisa and Vincent Van Groundhog

Valentine gophers (1)

 

Dear Readers,
Way back in the 70s, before I started writing, I was an art teacher in the San Jose Unified School District in California. To draw these large portraits I used oil pastels to render Mona Lisa and Vincent Van Gogh as groundhogs. I framed them and they’ve been hanging in my garage all these years. The reason for making them in the first place was to use as fun decorations for our pot-luck party that just happened to be on Groundhog Day. Recently, I photographed the couple, and my daughter, who is computer savvy, flipped Mona around to face Vincent, because for almost 40 years they’ve both been been facing left. They couldn’t even see each other though they knew they were both famous…after they died. Now, they’re face to face and finally getting acquainted. My daughter also added the balloons for captions so we can eavesdrop on their conversations.

I’m sharing them here for two reasons: to show off my good taste in fine art and to wish you all a Happy Valentine’s Day.

Betty Auchard

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The Picture Palace by Guest author, Pauline Chand

The Picture Palace

I love going to the movies.  Even as a small child, going to a show, as we called it back then, thrilled me, whether it was a small, neighborhood theater or a grand picture palace.  The Loew’s is where my brother and I went for the Saturday matinee, an entire morning of cartoons, fun and laughter for twenty-five cents.  We rushed to claim our favorite seats in the very first row where we put our feet on the brass railing and craned our necks to view the larger-than-life screen.  From this vantage point, I could gallop over the Great Plains dodging Apache arrows or ride to the ball in a pumpkin coach with Cinderella.

Much as I loved the Loew’s, my favorite movie theater was the RKO Palace, the grandest of all movie theaters in Rochester.  A thrill ran up my spine the moment I set foot underneath the majestic marquee where Times Square lights beamed all day and night.   As soon as I entered the palatial lobby, I grew taller and my bearing became regal.  Like a princess, I floated above the royal red carpet, thick and plush as fresh-sheared wool.  I glided past walls covered in silks and brocades, all in shades of red and gold.  Enormous mirrors with curlicue gold frames lined the lobby, reflecting my royal self.  Marbled columns soared to the gilded ceiling, directing one’s eye to the magnificent, sparkling crystal chandelier that looked as big as our entire dining room.

At the far end of the lobby, on either side of the entrance to the stage, stairs led to the box seats and to the balcony.  At times a thick, red velvet rope cordoned off these alabaster staircases which gleamed as if bathed in moonlight.  Ascending the steps, I became a moonlit sprite in a fluttery toga, my fingers running over the smooth and cool banister which felt as smooth as rose petals.  Elegance and opulence embellished every inch of the Palace.

The Ladies’ Lounge, we never called this grand place the “rest room,” was a study in grandeur.  It was furnished with red velvet settees, red and gold brocade chairs, gleaming mahogany tables, antique bronze statues and extravagant floral arrangements.  Fine old oil paintings, some life-sized, covered the walls.  I dreamed of lounging on the plush settee, one arm thrown over my forehead, the other waving about a foot long cigarette holder.  “Hell-oo, Dahling,” I’d say to everyone who entered, lowering my eyes and using my deepest Marlene Dietrich voice.  As I grew older, my movie star persona grew younger, and I became a young sophisticate in the ilk of Audrey Hepburn or Grace Kelly; I always aimed high in my imagination.  It was great fun to pretend to be a Hollywood star or a princess in this glorious picture palace.  Sometimes, I almost forgot about the show.

When it was time for the movie to begin, the doors were opened, the velvet ropes were removed and red-uniformed ushers wearing pillbox hats and white gloves helped us find seats.  After the lights were dimmed, they used flashlights to guide late-comers into the theater. Golden box seats, carved with whirls and tendrils, lined both sides of the velvet-curtained stage and a monumental Wurlitzer organ, a holdover from the days of silent movies, stood majestically against one wall.  The mahogany seats with red velvet upholstery felt as soft as my mother’s mink coat; I wanted to pet them.

Once seated, everyone spoke in low tones, the combined voices sounding like a purr.  Then as the heavy outer curtains parted, a hush fell over the crowd of almost three thousand people.  A thrill ran up my spine.  It was show time.

We sank into our seats and munched on Jujubes, Dots, Goobers and Raisinets as we watched the cartoons, which always came first.  Grown-ups and children alike howled with delight at the antics of Tom and Jerry or Elmer Fudd as he was confounded time and time again by “that cwazy wabbit.”  Then we all grew somber as we watched the RKO Pathe News and saw images of struggle and triumph from around the world.  And then the first strains of Hollywood music drew us in as the opening credits appeared on screen.  By now, we were rife with anticipation and eager to be drawn out of our world, our imaginations unfettered, ready to be transported to distant places and far-off times.

All too soon, the movie ended; it was time to leave the gilt and the grandeur, time to return to the real world. Sighing, we rose from our seats, our heads aswirl with romance and adventure. We padded slowly across the plush carpeting, savoring our last few moments in the picture palace before stepping out onto the hard concrete of reality.

*     *     *

The magnificent RKO Palace Theater, which opened on Christmas day, 1928, was Rochester’s most beautiful movie theater.  It was demolished in 1965 to make room for a parking lot, the same fate that befell the Loew’s.  Today, the parking lot is gone and another movie theater, a modern multi-plex, stands exactly where the glorious Palace once stood.      Pauline Chand

illustrated by Betty Auchard

 

 

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Thanksgiving Wedding photo 11 26 1949

Every Thanksgiving I think about November 26, 1949, the day Denny Auchard and I got married in Englewood, Colorado. I was barely nineteen and he was an older man of 23 from out-of-state.

Some of his family had arrived from Kansas, just in time for dinner. My family was financially strapped and didn’t have the means to purchase a turkey that would feed a crowd in addition to paying for a $150 wedding. But, my mother had a creative way with food and molded a huge meat loaf into the shape of a roasted turkey. It was a wonderful meal with all the usual Thanksgiving trimmings, minus the bird. My future family appreciated the good food and the humor with which it was offered.

In spite of having little money, we had a lovely wedding. Mom and I made my taffeta gown, complete with a train, zillions of loops, and hand-covered buttons that ran up the long sleeves and down the front of the bodice. It took forever to make all those loops and buttons, but even longer to button them. My veil was a gift from a neighbor who created accessories for a bridal shop.

We still had some other expenses to cover when Denny and I actually found a $20 bill on the sidewalk in downtown Englewood. We assumed it was a gift from God to pay for our flowers. In addition to these many blessings, it seemed we might even save on Denny’s haircut by following my father’s advice. He announced, “My barber offered to cut the groom’s hair for free. Just tell him I sent ya.” What a deal! We couldn’t pass up that one. Denny went straight to the barbershop and announced he was the guy who was marrying Butch Peal’s daughter. The barber’s only response was, “Congratulations! How nice. Where ya from?” It was awkward, to be sure, so Denny paid full price, $2, for the worst haircut of his life. It was shaved high up on the back of his head and straight across the bottom like an old-fashioned bowl cut—not at all stylish in 1949. From the back it looked terrible, and that’s primarily what the congregation would see. I was anxious for people to notice that his face was better than his hair.

We had other wrinkles that needed smoothing. Denny’s father was a minister and had performed the weddings for all of his other children. But, because of restrictions in my church, he would not be allowed to assist in our ceremony. Undaunted, Denny was determined to find a way his dad could play an important role in our wedding. He demoted his best man to head usher. Then, my sixteen-year old brother was demoted from head usher to just plain usher, and Reverend Auchard became his son’s best man.

However, the wedding events were not without more anxieties. Our rented house had a major sewer problem the week before our wedding. My dad was determined to fix it himself and dug a deep pit exposing our ailing septic tank, which was now bordered by a mountain of stinky dirt. I assumed this would be corrected before my wedding day. It wasn’t, and the whole neighborhood smelled like excrement, which is a nice word for poop. Our toilets wouldn’t flush, and we couldn’t use the bathtub. So, on the day of my wedding my family of five took turns bathing in a tin tub in the warm kitchen. Mom heated a boiler on the stove and kept adding fresh, hot water to the tub for each new bather. Since I was the bride, I was allowed to choose my bathing order. I could have gone first with just three inches in which to wash, but I chose to immerse in deeper, slightly used water so I went last. It allowed me to shave my legs high up above my knees, where I had never shaved before, so I would be wonderfully smooth everywhere on my wedding night. It gave me a rash.

Finally, my hair and makeup were complete. Perfume, deodorant, and wedding garter were in place, as well as something old, new, borrowed, and blue. My ultra sheer nylon hose were eased onto my legs with glove-covered hands. Then came the taffeta gown with all those loops and hand-covered buttons. It was truly a robing ritual. My legs and skin felt oddly smooth all over, even where I had not shaved. Oh, Lord! It was then I realized my slip was still on the bed instead of on me. We had no time to unhook and rehook a zillion covered buttons, so my mother got a seam ripper and picked out the two side seams of my gown. She then pulled the slip up from below, cut off the straps, stitched the slip to the top of my bra, and hand-sewed the side seams back together from the outside. We were now actually late for my wedding, and I was beginning to feel sweaty with anxiety.

We were breathless when my family of five finally got to the church. The music had repeated several times, and I had broken my deodorant barrier. The guests were visibly relieved as we arrived, and they settled into their pews as the ceremony proceeded. I heard the Reverend’s voice, but wasn’t really listening. I was vaguely preoccupied with thoughts of my hastily attached slip. Would it hold? I also wondered how Denny’s hair looked from behind. I repeated my vows quietly and watched Denny’s lips move as he repeated his. I wouldn’t be able to kiss those lips until we were alone. Kissing during a wedding ceremony was not part of my church’s practice, but whatever we said and did allowed us to become man and wife. We had our pictures taken by everyone, and I found frequent opportunities to explain Denny’s bad haircut, as if people gave a hoot, which they didn’t. Our wedding guests were mostly impressed with my twenty-three-year-old guy from Kansas for his unpretentious manner and stunning good looks. He was remarkably handsome and likable. I was so proud to be marrying him.

Our reception was held in my parent’s rented house outside of historic Fort Logan. The event was nothing upscale, just cake, punch, and coffee in a warm, crowded, happy atmosphere. But I was praying so hard, “God, please don’t let anyone use the toilet since it won’t flush, and puhleeeze don’t let the whole neighborhood smell like poop!” And that night, for some miraculous reason, no one used the toilet and the neighborhood did not smell like poop. God is good.

We opened our gifts and mingled with guests, enjoying refreshments while my dad sat in the kitchen being a good host to my new father-in-law. Being a good host meant offering Reverend Auchard a shot of whiskey so the dads could drink a toast to the newlyweds. Denny’s father declined the liquor, but graciously raised a cup of punch alongside my dad’s bourbon glass. No doubt he was also offering a silent prayer for all of us.

Meanwhile, my brother stuffed potatoes in the exhaust pipe of Denny’s coupe and tied a million tin cans to the bumper. He must have saved tin cans for a month. My teen-aged brother and sister had a ball during the celebration, my father had his occasional shot of whiskey, Denny’s folks had the Lord on their side, and Denny and I had each other.

We stayed that night in the Brown Palace Hotel in Denver, returning the next day to have more pictures taken and give my brother a serious lecture regarding potatoes in the exhaust pipe. Then we collected our wedding gifts and all my earthly possessions, which included my violin, love letters, yearbooks, photos, dolls, artwork, and two foot-long braids that had been cut from my head only three years earlier. For reasons I didn’t understand, the simple act of packing up all of my personal belongings was a real shock to my mother. I was barely nineteen and the first child to leave home, so it must have been hard for her to see me leave. My mother struggled with the realization that I was uprooting myself for good. I hugged and kissed everybody, and Denny assured my parents he would take care of me always. I promised to write as we drove away, but I could still see my mother and sister crying, my brother waving his hands off, and my father smiling as I left my family forever.

My family was sad to see me leave, but I was ecstatic as I headed east to start married life in York, Nebraska with my brand new husband. At twenty-three, he was the youngest instructor on the faculty at York College and at nineteen, I would be the youngest faculty wife. We were also “house-parents” to male students who lived upstairs. That meant we were rarely alone and would be living with 12 men. * * * Living with 12 Men to be released sometime in 2015 by Betty Auchard

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Miss McKay

by Pauline Chand, guest author

The only time that Savannah Street, the street of my childhood, resembled the more famous Savannah was in the summertime. In the middle of this particular summer afternoon in 1948, Savannah Street was hot, humid and oppressive. You could see the steam rising from the blacktopped road. The only sound to be heard was the occasional drone of a bee or Dragonfly. There was not a person in sight. Everyone had retreated indoors, windows shaded, to escape the sweltering heat.

I spent the morning playing with my best friend, Rosemary. As the sun grew hotter, we took our game of Jacks indoors and sat on the cool linoleum of her kitchen floor. Rosemary’s mom hummed Italian opera to herself as she ironed on her mangle, her tune in harmony with the soft thud of her foot on the pedal and the swish of the sheets as she folded them. Our rubber ball thumped with each bounce and our jacks  tinkled as we tossed them onto the floor, then quickly scooped them into our hands.  The rhythmic sounds of the mangle interspersed with the “bounce-tinkle, bounce-tinkle” of the jacks made us feel drowsy and we soon became bored with our game.

“What do you wanna do now?” I asked. “I’m too hot to move.”

“I know,” said Rosemary, “let’s make up stories about Miss McKay.”

We were both about nine years old and delighted in making up stories about our neighbors. Our favorite subject was Miss McKay, the neighborhood “witch.” We tried to top each other, making each story more fantastic and scarier than the last. Just as our imaginations soared and our pulses quickened, Rosemary’s mom said, “It’s ‘Life with Luigi’ time.” She was Italian and “Life with Luigi” was her favorite radio program and my cue to go home for lunch.

I was a bit nervous because the street was deserted and I had to pass Miss McKay’s house to reach home. Her house was large; a three story Victorian painted dark brown with black trim and surrounded by a black, wrought iron fence as well as a tall hedge. The windows were always shuttered, making it look as if no one lived there.  During the summer, if I stood on tiptoe, I could see the tops of the rose bushes in Miss McKay’s garden, but I had never seen Miss McKay. Usually, if I had to pass her house I would cross over to the other side of the street, but today I decided to walk right in front of it. Just imagine what Rosemary will say when she hears how fearless I am, I thought to myself.  Besides, everyone knows that witches don’t like sunlight.  Miss McKay will never see me.

As I neared the house, I suddenly became bold, walking faster and faster. My heart beat quickened, urging me on. With each beat, it seemed to say, “Closer, closer…take-a-look, take-a-look.” Then, with courage coursing through my veins, I did the unthinkable. I stopped, stood on tiptoe, craned my neck…and peered directly into Miss McKay’s garden.

My eyes widened. I couldn’t breathe. I’m sure my heart stopped beating Miss McKay…. there was Miss McKay…with a DEAD LAMB on top of her head.

I ran away fast as I could, sobbing and hysterical by the time I reached home. I gasped with relief as I set foot on the familiar peeling grey paint of our front steps and tore open the front door, my entire body shaking.  I sped through the hallway and into the kitchen where Mom, her back turned to me, was frosting a cake.

“It’s true, it’s true!  She’s a witch! She has a dead lamb on her head!”  I cried to my mother.

“A witch?  A dead lamb? What are you talking about?”

“Miss McKay.  I-I…I s-saw her,” I blurted out in between gulps and sobs, barely able to speak.

My mother took me in her arms and rocked me back and forth. Safe at last, my face pressed against her smooth, worn cotton apron, I smelled the comforting scents of home—a hint of Ivory soap and Cashmere Bouquet talcum powder on my mother’s skin, a freshly baked chocolate cake on the counter and onions sizzling in the skillet. I felt secure in my mother’s arms, comforted by familiar sights and smells and wished I could stay right here forever.

“She’s not a witch. You made a mistake,” Mom said.

“But I saw it!  It’s true! She has a dead lamb on her head!”

“Let’s go have a look,” said my mother.

“No, no!” I cried louder than ever. “She’ll cast an evil spell on us!”

“Then you wait here and I’ll have a look.”

I trembled at the thought of my mother meeting Miss McKay, but agreed to let her go, “Okay, but don’t let her see you.  She truly is a witch…a real witch.”

I stood at the front window, watching Mom as she disappeared from view. I crossed all my fingers for good luck and prayed, “Please come back, please come back…” over and over, fearful of what might happen if Miss McKay spotted her. Our desolate street seemed ominous as I waited for her to reappear.  Why was she taking so long? And then, all of a sudden, there she was, walking back home, her brown curls bouncing in the sunlight. Breathing a sigh of relief, I unclenched my fingers. Mom was okay. I rushed to greet her. My brave mother had done it. She had walked past Miss McKay’s house and looked into the garden.

“Guess what I saw?” she said, a smile teasing her lips.

“What?” I whimpered, fearing the worst.

Mom put her hands on my shoulders and looked straight into my eyes. “Miss McKay is sitting in her garden…in the sunshine…drying her long wavy, white hair which is spread out all around her shoulders. There is no dead lamb on top of her head; it’s only her hair.”

“Drying her hair? No dead lamb?  Are you sure?”

“No dead lamb–just old Miss McKay drying her hair in the sunshine. She’s not a witch, Pauline. She can’t hurt you. Witches aren’t real, you know. They’re only make-believe.”

Relief again flooded over me. I hugged Mom and we both began to giggle. But I couldn’t help thinking how much fun it would’ve been to tell Rosemary what I saw: a dead lamb on top of Miss McKay’s head.”

 

Pauline Chand is a memoir writer

story illustrated by Betty Auchard

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NEW NANAWaneta drove with purpose, face rigid and knuckles white, like the bicycle-riding witch in The Wizard of Oz. My sister was in the car and said, “Mom, what’s going on with you?”

“I found out where your dad’s girlfriend lives!”

Patty knew that big trouble was ahead.

I was married and gone by then, so I didn’t witness the drama firsthand. I wrote the story after hearing about it from my sister, my dad, and my mother, all of whom played a part.

Hearing their versions made me glad that I lived far away. But I felt sorry for my younger sister. With our brother off on his own adventures, Patty had no one left to absorb the fallout from our parents’ antics. I hoped the protective spells I’d cast over her before leaving home would see her through.

My parents had been each other’s first loves. They wed young and embarked on a wacky love affair that spanned twenty-seven years. My mother’s temper tantrums often launched her into reckless decisions, such as repeatedly filing for divorce. As a result, my parents ended their marriage three times before finally making the split permanent. It was a crazy way to exist, but that’s how they did it. Their third marriage lasted the longest, and those eleven years were as filled with pandemonium as any of their shorter unions. When Mom threatened divorce once again, Dad went his own merry way and started dating a nice, calm lady named Lucille.

When my mother learned that her ex-husband was seeing someone else, she was beside herself. By the time she picked up my seventeen-year-old sister at school, her simmering anger was about to boil over into uncontrolled rage. Hunching forward with the steering wheel clutched in a death grip, she raced through the neighborhood, intent on locating the woman who had unknowingly become her archenemy.

Patty was worried sick about what was coming next. That feeling was all too familiar.

“Forget about it,” Patty told Mom, hoping to divert disaster. It was like reasoning with a rock. Mom became deaf when she was enraged.

“I think he’s there now!” Screeching to a stop in front of a house with Dad’s car parked in front, she backed up a little, then sped forward to bash into his door.

Patty screamed, “Stop!”

Her plea had no effect. Our mother kept backing up and bashing, backing up and bashing, until she decided that hitting the vehicle straight on would do more damage. Ignoring my sister, who was nearly hysterical, Mom sped around the block and bashed the target of her rage at full speed. Patty was shaken. The police had arrived in time to witness the last big crunch. Reminiscent of the movies, one of them approached the window and said, “Ma’am, turn off the motor and step outta the car!” Dad and Lucille showed up about then and took my sister inside the house.

“Ma’am,” the officer explained, “we’ve gotta take you to jail.”

Mom begged for mercy. “I’m not a criminal. I’m sick. I’ve been under a lot of pressure, and I need to be in a hospital, not jail. Here’s my minister’s phone number. He’ll explain. He’s been counseling me.”

“Apparently it hasn’t helped,” the officer muttered before contacting the police dispatcher by radio.

Mom’s minister suggested they contact her doctor. He even provided the phone number. The officer told the dispatcher to explain that Waneta Peal had been arrested for willfully damaging Mr. Peal’s car. “Tell him she has to go somewhere and ask him if it should be the hospital or jail.”

Mom later said to me, “My doctor told the police to lock me in jail overnight. Can you imagine?”

“Uh, yes, I can.”

“Not me. I called him back the next day and dismissed him as my physician.”

“Was he angry with you?”

“Nope. He thanked me. Can you believe that?”

I just smiled.

Eventually, Lucille became Dad’s second wife, and my mother moved to California to be close to me. She never forgave the new Mrs. Peal for stealing her man, but she learned to live with it. And whenever she was in Iowa visiting relatives, she and my father met privately at their favorite tavern for a friendly chat and lots of laughs over cold beers.

After a few years, Dad and Lucille also divorced. My mother was triumphant. She and Butch soon had another friendly get-together, this time to talk seriously about becoming a couple again. My brother, sister and I were in three different states, so they called each of us separately to see what we thought of their plan. I was first on the list. It was evident that my father wanted to get remarried, but Mom did not. She wanted them to live together so their social security checks wouldn’t change. Dad said, “We shouldn’t live together if we’re not married.”

In the background, just like in the old days, Mom was yelling her opinion. “I don’t mind living with your father, but I’m not marrying him again!”

They were sixty-eight years old, and their grandkids were all mature adults. No one would have faulted them for sharing rent. But Dad must have felt it was more moral to wed and divorce repeatedly than to reside with a woman out of wedlock.

When Mom refused to change her mind, Dad reconciled with Lucille because he was not meant to be alone. My mother, on the other hand, got so used to being alone that she became a freer spirit than she had ever been. That’s saying a lot because she had always been the queen of freedom.

Years later, Dad ended up in a full care facility in Belle Plaine, Iowa. He was alert and active, read the daily paper front to back, and kept informed about current events. But his memory for some people had dimmed. While he was there, Lucille died. When someone gave him the newspaper clipping from the obituary column, he said, “Who’s this?”

“Mr. Peal, that’s your recently deceased wife.”

“I don’t think so. My wife’s name is Waneta.”

He tucked the clipping into his wallet and occasionally pulled it out to inquire of visitors who Lucille might be.

He didn’t remember us kids either. When I visited, we had lovely conversations, but he couldn’t recall if I was his sister or his daughter. However, his memory of my mother stayed as sharp and fresh as a glass of spring water. He said, “If you live in California, you must know Waneta.”

“Yes, she’s my mother.”

“I’ll never forget her.”

Together or apart, my parents never lost touch. Mom stayed in California and drove her old Buick to Iowa every spring to stay with family for a month or two. During one of her annual Midwest road trips, she saw Dad at the convalescent home. After returning to California, she said, “Your father couldn’t keep his hands off me.”

“Really?

“No kidding.” Then she shared their conversation, which turned out to be their last.

“Waneta,” he said, “you oughta move in here. The food ain’t half bad.”

“Butch, I can’t move in here. I’m in California now.”

“Dang it, Girl, listen to me. There’s an empty room right down the hall.”

“Butch, a person can’t move in here because she wants to. A person has to be sick, and I’m not sick.”

“Heck, Girl, I ain’t either, but here I am. All you have to do is sign up at the front desk.”

“It’s not that simple.”

“Oh, yes, it is. That’s how I got my room.”

Since he may have thought he was in a hotel, Mom considered telling him that she had inquired about vacancies and, sadly, there were none. But he had already switched to another subject.

“Waneta, I don’t think they make beer or cigarettes anymore ’cause I can’t get ’em anywhere.”

Mom told me that when it was time to leave, she gave Butch a nice, long hug. She said, “Betty, you know what?”

“No. What?”

“If I did live there, your father would be in my bedroom every night. Good grief…the man is seventy-eight and still has the hots for me.”

I had to laugh. Did she view that as a blessing or a curse?

NEW NANA 2

*     *     *

For another story about Dad in the convalescent home and his true confessions about Mom, read “First Love: Conversation with Dad” in Dancing in My Nightgown: The Rhythms of Widowhood page 50 by Betty Auchard, published by Stephens Press, LLC, Las Vegas, Nevada.

 

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How to Break a Bone

how to break a bone pic

In the sixth grade, I tried to break a bone. I did it because I wanted someone to feel sorry for me. I wasn’t trying to break a specific bone; any old bone would do just fine.

I was sure that flinging myself down the porch steps would do the trick. Yet every time I tried, I landed in a clumsy heap with all of my parts intact and no injury that required more than a band-aid. I was hoping for at least a sprained ankle. Throwing myself off the front porch was not easy and it hurt a whole lot, but all I had to show for my efforts were red scrapes on both knees and blue bruises on my butt.

I really wanted an injury that would show so when people looked at it they would suck in their breath and say through clenched teeth, “Oh, gosh. That needs attention.” It had to be something that would make me an invalid for a while so they would feel sorry for me the way they felt sorry for Arlene. She had always gotten more than her share of the limelight, but when her mother delivered her to school in a wheelchair with a bright white cast on her foot, you would have thought Arlene was a celebrity. She got more attention than anyone should get in a lifetime. It made me sick.

“Arlene — what happened?”

“Arlene, can I sign your cast?”

“Arlene, lean on me and I’ll help you hobble to class.” (That offer was made by the new boy at school who I’d hoped to marry some day.)

I hated Arlene. I’d hated her since she stole the limelight by bringing that ugly pewter compact to show and tell when we were in the first grade. Now she had a new bike, a cast, and the boy I loved. She probably got out of chores for six weeks because of her injury, too. I knew that if I had to wear a cast, Mom would do the same. She would stay home from work to take care of me, which meant that she would keep my brother and sister in line instead of expecting me to do it. Bob and Patty wouldn’t dare sass Mom the way they sassed me.

But breaking a bone on purpose was not that easy. Even though I wanted a cast more than I wanted a bike (and I really wanted a bike), it looked like I wouldn’t get either of them. Maybe, just maybe … if I was real nice to Arlene, she’d let me borrow hers since she couldn’t ride with a cast on her leg. I might even fall off while learning and break a bone by accident.

 

Excerpt from “The Home for the Friendless,” page 118

illustration by Betty Auchard

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Show Me Yours and I’ll Show You Mine

Show me drawing

My favorite cousin shared his steely marbles with me whenever I was extra special nice to him, so I was nice to him all the time. We had a lot in common. Sonny and I were four years old, and we both had baby brothers. Mama and Aunt Bernice got together once a week to sit around the kitchen table to gossip, drink coffee, and giggle while Sonny and I played and the babies drooled all over each other in the playpen. It was during a visit to my aunt’s house that Sonny and I decided to play in the cellar.

Their cellar was different from the basement under Grandmother Peal’s house, which had concrete walls and floors. My aunt’s cellar had a floor and walls of dirt. It smelled like the deep hole that Dad dug when he had to bury a puppy that died. Even though it had been a sad experience, I’d loved the smell of the damp hole in the earth.

Under our bare feet were lots of little stones. We tossed them to see if we could hit a nearby pail when my cousin said, “If you dare me to, I can pee right on top of that big rock over there.”

“Uh uh–you can’t hit that.”

“Can too,” he replied, and he proved it to me. I didn’t think it was such a big deal, but Sonny, all puffed up with pride, said, “Pick something else for me to hit.”

“That thing,” I said, pointing to a board farther away. He took careful aim and again hit his mark squarely on top. That time I was amazed. “Who taught you to do that?” I asked.

“No one. I learned it by myself.”

“That’s a pretty good trick.”

“Come over here and I’ll show you how I did it,” he offered.

“Okay,” and I got up close to get a better look. My cousin’s “pappy” looked pretty much the same as my little brother’s. After Sonny performed his next trick, he said, “Can you do that?”

“Sure I can. Just watch me hit that baby rock right there.” I pointed to a nearby pebble, pulled down my flour-sack panties, and squatted over the target. I couldn’t see where to aim, so he knelt down to guide me.

“Not that way. Move this way, over here. Yep, that’s good. Now go!”

I let it go and everything but my target got wet. We thought it was so funny that we fell down on the dirt laughing and then took turns seeing what it looked like when pee came out of each other’s pappies. That’s what we were doing when my aunt opened the cellar door and yelled down the stairs, “What are you kids doin’ down there?”

Sonny yelled back, “I’m watching Betty pee on some rocks.”

“You’re doing WHAT?”

I wanted to get in on the credit. “Aunt Bernice, I’m showing Sonny how I pee.”

My aunt flew down the cellar steps so fast I thought she would fall. She grabbed my cousin’s arm and smacked his bottom all the way up to the kitchen where she continued whaling the daylights out of him. He howled so loud it scared me silly. I stood frozen with fear and confusion, thinking, “Why is she spanking him? Is she coming after me next?”

I didn’t know what to do, so I just stood there with my pants around my ankles, hoping Mama would rescue me. Then I heard my aunt and my mother yelling at each other. They sounded mad, so Sonny and I must’ve done something wrong like messing up the dirt.

Finally, Mama came down the steps real fast and said in a quiet voice, “Pull up your panties, Betty. We’re going home now.” She got her purse, lifted Bobby from the playpen, told me to get my coloring book and crayons, and we left without saying goodbye.

Once we were in the car and headed for home, I asked, “Why did Sonny get spanked?” She didn’t answer, so I patted her arm and tried again. “Mama, why was Aunt Bernice mad?”

My mother took a deep breath and said, “She was mad at me because I wouldn’t give you a spanking, too.”

“Why did she want us to get a spanking?”

She didn’t answer right away but finally, said, “Well, because Aunt Bernice thought you and Sonny were playing dirty.”

“But he couldn’t help getting dirty because it’s dirty in Aunt Bernice’s cellar.” I wanted to show her that I had been more careful than my cousin. “See…I’m still clean.”

Mama smiled at me and said, “You sure are.”

*     *     *

illustration by Betty Auchard

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Music Appreciation-Polk School-Cedar Rapids Iowa-1939

Music Appriciation ArtAt the end of the hall on the second floor of Polk School was the “piano room.” Our music appreciation class met there once a week to learn things about music we never knew before. Music was my favorite class. Miss Webster never sat down at her desk but strolled around the room and called out our names while taking attendance. After each kid said “Here,” she looked up from her notebook and smiled or winked. It made us feel special and perked up any kid who wasn’t quite awake.

After attendance, she wandered down each row teasing us with her coming attractions such as “Did you know that at three-years-of age Mozart gave concerts and wrote music for an orchestra?” Someone asked who Mozart was and she said,”I’ll tell you about him sometime,” and she did. But my favorite lesson of all was something Mr. Edvard Grieg composed called the Peer Gynt Suite. She wrote the words “suite” and “sweet’ on the board and said, “Boys and girls, there’s a difference between these two words even though they sound the same.” Then she explained that the first word meant a group of things and the second word meant yummy things that tasted like sugar.

Then Miss Webster gave us a preview of Peer Gynt’s wild adventures which would take up chapters if the story had been in a book. In music a chapter was called a suite. For that reason each suite would sound very different from the others. She said, “Okay, are you ready?” Whenever she said that, we yelled YES real loud because that was her cue to turn on the record player. The music started and she paced up and down each row waving her hands and saying things like “Ya hear that? It was exciting, like “listening” to a movie where instruments were the actors.

Then the music got soft and easy-going. She whispered loud enough for us to hear, “Boys and girls, what do you think the music is saying?”

We guessed all kinds of dumb things that were sometimes funny. Finally, one girl said, “The tune kinda ends up in the air like it’s asking a question.”

Our teacher was so impressed with that girl’s wild guess that she clutched her chest and said, “YES! Now, students, listen carefully to what the music is answering back.” And she was right. The instruments were having a chat.  Then she said, “Now, what do you thing is happening in this part,” and she turned the volume high while playing the suite called Hall of the Mountain King. One of the boys covered his ears and said, “That’s scary.”

“Henry, you’re RIGHT! Now everyone, get out of your seats and do what the music tells you.”

The instruments sounded like wild ducks attacking and she yelled over the volume, “Boys and girls, obey the music! Do whatever it says!

I, for one, was flyin’ all over the place.

During “The Hall of the Mountain King,” our whirling and twisting got kind of wild especially when small creatures tied up Peer Gynt on the ground and stabbed him over and over with their spears. The music said “OomPAH! OomPAH! OomPAH PAH PAH PAH” At that point, the boys started throwing make-believe spears. They were out to kill Peer Gynt, but I don’t think he was supposed to die; the story said he only had a few holes poked in him. The boys finally settled down during my favorite part of the suite because they didn’t like it. Anitra’s Dance inspired us girls to float and twirl around the classroom. The boys called it “girl music” and refused to budge, and I was glad because sometimes boys ruined everything.

During the fourth grade I learned even more about music when my Auntie Marge bought me a student-sized violin. That’s when I started taking free lessons in the piano room with our traveling teacher, Mr. Moehlman. His name sounded like “mailman,” but he delivered music lessons instead of letters. One day he demonstrated the “off beat” rhythm and for some reason I caught on to it real fast. He noticed and said, “Elizabeth, you got rhythm.”

I got rhythm? 

That was the most exciting thing a teacher had ever said to me.

*     *     *

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Parties for Poor Kids

Parties for Poor Kids pic

1937 at The Home for the Friendless, an old-fashioned children’s shelter  

 

There was no way I could be lonesome for playmates at the Home  for the Friendless in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Children who lived there ranged from babies to young teenagers. We were like a family because we had so many things in common, such as parents who sometimes lived together and sometimes didn’t. Some of the kids compared stories the way jail-mates did in the movies. The difference was that prisoners talked about what banks they had robbed or who they’d beaten up. At the Home, children whispered about fights their parents had or why their moms ran away.

Not me. As long as I kept that kind of information to myself, I felt normal. I didn’t tell anyone that when my parents clashed, Mama would yell and cry and break dishes and then run away from home, leaving my aunts to take care of us at Grandmother’s house.

I was embarrassed about my mother’s temper tantrums but it didn’t bother me that our family was poor. Everyone was hard up. When we lived with our parents, the county gave us free groceries like powdered milk, Cream of Wheat, and Wonder Bread. Sometimes people gave us clothes, shoes, and galoshes. I was thrilled when a cute hat with a matching coat came my way on Free Clothing Day. No child at the Home for the Friendless was poor on holidays, because people felt sorry for us. We probably got more attention than any other kids in town. Easter was special because nice ladies from the Women’s Club came and threw a big party for us under the elm trees. They looked pretty in their silky dresses, hats, and gloves. I pretended the short lady was Mama and it made me not miss her as much.

Before the party started, the ladies hid colored eggs everywhere on the playground. Each kid received a beautiful basket with a bow on the handle before being set loose. Dozens of scrumptious treats peeked out of secret places like under the peonies or behind tree trunks. Some of the decorated eggs were right out in the open. We bumped into each other in our rush to grab more than anyone else, but especially to find the golden egg that was really a big hunk of chocolate wrapped in gold tinfoil. Everyone hoped to win the prize for finding the most stuff. The winner wasn’t me because I ate all my treasures as soon as I found them. I couldn’t help myself.

Our Fourth of July party was even better than Easter. A man, his wife, and their dog Pardner entertained us on the front lawn. The cowboy was more dressed up than Hopalong Cassidy, and his pooch wore a cowboy hat and a gun in a little holster while he performed flips in the air. When the cowboy pointed his finger and said, “Bang!” Pardner rolled onto his back and played dead. His legs stuck straight up in the air and his head rolled to the side as though it was all over for him. It made us laugh so hard that seeing the trick just once wasn’t enough. We begged for it over and over, and each time that dog flopped on his side with his little legs pointing to heaven, we laughed until we rolled on the ground, hugging our sides. What a smart pooch. He could’ve been in the movies. Later, Pardner let us all pet him. He was the happiest little dog I’d ever seen in my life, but not as happy as I was that day. Each of us was roped and “captured” by Mr. Cowboy while Mrs. Cowboy strummed a guitar and taught us the words to “Oh, Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie.” You could tell they loved doing it because the more we smiled, the more they sang.

After the show, they treated us to a weenie roast with cold soda pop and homemade ice cream. When it grew dark, grownups shot off rockets, sparklers, and cherry bombs as we kids sat protected behind an imaginary line so no one would get his head blown off. It was exciting to stay outside way after dark, feeling scared and excited at the same time. The fireflies were just as happy that night because they blinked their taillights faster than ever.

The last party that year was Christmas at the Elks’ Club. I was sure their tree was the most sparkly one in the whole world. It went clear to the ballroom ceiling, which was way up above the diamond chandeliers. Every kid got a decorated stocking filled with an orange, a candy cane, and all kinds of penny candy like we used to receive when our Dad paid the grocery bill at Combs Grocery Store. A real live Santa Claus showed up at the Elks’ Club. We knew he was not a fake because he let us pull on his beard … and because he knew all of our names.

We sat on the floor in front of him and when he called out each name, a different kid popped up for a present. When it was my turn, Santa acted like he had known me since the day I was born.

“Well, hello, Betty. Have you been practicing your violin?”

I was so amazed that my eyes bugged out and all I could do was shake my head yes. When it was my brother’s turn, Santa said, “Hi, Bobby. Have you been sharing the kiddy car with the other boys?”

Bobby was so scared that he didn’t know he was lying when he shook his head yes. He just did what everyone else did.

If our gift didn’t appeal to us, we were allowed to trade with each other until we were satisfied. Mine was a bottle of green liquid labeled “Toilet Water.” I had no idea what toilet water was, but an older girl said, “Dummy, you’re supposed to put some of it on your skin each day.”

“Why?” I asked.

“’Cause it’ll make you smell good.”

It didn’t make sense that water from a toilet could smell good. It sounded so icky and looked so putrid that I traded the green liquid for a set of dominoes. Even if we had not been given presents, holidays at the Home were so much fun that I forgot to be homesick for Mama and Dad.

*     *     *

Illustrated by Betty Auchard

 

 

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Halo Shampoo Assembly Hit

HALO SHAMPOO ASSEMBLY HIT

Halo everybody, Halo.

Halo is the shampoo that glorifies your hair,

So Halo everybody, Halo.

Halo Shampoo, Halohhhhhh!

 

            The April 1945 headline in the Roosevelt High School paper in Cedar Rapids, Iowa announced Halo Shampoo is  Assembly Hit. In the article, the school reporter explained that Shirley Allen and Betty Peal (that was me) were ninth graders and good friends who loved to harmonize.

She wrote that we sang in the school glee club and the Olivet Presbyterian Church choir. She even mentioned our dreams of becoming as good as the famous Andrews sisters.

Shirley and I practiced harmonizing all the time and our favorite tune was the Halo Shampoo radio commercial. Naturally, the more we sang the better we got. Our music teacher heard about it and asked us to sing the jingle for the class. From there, word spread and requests for our 16-second show grew more frequent. We performed it for kids at lunch time, between classes, and after school.

Eventually, we were asked to sing the commercial at an all-school assembly for students in grades seven through twelve. That meant a junior named Don Johanos, violinist and my fantasy heartthrob, would be in the audience. He didn’t know I was alive until that day.

Shirley and I went onstage at the end of the program. With a microphone before us, my best friend and I were in top form and as perky as could be. Our performance was over so fast that the audience wanted more and gave us a standing ovation to prove it. What a surprise we were to everyone, even to ourselves, so we sang it again with even more enthusiasm than the first time. I felt like a movie star who’d gotten an academy award.

After the assembly, I overheard a student say to her friend, “One of those girls looks normal, but the one with long braids looks like a Mennonite who left her bonnet at home.” We were sort of an odd couple. Shirley was groovy and I was kinda home-spun, but it hardly mattered because singing had turned us into instant celebrities.

From then on, our classmates would see us and say, “Oh, you’re the SINGERS.”We liked the attention and stayed closer than usual so we’d be recognized immediately.

That’s when the object of my affection, Don Johanos, stopped us in the hall and said, “You girls are GOOD! What are your names?”

Finally, he knew that I existed. Shirley and I hoped to sing on the radio station WMT some day, but until that time came, we were content being 14-year-old celebrities at Roosevelt High School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 1945.

illustration by Betty Auchard

 

 

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A Good Lesson by Betty Auchard

English was one of my favorite classes in the eighth grade. I liked everything about it: grammar, reading, and, especially, the writing assignments.

Miss Polanski announced one day, “Students, next week submit a story about an exciting event that happened in your life.” The kids all groaned. “Well, then — if your life was that boring, invent something. But it had better be good.”

I couldn’t wait to dazzle my teacher with a good tale. I started early by making a list of hair-raising events in my life:

-        when my brother fell out of a second story window

-        when I caught my sister’s lip in a zipper

-        when a charging bull ruined our picnic

-        when my brother almost cremated us in our corn stalk teepee

-        when my uncle put me in the washing machine

To me, my topics sounded boring and common, so I decided to invent a story that was way better than anything on that list. I worked on my creation all week long and let my imagination run wild, inserting a little bit of action and lots of big words so it would sound sophisticated. I was terribly impressed with the results, and I knew Miss Polanski would be, too.

I was certain if there were a Pulitzer Prize for eighth grade students, I would win it.  I pictured the teacher’s note after the “A” I would get: “Elizabeth, see me after class to discuss your promising future as a writer.”

When our assignments were due a week later, my best friend and I were eating a “gourmet” lunch in the school cafeteria. Suddenly, Shirley interrupted her chewing, slapped her forehead, and said, “OH, NO! I forgot to write my story!”

Half-eaten fish sticks muffled her words, but I got the gist of it and jumped to her rescue. “Shirley, I’ll write your story. We’ve got a whole half hour before the class starts.”

She finished chewing, swallowed hard, and accepted my offer.

There wasn’t time to weigh my choices. I grabbed something from my head and slammed it onto paper. I felt exhilarated after belting out words that had rescued my best friend, and we laughed all through the day about our noontime writing frenzy. On the way home from school, Shirley joked, “Lizzie, wouldn’t it be funny if I got a better grade than you?”

“No,” I snorted. “I don’t think that would be funny at all.” And we exploded into fits of laughter.

The next week I could hardly wait for our stories to be returned. I anticipated being asked to read mine to the class, but it didn’t happen. Shirley’s bad joke came true: she got the better grade. I was numb. I had dashed her story off in thirty minutes and it got an “A.”

I got a C+.

The worst part was the note below my friend’s “A”: “Shirley, have you ever considered writing as a career?”

I almost screamed, “YES, MISS POLANSKI — I HAVE!” I wanted to confess that I was the author of Shirley’s adventure story. But my best friend said, “Lizzie, I know how you feel, but think about this: we’ll BOTH get a failing grade if you tell.”

I was as gloomy as an eighth grade girl could be and despondent all day long. But I learned more from that experience than from any teacher. I learned never to do another person’s job if they can do it for themselves. I also discovered that grueling, hard work might be good … but fast is sometimes better.

 

Interesting note: the department of education for North Carolina uses this story as part of the end of the year testing for 8th grade grade language arts students. I guess that’s the Pulitzer Prize I had hoped to get in my own 8th grade English class, but who knew? A team of language arts teachers found stories for the test in published books and this one first appeared in the anthology titled “Chocolate for a Teen’s Spirit published 2002 by Simon & Schuster

 

 

 

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All Hands on Deck by Betty Auchard

In the year 2000 I’d been a widow for two years, and doing ‘guy” jobs had become my hobby. My next task was to remove black mold from our huge deck and stain and seal it again. I purchased deck cleaner and stain-sealer. The directions on the can of cleaner read, “Prepare dirty wood in three easy steps: brush it on, let it set, wash it off.” Oh hey, I can do this. My troubles began with step one: brush it on.

With a push broom, I applied the bleachy-smelling stuff evenly on one small area at a time, and it was going well until I backed myself into a corner. With more thoughtfulness toward strategy, I carried on. The black mold turned lighter but splotchy. I stayed optimistic, feeling that step two–“let it set”–would take care of the problem.

While I worked up a sweat, Rudy, my lawn-mower man appeared to do the weekly grass-cutting and he felt sorry for me. He said, “Oh, Betty, let me help you with that.” I was thrilled and stepped aside.

Rudy worked best to music, so he turned on his tiny red radio that measured 3” x 4” and set the volume low so only he and I, and not the whole neighborhood, could listen to his Latino station. He swabbed the deck with the rest of the cleaner, bouncing to the rhythms of La Bamba.

The sun must have intensified the bleaching effect on the wood, because the longer it set, the lighter it became, but only in some spots. Rudy decided to  use my power washer to stop the bleaching action. That’s when I said, “Rudy, can I just hire you to finish the rest of the deck for me? You could finish it by tomorrow. ”

“Oh, Betty—sure. I’ll mow the lawn later.”

Rudy sprayed water everywhere and some of it got on the deck. As soon as he left I planned to spray a second time. Once alone, I held the power washer nozzle a few inches from the wood, and the deck was lookin’ great. It was so good that I hired Colin, my nineteen-year-old grandson to power spray the whole deck a third time. He said, “Nonnie,” I think you’re doing more harm than good by holding that nozzle so close to the wood.” Since he was just a kid, I pressed him to do it my way because it produced a cleaner surface. Colin worked best to music, too, so he turned on his black boom box to a heavy metal station with the volume on high so the neighbors could enjoy it. I tolerated my grandson’s music just to get the deck clean, dry, and ready to seal by morning so Rudy could get right to work.

That night I slept well and arose early for deck inspection. It looked so good that with both hands I caressed the dried surface. It was full of ridges. I bent way down for a closer look. The power washer had dug out the soft part of the grain. I stared at 533 square feet of deck that I had paid my grandson to damage. There was no time to whine. I dialed Rudy’s number, he answered and I said, “Rudy, I’ll explain later but please stop on your way here and rent a power sander.”

He rented and sanded, but the surface was not getting flat very fast. We also had to rent a small edge sander to get closer to the wall but it made gouges in the middle of the steps. I had an out-of-body experience that made me appear to be calm. We kept the large machine an extra day to take the entire deck down to fresh redwood. The color I had sanded away needed to be put back. I stared at this mess and had to repair it the only way I knew, which was to it up as I went along. Other’s would call it “learning the hard way.”

My oldest son, the fine craftsman, stopped by to see what I was up to and said, “Mom, this is not a good job.”  I knew that.  He didn’t have to tell me, so I sent him home.

Rudy and I were ready to apply the stain sealer with a sprayer. I said, “You spray and I’ll run to Orchard Supply and get more stain so we won’t run out.”

At the store the clerk said, “Oh I wouldn’t spray today; there’s too much breeze. You’ll have that oil based stain all over the place.”

I tore home because Rudy probably didn’t know about NOT spraying in a breeze. When I reached the back yard, splatters of brown had already peppered the windows, his face and clothes. He had used a whole gallon on a very small portion of the deck and he said, “Betty, we are running out of stain.”

Right before I screamed “Rudy, you have used too much stain,” I noticed specks of brown on his teeth.

Thick brown liquid puddled a third of 513 square feet of freshly sanded wood. It would never have dried. We got on our hands and knees and used squeegees to scrape puddles into dust pans and then into dishpans. Stain had found its way to the cement walk, the grass, our hands, jeans, shoes and Rudy’s big, white front teeth. What a mess. That night, I felt a cold sore coming on, which happens when I’m stressed.

Several nights later, by the light from the house and the moon, Rudy and I finished the deck. After four hectic days it looked beautiful. He mowed the lawn and my cold sore healed. But the deck project had made a different impression on him than on me. He was so excited about us doing the whole job ourselves that he decided to refurbish decks as a side job. I prayed, “God, please don’t let Rudy get any clients, because I can’t recommend him.”

I learned a lot in the first years of widowhood. I learned that some of the “guy” jobs could be accomplished by guys found in the Yellow Pages and not by me or my lawn-mower man.

 

illustration by Betty Auchard

 

 

 

 

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Bad Girl by Betty Auchard

At the Home for the Friendless, each child was assigned a bench locker and a clothes locker. In the girls’ dorm, our wooden clothes lockers were upstairs along one wall of the dormitory that had three rows of beds. My bed was in the middle and only a few steps from my locker; lucky me. Other girls had to walk clear across the room to put anything away. The bench lockers downstairs in the girls’ playroom were hooked together against the wall where we could sit on them and keep our own special things inside. I stored comic books, my doll, a cigar box sewing kit and anything special that Auntie Marge brought when she visited. She and Uncle Al didn’t have children so they payed a lot of attention my brother, sister, and me because we were their favorite poor kids.

One day Auntie Marge brought me a pair of long white silk stockings for dress-up occasions with brand new garters to hold them up. The garters pinned to the bottom of my underpants that had old, stretched-out elastic in the waist. The new white stockings pulled down my drawers, causing me to hitch my pants up every time I turned around. I really wanted new underpants, but never asked Auntie Marge for something different because it was bad manners. When I wore the white stockings, I knew I looked nice if I could keep my drawers from sliding down.

I kept the silk stocking in my bench locker so I could show them to the other girls now and then. I made room for them on top of my comic books and sewing kit next to my Shirley Temple doll. In my sewing kit I kept scissors, a needle, thread and scraps of fabric. Mama taught me to make stitches when I was seven and by the time I was eight and more grown up, I’d made all kinds of things for my dolly.

A new seven-year old girl came to live with us at The Home and her hair was so blonde I couldn’t stop looking. It was almost white. I could tell she was sad and lonesome for her parents and it made me want to cry. I walked up to her and said, “Do you wanna learn how to sew? She just stood there, so I said, “I can teach you.” She still didn’t say a word, so I got my sewing kit out of my bench locker and started showing her anyway. That’s when she sat down beside me to watch. I said, “This is how you cut fabric to make a dress for a doll.” Other girls stopped to watch for awhile and moved on, but she stayed. I showed her how to lick the eye of the needle so the thread would float through it. Then I tied a knot and showed her how to make stitches. She never talked but she sure knew how to stare and smile. Explaining how to sew made me feel like a big shot because she smiled so much I was sure she thought I was a genius.

A few days later, I opened my bench locker to get my new comic book and was shocked at what I saw. My new white silk stockings were cut to pieces. I couldn’t think of anyone who would be that mean, and it was hard to keep from crying. But I was more mad than sad and determined to find the criminal and make her pay.

I kept my eyes wide open for any clue to the identity of the silk stocking slasher.  When the blonde girl started playing with her dolly, I noticed that it wore white silk. It wasn’t even a dress, but a hunk of white stocking wrapped around the doll and sewed in place. And after all I’d done for her. Real fast, I reported her to Mrs. Stone, our monitor, so the girl wouldn’t’ have time to hide the evidence.

The girl was pretty surprised and got such a scolding that it made her cry, but not very hard. I wanted her to cry longer, so I gave her another scolding.

“You’re bad!” I yelled. “Why did you cut up good white stockings that didn’t belong to you?” That did it real good because she cried so hard she got the hiccups.

She tried to talk through them and said, “I thought we could (hick) c-cut up the stuff in your locker and (hick) m-make things with them.”

Oh my goodness. What have I done? The new girl was so hunched over with sadness that I wanted to cry with her. When I taught her how to sew, I took fabric out of my locker and cut it up for her, but I didn’t tell her that the locker was my own private property and not for kids who wanted to cut and sew. After that, I spent an awful lot of time being nicer than I was used to being to make up for getting her in trouble. But it didn’t work because that new girl never trusted me again.

*     *     *

Illustrated by Betty Auchard

 

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Lucy, the Cat by Betty Auchard

My daughter-in-law, Nola got a kick out of watching Bridget dropping her toys at my feet. My dog wanted me to play fetch with her. I’d tell her to bring a different toy and she’d run off to find it and drop something new on the pile. Her stuffed rabbit, mouse, and banana looked like gifts she was sharing. I adopted Bridget from the pound and Nola said, “She reminds me of Lucy, a stray kitty that adopted my parents. She brought gifts to them all the time.”

Lucy didn’t arrive at her parents’ doorstep in a basket like an abandoned baby. She either ran away from her feral mother to fend for herself or her mother mewed, “You’re outta here, kitty. My milk is gone and so are you.” Those things happen all the time in the mammal world. In any case, this skinny young street cat, not yet named Lucy, hung around their front yard for a week. She was a wild little creature, unapproachable, starving, and, unfortunately, in heat. The news of a cat in heat traveled fast, because every Tom cat in the neighborhood came a’courting. The  male cats didn’t notice that she was scrawny and unattractive because Tom cats are blind when they mate.

Eventually, the family managed to move the kitty to the back yard, isolating her from suitors. The poor thing was so exhausted from all the attention that she lay on the grass for a long, long time, not moving or eating. She needed desperately to rest. After mating time had passed, she started taking food from the family but not shelter. That’s when their granddaughter gave the critter a name. Once the family managed to touch and pet Lucy, they took her to the vet for a health exam.  The vet revealed that she was only six weeks old and barely pregnant, which did not surprise anyone. The vet said, “Six-week old kittens don’t make good mothers and often neglect and abandon their babies, leaving them to die.” For that reason, Lucy became a “fixed” kitty instead of a mother. Nola’s family loved her and nursed her back to health and helped her to grow up.

Lucy grew into a lovely and adored pet, but her street-smart ways had taught her to be a vicious and skilled hunter. She was so grateful for being rescued from her wanton, poverty stricken life that she showed her appreciation with the most interesting gifts she could kill. Her first was such a shock that my daughter-in-law leaped back in horror when she almost stepped on it as it lay on the door mat before her. It was a dead, fluffy thing that appeared to be the tail of a young squirrel. It was not gory but neat and unsoiled, like something you’d see in a science fair. From then on, all of her gifts on the door mat were clean, imaginative and morbid.

She left a tidy bird foot, a spotless bird heart, an occasional small dead snake, and a pair of hind legs of a young squirrel, still hooked together. But the strangest gift of all was a complete set of tarantula legs, barely attached to just enough of the body that they lay on the door mat like six curled fingers facing upwards.

Lucy’s kill-and-share method of gift-giving was her favorite activity for many years. Eventually, she either ran out of ideas or got tired of shopping for unique presents. They showed up on the door mat less frequently, appearing only when Nola’s parents had been away for several days. When they returned, they never knew what they were going to find on the door mat. The family was not at all offended when their pet stopped shopping and dropping which kept them all hopping.

Lucy is now a twelve-year-old fat cat living a life of luxury and contentment. This is quite a different life from the old days when she bedded down with every Tom cat in the neighborhood only because it was nature’s way. That’s behind her. Now, she sprawls on the couch, or flops on the grass by the pool or lounges on the patio furniture under the trees. No matter where she chooses to recline, she ends up in peculiar positions such as on her back with all four legs sticking out like an octopus or curled up on her hip with her head upside down. Food and water appear in her bowl and she eats and drinks and never thinks about Tom cats or John cats and she wants nothing to do with kids. She takes her easy life for granted and assumes that all cats live as she does: in the lap of luxury.

Lucy’s hard life as an alley cat isn’t even a memory anymore. She thinks she was born here. Once in a while she plays with a mouse till it dies, but only for something to do. A dead mouse on the lawn lacks the flair that marked her early work. She stopped killing things for humans a long time ago, because they didn’t appreciate them anyway.

 

illustration by Betty Auchard

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I’d been a wife for five months when I left my husband at home to go on tour with the choir to recruit students for the church college where we lived. Denny had to stay home to teach classes and guard the wine we’d hidden in our refrigerator.  Is Denny as worried as I am?

As much as I wanted to go on this trip, I felt troubled about leaving. The half-empty bottle of wine nagged at my conscience. We shoud’ve thrown it away, but didn’t want to waste it. When our bus stopped for gas I placed a collect call. The operator asked for my name and I said, “Betty Peal,” forgetting I had a new last name. Luckily, Denny knew who I was. When he answered I said, “Honey, I can’t explain how much I miss you. Do you miss me?”

“Betty, I haven’t had time.”

“Denny, I’ve been gone for five whole hours.”

“I know, I know—but right after you left, something happened. A scandal broke on campus.”

“A scandal?”

“Yes. The college president wants to fire the football coach because he cusses and steals towels from any team that beats us, and whenever we win he drinks beer with the team .”

“Denny, why are you so upset? Are you and the coach really good buddies?”

“Not at all. I’m upset because someone will be questioning the faculty under oath about these accusations that I know are true. But, how can I report anyone when we’re hiding wine in our own refrigerator?”

All we had wanted to do was create a fine dinner but we created a dreadful mess instead. Denny’s predicament at the college frustrated and worried me. He promised to keep me informed by way of the church addresses supplied ahead of time. I shared his troubles with his sister and her husband who were also on the trip. When Denny’s first letter arrived, all three of us huddled close to read his one-line letter.

“Dear Betty, I transferred the beet juice into a canning jar.”

Glenna said, “I hope he saved that pretty bottle.”

I said, “Me too.”

In the short time we’d been married, I discovered that no matter how upset he was, Denny appeared calm. I wasn’t used to such unnatural composure.

A longer letter arrived the next day.

“My dearest Betty–tomorrow is interrogation day.

I flushed the beet juice down the toilet. It was spoiled.” — Denny  

Denny’s impending grilling could flatten our future in one meeting. He didn’t like to rock the boat or do anything to alter the way people saw him. Me? I was just angry.” I lingered on those thoughts too long, causing my stomach to boil. I had a solo with the choir that night and on the way to the stage, I whispered to our director, “I think I’m gonna throw up.”

“Good Grief, Betty! Drop out of line.”

I slipped away from the procession and went to the back of the church, eyes scanning every row for an isolated pew where I could lie down. I used an opened hymnal for a pillow, and stretched out flat so no one could see me but God. Then I closed my eyes and listened to our entire concert while hidden from view.

The pure, clear tones of our choir sounded prayer-like, a distraction from my worries. I barely felt the hardness of the bench under my hip bones and the music sent thrills down my arms and legs. When the program ended with a tender rendition of “All on an April Evening,” warm tears trickled into my ears, and my nose ran something awful. I turned into an emotional mess caught with no handkerchief and wiped it all away with the back of my hand.  

The next day I dreaded calling Denny, afraid of what might have happened at the interrogation. When he answered I said, “Okay, Honey…break it to me gently.”

He said, “I will. Are you ready?”

“I’m ready.”

“Before my turn to be questioned even came up…they had fired the coach.”

I almost fainted from relief and couldn’t wait to tell Carl and Glenna. I felt guilty that someone else got fired and not us, believing that stealing towels was worse than drinking wine.

We performed our last concert in Southern California then headed home where Denny welcomed us with a simple dinner he’d fixed by himself. After giving thanks for our many blessings, Carl said, “Hey, Auch, did you put any of that Manny-shevvy in these pork chops?”

Denny said, “Heck no. That stuff traumatized me so much that I dumped it.”

Glenna said, “I loved that pretty bottle.”

“That fancy decanter was a real pain. I wrapped it in five layers of newspaper, wound string around it, and put it in a gunny sack. After the boys upstairs went to sleep, I sneaked to the basement with a hammer and whacked the daylights out of that bottle and pushed the bag deep into the garbage can.”

I said, “Well, I’m glad it’s over.”

Denny said, “Me too. Never again will we buy anything we have to hide.”

I said, “I’ll drink to that.”

Denny said, “Betty, that’s not one bit funny.”

Carl and Glenna hid their smiles while I reminded myself that Denny had no sense of humor.  I would have to change that.

*     *     *

 

 

 

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While living on a church college campus in 1950 my husband, Denny, and I had hidden a bottle of Manischewitz wine in the refrigerator. Why? Because in plain sight it could’ve gotten us in a whole lot of trouble. We wanted to cook a gourmet meal with it, but Denny first had to convince his sister that owning a bottle of wine wasn’t a sin. After all, if Jesus turned water into wine it must be good for something. With that behind us, we scheduled a dinner date for my sister-in-law, Glenna and her husband, Carl. I could hardly wait to shine in the kitchen. The week seemed a month long. Finally, the day had come to arrange the pot roast, potatoes, carrots, and onions in the electric roaster before leaving for church. The meal would be ready when we returned.

When Sunday services had ended, Denny, Carl, Glenna and I zoomed home and straight to the kitchen where we could sin in the privacy of our own apartment. Oh joy; the place smelled wonderful. Denny set the table and reminded our guests that we would enjoy this wine-cooked meal without guilt.

Thirty minutes before mealtime, I set the bottle free from its prison behind the milk and baptized the roast with one cup of Manischewitz, then covered the electric roaster and set the timer for 30 minutes. I performed these simple tasks like they were old hat even though I didn’t know what the heck I was doing. Pretending gave me courage.

Carl said, “What’s happening now?”

I said, “I’m allowing the wine to ‘marry’ the flavors of the meat and vegetables.”

“Marry the food?”

“Yeah.”

That’s the way chefs talked. I saw it in the movies.

Thirty minutes later Denny sliced chunks of pot roast and dished food onto each plate. Before placing the offerings on the table, he thanked God for our many blessings then spooned the red juice from the bottom of the pan over the meat and vegetables. It stunned the eyes and shocked the mouth, tasting like meat and vegetables with wine poured on top. I assumed that might’ve been a good thing, but not sure. I hoped to convince everyone, even myself, I had prepared a gourmet meal. Glenna chewed, and through a mouthful of potatoes soaked in wine, my sister-in-law said, “Interesting.”

I wanted to hear more than that and said, “Exotic, isn’t it?” The word “exotic” seemed more appropriate than “interesting.”

Denny got up from the table and through tight lips said, “Scuse me,” and disappeared into the bathroom. Carl and Glenna kept eating just enough to be supportive and not enough to get sick. I cleared away food and dishes and sensed things hadn’t gone as planned. I could still save face and said, “Wait’ll you taste dessert.”

“Dessert?” Carl looked panic-stricken.

That’s when I felt we might be in trouble. Denny and I were trying to recreate a gourmet meal we’d had at the Blue Parrot Restaurant in Denver. The dessert we ordered had a French name: Glace avec Sauce Vin. We didn’t really like it and concluded that our taste buds were unsophisticated just as Carl and Glenna’s taste buds were now.

Denny scooped vanilla ice cream into small bowls and I dribbled Manischewitz over each one. Then I christened each serving with a maraschino cherry thinking the extra touch might save the day. The cherry on top was not what got our attention. What had gotten our attention was the curdled ice cream that looked like baby spit-up. Glenna placed a dainty bite on her tongue, held it there for a few seconds and said, “No thanks.”

Denny said, “This isn’t at all like what we ate in Denver.”

I said, “It’s close.”

What a lie. I’d never eaten  anything that strange, but I ate it, acting like it tasted yummy and finished every bite.  I guess I had something to prove, unsure what that might be.

Carl turned the eating experience in a new direction when he said, “Let’s see what this stuff tastes like straight from the bottle.” Would Carl be the one to save my dinner party?

He poured the wine into little plastic juice glasses, giving each of us about three tablespoons of the scarlet liquid. We took our time sipping it and agreed that it tasted pretty good by itself, so, wine became our dessert. Denny said, “Let’s make a toast”  We clunked our plastic glasses together and he added, “Forget cooking with wine. We should’ve done this in the first place.”

Now free of all pretenses, I joined the group slurping Manischewitz and then we enjoyed a second round and got kind of giggly. I said, “We’d better wrap this up before someone knocks on our door and turns us in.” I put the cork in place and returned the rest of the wine to the fridge where it belonged…behind the milk.

The pretty bottle hid in the refrigerator for a few more months. By spring vacation, Carl, Glenna, and I had to leave for a week while traveling the west coast on our choir concert tour. After our concerts, a representative from our college would recruit new students. We had to leave Denny behind, because he was a faculty member and not in the choir. . As our bus pulled away and we waved goodbye to my husband, sadness and worry settled over me. I leaned back in the seat and whispered to Carl, “I forgot that wine is still in our fridge. What if one of the boys upstairs wants to borrow milk.”

Carl said, “Don’t worry. That Mannychevy, or whatever it’s called, won’t be a problem.”

He was so wrong.

*     *     *

Story and illustration by Betty Auchard

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In 1949, my husband and I were newlyweds living and working on a church college campus. Alcoholic beverages weren’t allowed there and because they weren’t allowed, we were even more tempted to buy some and try it out. We thought wine would be a good way to start so we could taste it and maybe even cook with it. We didn’t dare purchase wine locally because someone might see us. An opportunity presented itself at an out-of-town football game where the only place to park was right in front of a liquor store. Before the game started we wandered around inside the store, not knowing the differences from one bottle to another. We finally purchased a bottle of Manischewitz because of the pretty color and the beautiful container. We hid it in the car while attending the game and at home we hid it behind the milk in the refrigerator.

While trying to find out how to cook with it, we began to feel more uneasy with each passing day. Finally, my husband poured the beautiful red liquid into a Mason jar and labeled it “beet juice.”

With that done, he said, “Betty, we’re visiting my parents this weekend and before we get there, I need to remind you of a few things that’ll make the weekend go smoother.”

“Okay.”

“You’re chatty, so you’ll have to be especially careful what you say while we’re there.”

“Like what?”

“If it’s Sunday, never suggest we go to the movies.”

“But, Sunday’s usually movie day.”

“Not in my family.”

“I understand.”

“And, don’t ever bring up the subject of liquor.”

“Okay, but I forgot why.”

“Doncha remember that story I told you?”

“Oh yeah … that story.”

 

That story happened when my husband was ten-years-old and his father was a country preacher. In the congregation one Sunday sat a stranger no one had seen before. He enjoyed the singing and listening to folks sharing their joys and sorrows and when the offering plate was passed someone said later that the man put a $10 bill in the plate. Then, Reverend Auchard’s rousing sermon must’ve taken the stranger over the edge. During the altar call when people were singing “Just As I Am Without One Plea,” he wept. While wiping his eyes with a handkerchief, several decided to go forward to the altar and he joined them. At the altar they kneeled and cried and prayed and got saved. Getting saved’ meant giving up a lot of sinful stuff, like making and drinking booze. The stranger was the county bootlegger.

The bootlegger’s salvation turned into a victory for church-goers and a disaster for drinkers. The man invited Reverend Auchard to his home where he pressed a button that opened a secret storage vault. The walls were lined with shelves laden with jugs of booze.

He said, “Reverend, I’d like your help in destroying all of this.”

Back and forth they went, hauling endless bottles outside where they dropped everything on the ground. When the shelves were empty, they smashed the jugs with hammers until the ground oozed with fermented dirt.

The convert beamed with joy at the feeling of being born again and assured Denny’s father that he would clean up the glass. Reverend Auchard couldn’t wait to get home to share the news with the family.

Both men thought that was it, but it wasn’t.

Thirsty folks in the county wanted to know who was responsible for such a “terrible thing happening. In no time at all, word spread over the rural party lines that Reverend Auchard’s sermon had turned the man around causing their only bootlegger to become an anti liquor kind of guy. Unfortunately, the angry drinkers in the county sought revenge. Things got scary for the Auchard family when gunshots broke their windows and a rattlesnake took up residence in their mailbox. Denny remembered riding in the back seat of their old car while reading a Big Little Book when shots came through the car windows causing Reverend Auchard to veer off the road and into a ditch. Denny and his father sustained a few bruises but the crash had caused Denny to accidentally rip his Big Little Book in half.

“That story” was the reason Denny did not want me bringing up the subject of cooking with wine while at his parents’ home. He feared that any talk of alcohol might revive bad memories for his parents.

In case you’re wondering what happened to the Manischewitz Denny had disguised as beet juice, I’ll tell about that in my next story.

 

 

 

 

 

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Aunt “Nomi”

In memory of Naomi Ruth Peal Clark 1923 – 2013

Her real name was “Naomi,” from the Bible, but we kids called her Aunt “Nomi” for short. She was the baby of ten kids in my dad’s family: four sisters and six brothers born to Kern and Josie Peal way back when. She was a hoot with a great sense of humor and not one bit stuffy. We loved her.

I was 15 when my family moved away from Cedar Rapids, Iowa in 1945, and we returned about once a year to visit aunts, uncles and cousins. Since there were five of us—Mom, Dad, Bob, Patty and me, we split up and stayed at different homes when we were there. One time I got to stay with Aunt Nomi when Uncle Russ was in the service. We slept in the same bed on a feather tick mattress just like two girls having a sleepover. We talked for a long time about all kinds of things, especially how much she missed Uncle Russ. Right before going to sleep she said, “Betty, don’t be surprised if I cuddle up and hug you in the night, because I’m probably dreaming that Russ is back home again.” I’ll never forget it. Having her share something intimate like that made me feel privileged and grown up.

My brother, Bob, and I live out of state now, and we visited her a few times at the resident home where she lived. The last time we were there, we stopped at her room but it was empty. It kind of scared me, so Bob and I were asking a nurse in the hall where our aunt might be. That’s when we heard Aunt Nomi calling out from the TV room, “Betty, Bobby, is that you kids out there?” It sure enough was us “kids.” It surprised us both that she recognized our voices before seeing our faces.

My aunt was only seven years older than I, and because she used to baby sit us three kids, I always thought of her as a woman even when she was a teenager.  It saddens me to say goodbye to her, the youngest of the clan.  Now that she’s gone, it means all of us “kids” are the older generation of Peals. It seems strange to think of myself in that way because memories of my childhood are still so strong that it seems they happened only a few years ago. When a loved one dies, part of my sadness is saying goodbye to my own childhood. Those everyday experiences will never happen again.  And maybe that’s why I write about them, to preserve us forever. As I’ve said before, leaving family stories behind is another kind of life after death.

Betty Peal Auchard

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I turned 80 this summer. The week before my birthday, that eight zero number was on my mind when I went to sleep and again when I woke up. Every morning, I kept my eyes closed, wondering what day it was and what jobs I had to do.

Only ten years ago (maybe it was twenty) I used to wake up, stretch my limbs, throw back the covers, and leap out of bed, ready for whatever came next. Now I stay in bed thinking about my life and all that has happened in the last eighty years. Sometimes it overwhelms me and it seems that I’ve lived more lives than one. I was born during the Depression, grew up during WWII, married young, and had a family. Those kids have had families and their families are having families. Where did the time go? How can I be 80 so soon?

With eyes still closed, I was trying to sort it out when one of my two alter egos enlightened me. She’s the wise and practical Betty, four inches in heels and lives on my right shoulder. My deceased husband left her behind to keep me out of trouble. Sometimes it works. With fists planted on her tiny waist, she dishes out warnings such as, “Don’t buy that. It’s too expensive.”

The little Betty on my left shoulder is only three and one-half inches high because she never tries to be taller than she really is. She’s relaxed but spontaneous, which feels like a good mix to her. That Betty draws pictures and writes. When she’s anxious, she sucks her left thumb even though she’s 80. It’s pathetic. She obsesses about how many years she has left. It’s unhealthy. That’s when the right-shoulder alter yells, “Snap out of it!”

Shorty takes her thumb out of her mouth and says, “Out of what?”

“Your fear of growing old too soon.” Tall Betty acts like she knows everything. She says, “I know what you’re thinking. You’re wondering where you’re going and afraid of what’s ahead.”

Left-shoulder Betty removes her thumb and says, “No; you’re wrong. I’m afraid of what’s NOT ahead: TIME. There’s so much to do yet.”

While my two sides hash it out, I just stay put, waiting for them to get my head together. The wiser, taller, more organized Betty says, “You’ve done so much already. You should be satisfied with that. You’ve used your time well.”

The whiner says, “I’ve done a little bit of everything, with no plan. I make it up as I go along. I’ve done it with my drawings, my stories, and my life. It feels like a jumbled mess without order or discipline. I keep saying that I’m going to get organized.”

That morning, the bossy right side had a plan. “Sort your accomplishments by seeing your life in big chunks. Let’s call those chunks “acts.” Act 1 was our first nineteen years with Mom, Dad, Bobby, and Patty. Act 2 was the next 49 years that included marriage to Denny, our family of four children, teaching art, and more bizarre adventures than anyone could possibly imagine.”

“I know,” said creative, fearful Betty. “I’ll never get it all written before I…you know.”

Bold Betty ignored that wimpy comment and moved on to Act 3. “The last act started when Denny died and we became writers.” She hesitated a moment before continuing. “Now pay attention because I’m telling you something important. You’ll live to be 100…but only if you walk a mile before breakfast. Now get up and put on your Adidas.”

So I did. Maybe I’ll live long enough for my two selves to get on the same page. They’ve been arguing with each other and nagging me since I started writing at 68. Sixty-eight? My God, that sounds young.

*     *     *

 illustrated by Betty Auchard

 

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Nose Rags (excerpt from The Home for the Friendless)

 

Any resident at The Home who had reached the age of eight had to take a turn doing nose rag duty. I had that job more than once. A big girl and two little girls were assigned to work together, and their task was to keep a large supply of clean cloth squares ready to be used by any kid with a snotty nose. We tore 12” squares from old, soft, worn out sheets and turned them into something new: handkerchiefs for kids with colds. The raggedy pieces were not hemmed, and loose threads hung from the edges. Some of the more creative kids pulled the threads away from each edge to make fluffy quarter-inch fringe. Mrs. Stone, the girls’ monitor, considered making fringe a useless activity. “Girls, get on with it,” she would say. “You’re taking too much time.” But fringe made the edges of the rags look nice and pulling the threads made the process a more satisfying activity, so we did it as often as we could get by with it.

In the hall near the bathroom were two flour-bin type hampers that tilted out from the wall. Next to them was the dumb waiter that went clear to the basement. One hamper was labeled “clean” and the other “used.” The clean hamper was filled to the brim with freshly laundered, wrinkled squares that we could grab anytime we needed to blow. We balled a rag into a fist shape and carried it around that way. When we felt a sneeze coming on we unfolded the cloth ball quickly and searched for a fresh, dry place to blow into. We carried that lump of fabric around with us and blasted our noses into it until there were no dry spots left. Used squares were wadded into misshapen clumps before being tossed into the hamper labeled “used.” There, they dried into crispy shapes like kindergarten art projects.

Used nose rags were traps that collected germs and probably helped share our colds with every other kid who lived there. But it was unthinkable to throw them away. If we were assigned to nose rag duty, we pre-washed the crusty balls in the bathtub with Fels Naptha  soap. After being rinsed and squeezed, the cloth squares were put into plastic pans and sent to the basement by the dumb waiter. There they were washed again in sudsy hot water in the Maytag, rinsed in bleach water, then pushed through the rubber rollers to squeeze out as much liquid as possible.

We hung them on the clothesline in the sunshine in small bundles caught at the corner with wooden pins that looked like little men with no faces or arms. In summer, the crude hankies dried quickly in the hot sun. In winter, they freeze-dried on the same clothesline. Mrs. Stone said that freezing the white cloths made them whiter, and I believed her because she was a grown up. When they had dried, we tossed them into the pull-out bin labeled “clean” where they were ready to be used again.

In addition to the nose rags, we shared or recycled just about everything at The Home for the Friendless: toys, combs, the bathtub, drinking glasses, and germs. Of course, we exchanged germs with family members when living at home with our parents. But at The Home for the Friendless, there were more people to share them with.

We didn’t think much about germs at the time. But we did understand the importance of the work we had to do at the home because the adults told us we were learning to be responsible. Any messes we made we had to clean up ourselves. Nose rags were just another mess, but it was one we avoided as often as possible. That’s why the threat of extra nose rag duty was an effective deterrent to bad behavior at The Home for the Friendless.

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excerpt pg 77 from The Home for the Friendless, by Betty Auchard–illustration for this blog by Betty Auchard

www.bettyauchard.com

 


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Halloween and the End of the World by Betty Auchard

(Dear Readers, to illustrate this story I found children’s drawings of aliens shared by Evan Hoovler. To enjoy his other contributions for your enjoyment, click here. http://goo.gl/bHi3V)

In 1938 on Halloween night at the Home for the Friendless, adults and children  listened to a terrifying radio show starring Orson Welles. In the middle of the broadcast, Mr. Welles announced that aliens were invading our planet. He sounded afraid and, naturally, listeners were afraid. But at eight years of age, I wasn’t afraid. I was curious. If aliens really invaded Cedar Rapids, would they hurt us? Would the world be a big mess?

The next day at school was not normal because the only thing kids could talk about was that radio show and Orson Welles, the man who wrote the script titled The War of the Worlds. The teacher even set aside our Palmer Method penmanship lesson so we could talk about what we had experienced. My third grade classroom at Polk Elementary School became a solid mass of arms in the air with hands wiggling, and everyone begging to tell their own personal experiences. Arthur said, “I was scared to death, and I hid under the bed for a long time.”

Violet said, “Not me. I knew it was a joke.”

Phillip said, “It was not a joke, just a misunderstanding.” Phillip was very grown up.

A boy whose father worked at the police station said someone phoned to ask, “What time is this going to happen?” A girl whose father was a fireman said a lady called the fire department and asked, “When it happens, shall I close my windows?” Another student said that when her mother checked on an elderly neighbor, the woman said, “I don’t have time to talk right now! The end of the world is coming and I’ve got a lot to do!”

We all laughed at those stories, even the teacher. Then she told us another story, turning it into a lesson.  “Students, there is a college in Brevard, North Carolina, where the all the students panicked during last night’s radio show. Who can tell me what the word panic means?”

No one had a clue, so she said, “The word panic means being so frightened that you lose control and do things you wouldn’t ordinarily do. Now, who would like to locate the state of North Carolina?”

Up jumped Bernard, Mr. Map himself, pointing with pride to North Carolina.

Our teacher said, “This is the location of the college where the students panicked during the broadcast.” Then she read from a newspaper clipping:

Five students at Brevard College, North Carolina, fainted and panic gripped the campus for a half hour with many students fighting for telephones to ask their parents to come and get them.

If a pin had dropped in my classroom, we would’ve heard it because everyone was wide-eyed and speechless. We listened to every word our teacher said.

“Boys and girls, a radio broadcast is usually heard by the whole country. So try to imagine how many other people were afraid last night and how many of them probably panicked.”

Every kid nodded in agreement while she continued:

“When large groups of people become frightened by something they can’t see, they sometimes do strange things to get away from the fear. It’s called “mass hysteria” and it means that fear is sometimes contagious, like the measles.”

That night after supper, all of the kids and staff at the Home gathered close to the big Zenith console listening to the news. People were really mad about such a scary and realistic show being broadcast on Halloween. I felt sorry for Orson Welles because he probably had no idea what a ruckus he would cause. On the radio, he apologized to the producers of the CBS Mercury Theater for this getting out of control. He said, “The show was only a story and not real. We explained that before the broadcast.”

An interviewer said, “But, Mr. Welles, anyone who tuned in late missed that explanation. The broadcast seemed so real that everyone was confused.”

Orson Welles said, “I am so sorry. I don’t think we’ll ever broadcast that program again.”

While I was listening to the program, I had been a little bit confused, too, but I didn’t think it was real. Maybe growing up with such hullabaloo in my family had taught me to take things in stride. I was sure glad the world didn’t end on Halloween. It would have wrecked our costume party, and I was really looking forward to stuffing my face with candy.

 *     *     *

 Click here for the original 1938 broadcast:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xs0K4ApWl4g

 

 

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As much fun as we had in the dens and forts that we kids built ourselves, the best of all places to play was the teepee Dad made with dried cornstalks from his garden. It was marvelous. Little kids we had never met walked down the street just to sit in our cornstalk teepee and ask, “Can we play Indians wif you guys?”

One crisp fall day, six of us crowded inside the structure with our legs crossed. Mom’s clean towels hugged our shoulders like blankets, and chicken feathers were stuck in our hair. We were ready to play Indians. My nine-year-old brother announced in his fake Indian voice, “We smoke peace pipe now.” Instead of a pipe, he held a dry, hollow stem between his fingers like a cigarette. In his other hand was a cigarette lighter that I knew he had swiped from a strictly off-limits place.

“Bob,” I asked, “where did you get that?”

“From Dad’s top dresser drawer.”

“You’re gonna get it.”

“Uh uh.”

The whole thing gave me a nervous feeling because I knew our father would not want Bob to start smoking at such a young age. As head Indian woman, it was my duty to report my brother to the chief (also known as Dad). So I let the blanket fall from my shoulders, uncrossed my legs, and stood up. “Me be right back. I … um … hafta make water inside house.”

Bob said, “Sister squat behind bush like Indian woman.” The neighbor kids fell all over each other, laughing their feathers off as though they’d heard a dirty joke for the first time. I ignored them, walking as fast as I could to reach my dad to make my report.

The minute I spotted him, I blurted out my news. “Dad! Dad! Bob has your lighter and is gonna smoke a stick in the teepee.” I’d hoped to get a reaction, just not the one I got. Dad almost knocked me over getting out the back door. He ran across the field and dived headfirst into the teepee. When our father emerged seconds later, he held the cigarette lighter in one hand and Bob by his overall straps in the other. “You coulda been cremated!” he screamed.

Bob was so scared that he started crying in front of his new friends, and he cried even harder when Dad spanked him. Fearful they might be next, the rest of the Indians escaped back down the street to the white man’s village. Dad was so upset that he dismantled the teepee immediately, explaining that all of us could have been burned alive. I shuddered at the thought.

Bob was a pitiful mess, and I felt so sorry for tattling that I was extra nice to him for a whole week. It didn’t last. When he accidentally hammered his thumb while we were building our next fort and said, “Dammit,” I had no choice but to report him again.

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illustration by Betty Auchard

 

 

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Dreams of Flying at the Home for the Friendless

 

Going to bed at 7:30 was crazy. It wasn’t even dark. But that’s the way they did things at the Home for the Friendless in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The Home was an ancient brick building where my brother, sister, and I lived while our parents tried again to work out their problems. On our first night there, I bathed, brushed my teeth, put on nightclothes, and climbed into bed in the hot and stuffy dormitory.

Mrs. Stone, the monitor, shook her finger and said, “No more talking. Just stay quiet and go to sleep.”

“But it’s still light outside,” whined one little girl.

“Shhh.” As Mrs. Stone turned to leave, she stopped to add a warning. “If you get up during the night, don’t drink any water or you’ll wet the bed.” Then she disappeared into her apartment near the bathroom sinks.

Even though I was there with other girls whose families had problems, I felt terribly alone. It was miserable being separated from Dad and Mama and relocated to a strange place. I had pretended it was normal so my little brother and sister wouldn’t be scared. But that evening I couldn’t comfort them because they were in their own dorms. I knew I wouldn’t see them very often, and I already missed them so much I felt sick.

After flopping on top of the stiff sheets, I watched the last of the daylight spill over our beds from the windows. I felt abandoned. What were Mama and Dad doing while I was trying so hard to doze off? Were they arguing again or going to the movies? I got all twitchy, lying there thinking and waiting for cool air to arrive.

I could hear roller rink sounds from several blocks away. The organ was playing “Take Me out to the Ballgame,” and I could hear hundreds of skate wheels humming on the rink floor. The mingling of steel wheels and music in the air hypnotized me. I began to imagine how different things would be if I were a magician. I would soar back to the past and live with Mama and Dad again so we three kids could be cozy under one blanket and go to sleep after dark like normal people. It was not normal for my brother and sister and me to sleep during the daytime, in three different beds, in rooms filled with kids we didn’t know.

When the sun finally quit for the day, a kindhearted breeze wafted through the screens to cool my skin, and I finally drifted into slumber. I dreamed that I was flying with my brother under one arm and my sister under the other, and I was brave enough to fly wherever I wanted without asking permission.

It was fun zipping wherever I wanted to go, though something kept my flights from turning out right. It dawned on me that I had left Bobby and Patty behind, so I made a graceful U-turn back to the Home and into the boys’ window. Bobby was too scared to join me because he had forgotten that I knew how to fly. I grabbed the back of his pajama top anyway and whooshed into the nursery to scoop up Patty, but she was sound asleep. I fluttered above her, calling her name softly so as not to wake the other little kids.

My plan was to float through my parents’ window with Bobby and Patty and say, Surprise! But I didn’t know where they lived or if they remembered who we were. Mama and Dad were always moving. Why couldn’t they stay in one place for a while? It would make flying to them a whole lot easier.

Instead of gliding into my parents’ house, I found myself trapped inside a huge room that was inside another room that was inside another room. I got so airsick that I had to abort the flight.

I awoke tangled in my sheets. It took a while for me to go to sleep again, and then once more I was flying. That time we three kids made it to the great outdoors and were surrounded by blue sky instead of wallpaper. I loved the sensation, so I floated for a long time, holding Patty by her middle finger and Bobby by his thumb and kicking as fast as I could to stay up … until I saw telephone wires ahead. I dove under them and zoomed up, up, and away into wide open space only to find more telephone wires high above the earth.

I never did make it to freedom with my brother and sister that night, but since I didn’t know where freedom was, I decided it was a whole lot easier just to wake up.

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excerpt from The Home for the Friendless by Betty Auchard–illustration for this blog by Betty Auchard

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Pin Cushion Spills its Guts


 

I was looking at all my old photographs and came across this one. The minute I saw it, I remembered why I took it.

In 1963, relatives from Kansas had been with us for three days. The activity and all that goes with house guests, their two kids and our four had just about worn me out. They hadn’t been gone long when I noticed that my youngest, three-year-old Bobby, had broken out with a rash. I had a feeling it was measles.

Right about now you’re probably saying, “What does this have to do with a pincushion?” Well, I’m getting to that.

While I was getting dressed to take Bobby to the doctor, he was jumping up and down on our bed when he fell off and landed on his wrist. He screamed in pain and couldn’t stop crying and his wrist started to swell. I was already frantic because of his rash and couldn’t find my shoes. I looked under the bed and saw my favorite old ancient pincushion broken open with sawdust and needles all over the bare floor. I was heartsick. The dog must have been playing with it when it split…then the dog split because I couldn’t find her anywhere.

There–that was the pincushion part. But keep reading.

The most important thing  was to get Bobby to Kaiser while protecting his wrist in a sling fashioned from a dish towel. I suspected it was broken…his wrist, not the dishtowel.  I called the doctor. This was my first visit because we were brand new members. The doctor warned me to try and keep Bobby away from other people while getting him to the pediatrics floor because to get there we would be going through obstetrics. Pregnant women must not catch measles. I considered putting my little boy in a bag with a toy to play with so he wouldn’t expose any women who were “with child.” I was a nervous wreck.

Upon arrival at the pediatrics floor we were hustled off to the waiting room to keep my little boy isolated. The doctor examined Bobby and ordered an x-ray which was way downstairs on the first floor. He also warned me again to keep Bobby away from pregnant women and to come right back upstairs as soon as possible.

“As soon as possible” was the only thing that stuck in my mind that was already a little bit messed up.

Down Bobby and I went again down to first floor for the x-ray. I delivered the important request form to the clerk. As soon as she took it, I left with Bobby to get back upstairs fast as the doctor had ordered. Again I kept Bobby away from pregnant women and returned to our little room and waited. My three-year-old was hyper and all over the place. I was losing my mind. I waited some more and the upstairs doctor came in apologizing for how long it was taking, and I waited longer. Then he returned, studying me me with a guarded expression and said, “Mrs. Auchard, did you even have the xray taken?” His expression questioned my sanity

Only then did my senses return.  I said, “Oh my goodness…all I was thinking about was getting back up here as soon as p0ssible so as not to expose pregnant women.”

So, back down to first floor to the x ray department where I got another weird look from the receptionist and then another one from the doctor. I felt like Mrs. Dumbo. I waited for Bobby to have an x-ray of his wrist, went back upstairs to our little room…and waited. Finally, the doctor received the x ray which showed that Bobby’s wrist was not broken but sprained. He also said that yes Bobby had the measles and he wrapped Bobby’s wrist and gave me one last weird look. I imagined that he wondered if Bobby was safe in my custody. He added the same warning: “Avoid pregnant women on your way out.”

By that time Bobby and I were exhausted and made it back home where I got him settled in front of TV. I took two aspirin and  tackled the mess under the bed: my favorite old pincushion that had spilled its guts.

Then I took this picture.

Even if the old, split open pincushion does NOT illustrate this story, I would not have remembered what happened that day without this photograph as a prompt.

A few days after this happened a letter arrived from our relatives in Kansas saying that both of their boys got measles. They wanted us to watch Bobby in case he, too, broke out with a rash. I never confessed that Bobby gave THEM the measles, and with any luck, they will never read this story.

 

 

 

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Welcome to the Home for the Friendless

During the winter of 1937, Mama took Bobby, Patty, and me to live at the Home for the Friendless. She said, “This is a nice place. You’ll like it here, and I’ll visit you every week.”

Whenever our parents broke up, we three kids stayed at Grandmother Peal’s house. But this sudden change made me so tense that my scalp hurt. The Home for the Friendless was a dark three-story building where a lot of other kids lived, too. I hoped they were as nice as our cousins.

The lady in charge looked grumpy, but she really wasn’t. She said, “You can call me Mrs. Kurl, even though my hair is straight as a ruler.” I knew she was trying to drag a smile out of us, but it didn’t work on me. She said, would you like a tour of our facility?”

Facility? That sounded like a jail. I just wanted to go home, but Mama agreed to see every room, and we followed.

The Home for the Friendless was musty like the basement in an old building. There were no curtains, so our voices echoed in the hallways. When I saw where each of us would stay, a hot, sweaty feeling broke out on my chest. We three kids would not be together. When Mama kissed us goodbye, she said, “You be brave now because this is a very nice place.” I squeezed back my tears Did this mean we were orphans?

Bobby and I saw each other at mealtimes, but I slept in the girls’ dorm, he slept in the boys’ dorm, and my two-year-old sister slept in the nursery. I never knew what she had for breakfast each day.  When the children in the nursery played outside, they were right next to the girls’ side of the playground.

I waved to Bobby and Patty whenever I could. I wanted to show them the tooth I had just lost and the bloody hole it had left in my gum, but I couldn’t. We could only see each other on weekends when Mama, Damsy, or Grandmother Peal came to visit. By the time we got together, the empty hole in my gum was no longer repulsive enough to show anyone.

Bobby was happy at the Home and played with a red kiddy car that he pedaled with his feet. He yelled across the low peony hedge, “Sister, I like it here!” I wanted to squeeze him with a tight hug, but we couldn’t leave our assigned areas. My little brother didn’t seem to need me anymore and that’s when I sucked my thumb. It kept me from crying.

I saw Patty a lot because her playground was close by. I wasn’t allowed to play with her either but I spied on her as much as I could by hiding behind a tree trunk. I loved watching her up close because she was so cute with her rosy cheeks and bright red hair. If the nursery monitor caught me she would say, “Stay in your own area.”

One day when the air was so cold I could hardly talk, I noticed my sister crying. The monitor  was busy with other kids and hadn’t noticed Patty’s bawling. My heart ached. She looked pitiful and cold. and her cheeks were as red as her hair. I could see her nose running and couldn’t bear her misery, so I marched straight to the off-limits playground to hug her and wipe her snotty nose with my mittens. Then I started closing her jacket. Patty tilted her head down to watch what I was doing, and I caught her bottom lip in the zipper. She screamed. I pulled the zipper back to set her lip free, and blood flowed down her chin.

When the monitor saw blood all over Patty’s mouth, her eyes bulged as she rushed toward us and screamed, “What have you done to this little girl?” She thrust her finger in the air and said, “Get back to your own area, and stay there. You are not uh-llowed on this playground!” She punctuated the words and spit flew everywhere.

I sneaked back to my private tree trunk and planned to kidnap Bobby and Patty. We would run away to Grandmother Peal’s house. I was sure I could find it. She would not be expecting us, but I could say, “Hello, Grandmother. How ya been? Would ya like some company?”

I knew I couldn’t really run away, so I sucked my thumb instead and counted the days until the weekend.

 

Excerpt from the award-winning memoir, The Home for the Friendless by Betty Auchard — available on Amazon as an eBook and audio book.

 

 

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On the Fourth of July, 1935, I was so excited I felt nutty. The whole Peal family was having a picnic and Uncle Cullen had made my favorite drink: root beer. He said, “Betty Boop, you can have all you want ‘cuz it’s free.” Back then, I thought root beer was real beer made for little kids. I could see why grownups liked real beer because I couldn’t get enough of kid’s beer. When I took my first big swallow, I thought maybe he’d used the wrong recipe because it wasn’t what I was expecting. It wasn’t fizzy and it wasn’t cold. My disappointment was hard to hide, but Uncle Cullen didn’t seem to notice. He said, “D’ya like it?”

“Uh HUH,” I lied. But warm root beer without bubbles was just poor people’s version of root beer.

The same year, Mama’s father, Grandpa Eastburn, served his homemade beer for grownups at a weenie roast in his back yard. Everyone in my family guzzled it out of cold tin cans that were kept in a tub of ice. When the party was over, my two-year-old brother, Bobby, went around to all the empty cans and tipped them bottoms up to his mouth in case something was left behind. It was a harmless activity so I didn’t stop him. When he tripped over his own feet and said, “ooops” in a very silly manner, I wondered if he had gotten drunk on all of those little drops of homemade booze that grownups left behind.

When Bobby had trouble standing up, I got scared . I hustled to my parents and whispered, “Mama — Dad…I think Bobby is drunk!” They jumped up as fast as they did the time I said, “Mama, I think Bobby fell out the window.” Both times I was supposed to be watching him and I forgot.

While my parents were studying Bobby, he plopped himself down on the picnic blanket and giggled so hard that he ran out of  breath. Mama looked at Dad with questioning eyes and Dad said, “Yep, he’s tipsy all right.” They wasted no time driving to the hospital. I don’t know what they did there, but Bobby got sobered up and came home a little sleepy. I promised to watch him more carefully from then on.

A few years later my dad made wine for the first and only time in his life. It was fun watching him put all kinds of stuff in a bucket down in the basement. He threw in fruit, peelings, juice and rinds then warned my brother, sister, and me saying, “Doncha be messin’ around with this, ‘ya hear?”

Because I was told not to mess around with the mysterious bucket, I really had to. Dad had placed a piece of plywood on top and weighted it with a brick as a warning. It discouraged my brother and sister but not me. I took a chance and removed the board and brick and sniffed the liquid several times. It smelled like the ground under the apple tree when the apples had turned to brown mush.

A few days later, when no one was around, I removed the brick and board again to get a closer look at the stuff in the pail. By then it was putrid and alive with bubbles. Thick foam was forming over the surface and pieces of what looked like garbage floated wherever there was no foam. Gnats hovered over the mess like they were having a reunion at their favorite bar.

My finger wanted to touch the mixture so I let it move into the bucket so it could tell me what it was like. It was soft and puffy, like stiff froth on root beer. My finger went through scum into the juice below while tiny bugs tickled my hand. It was creepy. When I pulled my finger out, it smelled like spoiled fruit. I couldn’t imagine any miracle that might turn that icky mess into real wine unless Jesus showed up like he did in the Bible. But since Dad never went to church with us, I doubted that Jesus would help him make wine. I decided to ask my father about the ingredients in the pail.

I said, “Dad, I think your wine in the basement has gone bad.”

“WHAT? WHY?”

“Because mold and flies are all over the top of it.”

“I told you kids not to mess around that bucket.”

“I’m sorry.”

“You didn’t touch it, did you?”

“Oh no.”

“Good thing.”

Then I got worried.  “Dad, what would happen if I did touch it?”

He said, “The mixture in the bucket sets around for awhile and eventually creates good bacteria that turns the juice into wine.” I didn’t understand that part about bacteria, but he kept talking. “Sticking your finger in it will add bad bacteria that will cause the juice to go over.”

“To go ‘over’ like when milk sours?”

“Yeah…somethin’ like that.”

It sounded like I might have messed up Dad’s wine. It scared me even more when he added, “If the wine goes over, it won’t be fit for human consumption.”

I felt guilty telling Dad that I did not touch the stinky juice, but since I didn’t really understand the importance of good and bad bacteria, I put my guilt behind me. Several weeks later, the concoction must have turned into wine because Dad said it was ready for drinking. He called Uncle Cullen and Aunt Irma so they could get in on the fun. Mama helped to strain the liquid through cheesecloth several times until everything chunky was gone. By that time, the amount left was half a bucket of brownish-colored liquid.

Dad and Uncle Cullen were excited. My uncle said, “Big brother, it looks like wine; it smells like wine. Let’s see if it TASTES like wine.” Then Dad, Mom, Uncle Cullen, and Aunt Irma sat around our kitchen table playing Pinochle, laughing, talking, joking, and having a high old time ‘til the homemade wine was gone.

            Then they threw up.

It was probably that bad bacteria on my finger when I poked it through the moldy surface. But since they were all still alive, I didn’t feel a need to confess.

*     *     *

story and illustrations by Betty Auchard

 

 

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The Wild Woman on L Avenue

Accompanied by my brother, Bob Peal, in August 2007, I made a pilgrimage to our hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, while doing research for my second memoir, The Home for the Friendless.  Things had been going very well, and everyone we met that week was courteous and helpful in our quest for information and records regarding our wacky childhood.

On the last day of the trip, we went to L Avenue which turned out to be another wonderful “find” since we discovered three important locations there: the one-room house with no plumbing where five of us had lived; the inviting corner store that housed Hassan Murray’s Market where we could charge our groceries, and the tiny little house we rented when Bob was born in 1933. That mini house is located on L Avenue, about three houses from a dead end.  (Going the opposite way, L Avenue crosses the RR tracks where we lived in another hovel when Bob was one-year-year old.  We moved a lot.)

The “dollhouse” where Bob was born ends in a very tight, crowded cul-de-sac.  Tiny houses line the end curve and are set close together on both sides of the street.  When we realized it did not go through, we also found that it was very hard to turn the car around on that narrow road.  Since no cars were in site except those parked against the curb, I said “Bob, just park across this other driveway and let me pop out to take a couple of photos while you turn the car aroundI’m sure whoever lives here will understand if we tell them you were born here 74 years ago.”  And I jumped out with my camera and moved farther away so I could get the entire little dwelling in my viewfinder.

Suddenly, a car came zipping up that short street right against Bob’s hood so he couldn’t budge another inch.  A mean-looking wretch-of-woman rolled down her window and screamed at me, “DON’T EVER BLOCK SOMEONE’S DRIVEWAY!”

I said, “I’m sorry.  We’re from out-of-state and used to live in one of these houses when we were little, and we’re taking a picture.  My brother is trying to turn the car around.”

She didn’t care what I said.  She begrudgingly backed up and turned into another driveway so Bob could maneuver his way out of a tight spot.  When he was halfway past the driveway where she had temporarily parked, she started to back down toward Bob’s car while he was still creeping to avoid other parked cars.  Then she screamed again at the air, “GET THE F*** OUTTA MY WAY!”

By that time Bob was out of her range and he drove way down the street and parked in an open slot.  She was now very close to where I was standing to get my picture.  She struggled to turn her wheel so she could go up her own driveway two houses away from the one we were photographing.  She yelled at me again.

“YOU TWO ARE SURE THE SURPRISE IN A HAPPY MEAL!”

Was that a regional insult or what?

I snapped off a couple of fast pictures and marched down the hill to my brother’s car.  I was actually a bit shaky, but Bob never heard what she was saying.  He only knew she had been screaming at us and said, “What the hell was that all about?” When I repeated her insults, he was dumbfounded.  It was hard to get this awful woman off of my mind.

But, eventually both of us started using her sentences and laughing ourselves silly.  If someone was driving too slowly in front of us, I said so no one outside could hear, “Get the f*** outta my way.”  In the hotel room in Omaha if I set my suitcase too far out into the room my brother yelled, “Don’t ever block someone’s path.”  If he was being silly and said something stupid on purpose I said, “You sure are the surprise in a Happy Meal.”

That one still cracks me up.  Whatever in the world does it imply?

Eventually, we got over her rudeness and invented scenes that we thought might work like knocking on her door and confessing that we were from Time Magazine doing a survey on the friendliness of small town people.  We were going to ask to take her picture and send her a copy of that issue so we also needed the correct spelling of her name (we already knew her address), but we wanted to thank her for helping us get a real good story.  In other words, we got a lot of mileage out of that woman’s nasty, inhospitable performance. I think she either had serious behavioral issues or had just come from church.

*     *     *

story and illustration by Betty Auchard

 

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My Mother’s Afghan

 

 

My mother lived on the first floor of an independent living facility for seniors. Even though all of them were capable and confident, Mom referred to them as dingbats. She did not consider herself one of them and made harsh judgments about the others. She said, “I think everyone here is kinda “off” in the head, but the real weirdos live on the third floor.”

Isabel, a third-floor weirdo, approached my mother one day and offered to crochet an afghan for her. When Mom told me this I said, “That’s really nice.”

“Nice, my foot; the woman’s projects are crappy and someone should teach her how to crochet.”

Mom was an expert on this subject and used to invent her own patterns. Arthritic hands forced her to give it up, but she was still a good judge of crappy crochet.

I said, “Mom, if you felt that way, what did you say to Isabel when she made this offer?

“What could I say? I was caught off guard and didn’t answer. She finally asked me if I wanted one or NOT, so I told her to go ahead a make one. Then she asked what colors I wanted, and I said surprise me.”

(more…)

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The Sure Fire Black Hole Rodent Trap vs Mr. Swat

Rats were taking over our house and yard. Why? Because our property was a MacDonald’s for wildlife. Each time I spied one skittering along the top of the fence, I thought it was a squirrel with a skinny tail because the body was so large. If rats could read, our ad would go something like this: “EAT HERE FREE! dog food, bird food, fresh fruits, vegetables, and a living compost pile.” Hey, if I were a rat I would eat here, too.

We had tried catching them with large mouse traps, but they just laughed and went around those things. So–husband and I went shopping at Orchard Supply and found exactly what we needed: the Sure Fire Black Hole Rodent Trap for only $18.00. Whatta deal! We bought it, took it home, and read the instructions that informed us to set food inside the cave-like opening. It wasn’t ordinary food that we placed there; it was a gourmet snack of bacon and cheese. That should do  it. We went to bed knowing that we were, at last, the conquerors.

We slept peacefully until awakened by a loud crack. Denny said, “We got ‘im” and went back to sleep; but not me. I kept thinking about having to reach inside the cave-like opening to free up the carcass so we could throw it away. I finally relaxed and drifted to sleep, knowing the rat carcass was not my problem but my husband’s.

In the morning, Denny checked the garage and the rodent trap. Where was it? It was NOT where we had left it. We advanced with caution one step at a time and looked behind boxes, ladders and other garage type stuff when we heard a slow, dragging sound just like in a horror movie. Then it stopped. We heard it again but couldn’t identify the location until we saw the trap moving by itself behind a broom. The captured critter seemed to be propelling the thing. We agreed to shut the garage door and check back in an hour.  After an hour we had to locate the trap again, because the rat was injured and dragging the trap along trying to free itself.

Denny said, “This is awful. Let’s leave it alone until morning because surely it’ll be dead by then.”

Morning came and again we had to find where the trap was hiding. It was now behind a dust pan. My husband said, “Enough is enough.” He made me leave and asked me not to worry, but he added, “Don’t peek and don’t listen.”

I went to our bedroom and turned the TV up loud, but in the distance I could hear banging and thrashing of something on the concrete floor. The racket stopped for awhile and then picked up again until it sounded as though broken material was getting smaller or flatter. Eventually, Denny, very out-of-breath, came into the house and said, “I don’t want to talk about this. Let’s forget about it and go to a movie.”

So we forgot about it and went to a movie, which helped for a short time. But on the way home I wheedled out of him what all the banging was about. He was quiet for several seconds and finally said, “Okay…here’s what happened. I found a gunny sack, put the plastic trap with its big fat rat inside of the bag and bashed it to pieces with the sledge hammer.” My husband made a soft gagging sound and said, ” It seemed indestructible.”

Just telling about it had upset Denny again and he said, “No more traps for us. I want to “rat proof” our home.”

He found what he was looking for in the yellow pages under “vermin removal. It was a company called SWAT. The word created a mental image of a police team in black overalls and helmets entering our home with machine guns. But it was nothing like that at all. The SWAT “company” was one short slightly bald man who inspected our house for openings at the roof and foundation. He found many and sealed them so that squirrels, rats, and other creatures could no longer gain entrance to our house. If, however, a rodent was trapped inside the house, it also had no way of getting out.

And such was the case. We didn’t know this  until several months had passed and the walls were opened for new electrical work. Once opened the odor of old road kill wafted into every room. Back came Mr. SWAT, who with his special, mysterious skill, went under the house wearing rubber gloves and located the rotting carcass in the wall. He carried it by the long tail to a box in his panel truck that was full of cages holding a live skunk and raccoon that he would release into the wild. As he drove away he shouted back, “I’ll send the bill.”

Denny’s shoulders sagged. He  said, “I don’t want to go through this again so I hope this guy never moves away.” But he did move away. However, we’ve never had rats again which is proof that Mr. Swat really was a miracle worker. Whatta guy.

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Sleeping with Denny

Story and illustration by Betty Auchard

I lay in the dark tight as a knot and listened. It was nerve-wracking. How long could he go without taking a breath? It seemed forever. Suddenly, he gasped and thrashed about sucking big gulps of air and never waking up before starting to snore again and then starting the cycle over. The nighttime routine scared me silly. My husband was a gifted snorer and if contests existed he would’ve held the crown.

Another abnormal occurrence was how he fell asleep during the day.  Usually, it was while watching TV but often while I was talking to him. When he didn’t take part in my conversation I realized that he was sitting up with his eyes closed. At breakfast one morning I brought up the touchy subject of his symptoms.

“Honey, I want you to talk to the doctor about your sleeping problem.”

“I don’t have a sleeping problem.”

“Well, then—your snoring problem.”

“Is it really that bad?”

“Yes, I believe it is.”

In my search for facts I learned that snoring is not good for one’s health and it causes personal dilemmas. A good friend of ours refused to do anything about his ear-shattering snoring, so his wife divorced him claiming cruel and unusual punishment. A woman I knew well snored so loud that it reverberated through the walls. But she and her husband agreed to work it out so he moved to the guest bedroom on the opposite side of the house. Visitations were held in his bed and sometimes in hers. They got so used to the arrangement that life was better than ever, so sleeping apart had saved their marriage.

I had considered sleeping in another room but instead tried a different approach. As soon as my husband went to sleep one night I whipped out my tablet and watched the clock as though a show was about to begin. Actually, it was and I had the best seat in the house. In ten minutes the curtain went up and snoring — the main character — entered the stage, hogging the spotlight for three minutes. I wrote it down. Breath-holding, the supporting role — snuck into the act for nine seconds. I made a note of that. Snoring had a few more lines and then breath-holding had a soliloquy that lasted 35 seconds. And each time Denny thrashed about and struggled for air while never waking up. I was writing like mad.

It was creepy and nerve-wracking, but for 45 minutes I observed Denny’s every breath or lack of it which produced three pages of notes and numbers. That done, I turned out the light and tried to at least doze, but it was impossible. Whenever he started to snore I patted his shoulder and the noise stopped, but so did his breathing. I was afraid to lie down in a different room, scared that he might die if I wasn’t there to nudge him back to life. I prayed: God, please let him wake up in the morning on his own because I’m tired of tapping him on the shoulder. I shoved in my ear plugs and trusted that my prayer would be answered. And it was.

In the morning I flashed my three pages and said, “Denny, if you don’t show these notes to the doctor, I will.”

My husband couldn’t ignore the facts so he made an appointment that we attended together. The doctor studied my evidence and he sent a sleeping machine home with us that would provide scientific proof. It kept a record of Denny’s breathing pattern for one night and I was so happy I could have cried. It revealed that my husband had a pretty bad case of sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea: a disorder characterized by abnormal pauses in breathing while asleep. The patient is oxygen deprived which could result in daytime fatigue or sudden death.

 

I told ya so!

Denny became an overnight patient in the sleep clinic. He packed his newest pajamas, slippers, robe, electric razor, toothbrush, paste and recent issue of Psychology Today. It must have felt odd climbing into bed with a video camera instead of with me. There were other gadgets recording heartbeats, sounds, and movement. The overnight analysis produced a polysomnogram revealing that Denny needed critical help.

If someone had listened to me in the first place, we could have saved a lot of time. The critical help my husband got was another gizmo that would train his lungs to do their job, so they sent one home with us.

Alas; Denny and the breathing gizmo did not bond…at first. After a few sleepless nights my husband’s lungs cooperated because they were no match for a system powered by electricity instead of oxygen. That new machine was designed to take snorers down.

My husband and his new gear were on his side of the bed and I was on mine. From the neck up he looked like a robot. The breathing mask fit like a gas mask and had a baboon likeness. A tube connected the baboon mask to the machine that was the size of a reel to reel tape recorder with dials. Denny usually slept on his right side but while using this device he had to sleep on his back. The machine forced him to inhale and exhale at regular intervals like other people. His breathing sounded like Darth Vader, and to be honest, from my side of the bed he looked like Darth Vader. His lazy lungs got retrained which was a miracle. Denny and I were starting to feel youthful again.

One night my husband accidentally flipped onto his right side dislodging the mask and almost ripping off his nose. He howled in pain and I dashed for a wet wash cloth to clean up his nose bleed. For days his schnoz was red and swollen forcing him to breathe through his mouth with no help from a machine.

Man, machine, and wife got used to the treatment, but after six months of mechanical respiration Denny’s sinuses were getting dried out causing little nose bleeds. Since he had improved, we surrendered the machine back to Kaiser Hospital. Oh joy; freedom from sleeping with attachments; but not for long.

My husband could hardly hold a cup of coffee because his right thumb hurt all the time. His doctor said, “Arthritis,” and he made a mold of Denny’s thumb. So my darling traded the baboon mask for a thumb cast that he wore only at night. Sleeping without his mask was safer for Denny, but sleeping with his thumb cast was unsafe for me. When Denny flipped onto his left side his big old thumb cast whacked me in the head. I didn’t sleep well during the thumb cast period.

To compensate for lack of rest I wanted to stay in bed late each morning, but that was when my husband did his exercises on top of the covers after he arose. I did not want to arise. Denny kept a strict schedule and did his exercises anyway as though I wasn’t there. He stretched one leg up, over and down then stretched the other leg up, over and down where it whopped me before I was awake. Since that didn’t get me up and about, he made his side of the bed, tucking sheets and blankets under the mattress. Then he plumped the pillow and smoothed the bedspread all while I was still in it. It restricted my movement and I felt like a mummy. Making the bed with me still under the covers was his way of saying that it was time to rise and shine.

Eventually we both “rose and shined” together each morning. Nighttime anxieties had become ancient history. What a relief. I didn’t have to tap his shoulder anymore and I could cuddle, snuggle, or even go to sleep if I felt like it. No more snoring or hands in casts. Finally, we were fresh-faced and wholesome every day.

Newlyweds must find out that sleeping with a partner for 49 years has its ups and downs, but not always in a good way.


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New Year Storm

On the night of December 31, 2006 the TV weatherman said, “If you live in the Bay Area of California you might want to stay home tonight. The New Year brings strong winds and rain, so tie everything down and prepare for heavy damage.”

Damaged things get fixed by guys and there are no guys in my house any more. In fact, those kinda guys don’t even live in my neighborhood. When things break, I consult the yellow pages.

I had never been in a big storm by myself. When I was a young mother we lived in Kansas where wind meant “tornado.” When a tornado alert screamed a warning, my protective husband, our toddler son, and newborn daughter and I fled to the southwest corner of the basement where four of us squeezed into our shelter. It was a ping-pong table propped against the wall to make a lean-to. Inside of it we kept blankets, pillows, water, and a radio to keep us occupied until a series of blasts meant that danger had passed.

Tornado warnings were scary, but serving time in twister country had provided the confidence needed to face a storm alone.  I gathered my arsenal: cell phone, flashlight, oil lamp, matches, and the resolve to be unafraid. I wanted to welcome the New Year on television while enjoying a hot toddy. Before I could practice being brave I turned on my favorite TV station, got cozy under a fleece blanket and waited. The storm started with lightening and a bang.  A sudden cloudburst produced water that hammered the house like machine gun bullets. Wind shook the walls so I turned on the yard lights and peered outside. My greenery was thrashing the air like leafy animals trying to break loose from their tethers. Trees convulsed and hedges trembled in a spastic rhythm as they joined the dangerous dance.

Mother Nature was as wild as a menopausal mama.

The first thing to go was electricity which meant no lights, heat, or land phone. A hot toddy was out of the question. With the help of my flashlight I used hot water from the tap to make a pitiful cup of instant cocoa that I enjoyed with soda crackers and cheese. If that didn’t satisfy my hunger I would light the oil lamp and devour the new catalogue from Crate and Barrel, but my spirit was getting as cold as the house. I put on a hooded jacket, scarf, and mittens. On a deep level I wanted someone with me who would say, “I’ll protect ya, Honey.”

I thought to myself, Snap out of it you wimp and build a fire. I reviewed my fire-starting skills. There was no kindling, but I had an artificial log…somewhere. Searching for it warmed me up. I read the instructions on the wrapper: “Always start with a clean fireplace.”

The ashes in the hearth were two years old because I hated cleaning the fireplace. If I didn’t thaw out soon, I would have to go to bed with the down comforter. I called my sons to see which one would like to have me as an overnight guest. Someone would have to pick me up because I couldn’t get the car out of the garage. I listened to each recorded message: “We are away for the holiday. Please call back later.” I had forgotten that the boys and their families were out of town for the New Year weekend. I was on my own.

The confident part of me took over and said, “Betty, light the oil lamp, finish the lukewarm “hot cocoa” and DON’T START FEELING BLUE!” I liked that part of myself so I hurried through an old catalogue from Furniture Plus to find the turned-down corners for things I had wanted. The house was growing colder, the rain louder, and the oil in the lamp much lower. There was time to grab my credit card that had no charges on it and the cell phone that had very little charge on it.  I dialed the 800 number and was greeted with this message:

“Good ev’nin’.

“Thank goodness; I thought you were closed.”

“Mam, we done evah close. Ahm heah till midnight then somebody else takes mah place.”

I enjoyed her strong Southern accent. I said,Good. I want to order several items on pages…”

“Hold on a minute. I have to give mah greetin’ cuz we’re bein’ recorded. Welcome to Furniture Plus in Florida. Mah name is Faith. How may I hep ya?

With that done, I wasted no time and ordered two small benches, two twin sized quilts, and a rug for my guestroom while Faith wrote it all down. Faith was not in a hurry so it It was slow-going. I said, Could we pick up the pace, Faith?”

“We shonuff can mam. But if I might say so, you sound kinda cited?” She ended the sentence up in the air like it was a question. So I answered it. I explained my situation; a storm here in Los Gatos…but she interrupted with “An where might Lost Gaddis be?” I told her it was in California and that I had no electricity or heat and I was wearing my snow clothes. Faith in Florida was quite amused at the thought of me bundled in a jacket, hat and gloves placing an order by the light of a kerosene lamp.

She said, “Ah cain’t believe THIS is what yore doin’ in a storm. You must LUUUVE owah products.”

“Faith, ordering from your catalogue right now is more important than anything.

“Well, whatevah winds yo’ clock.”

I wanted to say, “If I could open my garage door, I’d drive to the mall where I could stay warm while shopping.  Instead, I said, “Faith, I don’t have much oil left in my lamp.

“Well…we bettah get yo’ credit cahd numbah before that oyal runs out. Mam, this is so unusual. Ah’ve nevah had this much fun with a customah befowah.”

I said, “Well, I’ve never had this much fun spending money before.”

Faith giggled like a little girl and said, “Mayam, you ah SO funny.”

We wrapped up our business and I wished Faith a Happy New Year. Suddenly, the world seemed brighter even in the darkness of the storm.  I said, “Fireplace, “I’m gonna clean you up.”  I spread newspapers on the hearth, got the broom and dustpan, and the moment I lifted the grate out of the fireplace, the lights and furnace came on.  I could feel heat wafting through my jacket to the cockles of my heart, whatever they are, but something in my chest definitely felt warmer.  I said, “Fireplace, I’ll take care of you later.”

I could now cook food, stay warm, read by electric light, but I could not use the phone, TV or computer because the cable lines were still down. Who needed cable lines? Not me. I felt safe again, like so long ago in Kansas each time a tornado warning was called off.

By midnight things had changed. I was in bed hiding because the fury of the storm had set everything outside in motion. I heard chairs and garbage cans playing in the back yard. A distant heavy crash meant a tree had fallen. Car alarms shrieked like out-of-tune instruments. Near my head, the drumming of wind rattled the windows with such force that I was sure they would break. I closed the drapes so glass wouldn’t scatter over me like dangerous confetti. I drew blankets to my chin and stared at the ceiling. A water stain had formed in the shape of a clown’s hat. I rolled to the other side of the bed so I wouldn’t get wet.

The racket outdoors was fearsome so I concentrated on how nice my guest bedroom would look after my new furnishings had arrived. Because of the pleasant contact with Faith on the phone in Florida, an aura of calm hugged my body. I thought, Go to sleep, Betty, and check the damage in the morning. I dived deeper under the covers and slept peacefully through the worst storm we’d had in twenty years.

By morning the outside looked like a war zone with broken branches and lawn furniture everywhere. Pieces of shattered roof tile stabbed the ground like daggers, and the rest of the roof was all over the neighborhood. But I was still in one piece. I had things to do and first on my list was cleaning out those two-year old ashes. If fireplaces could talk, mine would’ve said, “Bring on the next storm, Betty, because we’re ready.”

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My Controversial Christmas Tree

Three weeks before Christmas in the year 2000, I browsed through the Crate and Barrel catalog for ornaments, tree skirts, and garlands. They were so gorgeous that I longed to buy them. Brand new holiday trimmings might get me in the mood for decorating, which had always been my husband’s job. He liked it. I had never enjoyed embellishing a package, a room, or a tree of any kind. Part of my lackluster attitude was the temporary nature of the activity—so much work to be enjoyed for such a short time. But now, visions of Christmas décor danced like sugarplum fairies in my head.

With no trouble I convinced my daughter-in-law, a “born-again” shopper, to accompany me to the Crate and Barrel store in the new upscale mall called Santana Row. We wasted no time and drove,  parked, and shopped; scooping up one satin tree skirt, two velvet pillows, three chains of garland, and a basketful of red and gold balls.

The next stop was Target in an old downscale mall on Hillsdale to purchase new lights. The choices were many: transparent, opaque, tiny, large, green, white, purple, and red. I voted for tiny red lights and a shiny gold ball to crown the top. I could hardly wait to start dressing it.

Excitement overtook me as I wound five boxes of red lights from the top to the bottom of my first Christmas tree while living alone. By the time it was laden with red and gold baubles, my enthusiasm had become my passion. I didn’t feel alone any more. It felt like my deceased husband was kicking my butt saying, “Snap out of it”–like Cher said to Nicholas Cage in the movie, Moonstruck. I couldn’t believe how intensely I was enjoying something I had previously disliked. That evening, to get the full effect, I turned off all but the tree lights so the only thing visible was the glowing red triangle in my living room picture window.  It was spectacular.

To view it from a distance, I stepped outside into the cold night air, then to the middle of the street and then across the street to my neighbor’s front yard.  From afar, my tree was breathtaking compared to the white lights that most people used. White Christmas tree lights represented the children’s choir and red Christmas tree lights symbolized me singing the Hallelujah Chorus all by myself.

I anticipated wholehearted admiration for such a distinctive tree. Instead, the responses were varied and emotional:

  • “It’s so red.”
  • “I LOVE IT! It’s romantic and sensuous.”
  • To be honest, your tree wigged me out.”
  • “I think it’s warm and inviting.”
  • “It’s out of place and doesn’t fit.”
  • “It makes me feel good.”
  • “It’s a cross between beautiful and scary.”
  • “Uhm…is it radioactive?”

There wasn’t a single neutral comment. My best friend said, “Betty, doesn’t it bother you that your tree has generated so much controversy?”

“Not at all. I love the attention my crimson tree has created.”

It was the truth. Finally, I cared about a Christmas tree like I had never cared for one before. And decorating it had lifted my spirits. I intended to defend my creation against those who didn’t appreciate that it was just a little bit different. I liked being near it. During the day, I turned on the red lights and curled up in an overstuffed chair near its branches to savor long detailed Christmas letters that usually bored me to death. At night, I sat across from its warm glow in the darkened living room and listened to Christmas carols. I was at peace and dreaded the time to dismantle it because I would miss what it had done for me.

Proof of my fondness for the bright red thing came when I opened a gift from my daughter-in-law, the “born-again shopper.” Inside the bag were five new red and gold ornaments to add to the others we had just purchased. I was so touched by her gift that my eyes watered. It was like giving birth to my first baby and receiving gifts of clothing to cover its nakedness.

After the New Year, I’ll undress the tree, but I won’t toss the new adornments into any old box. I plan to store them in their original packages with such care that they will look just as nice next year as they do now. And perhaps the dissenters will adjust to its smoldering radiance. Eventually they’ll realize that I intend to defend those scarlet globes until they burn out—and I’ll replace them when that happens. The red Christmas tree lights are here to stay. I glow just thinking about them.

from Dancing in My Nightgown: The Rhythms of Widowhood by Betty Auchard

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Thanksgiving in the Tavern

(revised — This was originally illustrated and published on my blog last year: 11/25/2010)

Thanksgiving Day is predictable because the guest list never changes and neither does the menu. Even so, I’ve had a few that were out of the ordinary and whenever I share my unorthodox holiday stories someone matches them and they reproduce like rabbits. Stories beget stories, so, listen up and let the procreation begin.

One year my parents were so poor that we were thrilled to have liver and onions with our cranberry sauce. Another year my mother molded a meat loaf into the shape of a turkey. The year the oven caught fire we boiled our bird. All of these meals were memorable, but the most unforgettable was our Thanksgiving dinner in a tavern.

The Uptown Village Café in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was a family tavern that my dear auntie Marge and Uncle Al owned when I was growing up. Dad tended bar and Mom cooked in the kitchen, so my siblings and I practically grew up there. Uppity people called it a beer parlor but Auntie Marge said, “It’s a family tavern. There’s a difference and people who come here know the difference.” Uncle Al loved the people who came there because they were like family. On holidays the Village stayed open so he could make free hot toddies for everyone.

Years later, Denny (my new husband) and I returned to Iowa for Thanksgiving. The holiday feast was in the tavern where we were surrounded by high-spirited customers enjoying free hot toddies and dancing to the Jukebox. To make room for twelve relatives, the waitresses used card tables to extend one of the booths out into the room. The makeshift dining table was camouflaged with a paper covering and matching napkins bearing turkey designs. Soon, the surface was laden with durable restaurant plates, army surplus silverware, heavy glass beer mugs, and pretty little place tags.

The table reached almost to the brand new, beautifully crafted portable shuffle board. The polished oak surface was so slick that the steel discs shot across it like silent bullets. Three older men in high spirits were in the middle of a hot game when my family squeezed into our assigned places for Thanksgiving dinner.

Auntie Marge signaled her waitresses to bring on the food. The first thing to adorn the table was a platter with our golden roasted turkey sitting in a halo of pears poached in pink wine. Next came a parade of taste-bud-teasing side dishes: orange yams, cream-colored mashed potatoes peppered with paprika, rich brown gravy, bright green peas, and crimson cranberries. It was a rainbow of food that I could taste in the air. Uncle Al wanted everything to be special and he made a little speech. “As you all probably know we have never had a Thanksgiving dinner in this tavern before, so this historic event means that we should give thanks to God.”

I didn’t know my uncle could pray or that he believed in God.

He said, Denny, since you’re a preacher’s son, would you do the honors?”

If eyebrows could talk, Denny’s were saying, “What?” He was used to praying but not in a beer parlor. A cash register ding was not a churchy soundtrack. His eyebrows settled down and he took a slow, deep breath. Using his outdoor voice he said, “Everyone…please, let us bow our heads.”

The beer-drinking patrons took notice.

My head was bowed but my eyeballs were straining sideways to see why everything was suddenly hushed in the tavern. The radio was off, shuffle board discs were not sliding, and Uncle Al’s friends stood in place with heads bowed.

Denny waited a moment with eyes closed and said loud enough for all to hear, “Dear God — on this exceptional Thanksgiving Day, we thank you for these bountiful blessings and ask that you be with us here…in this tavern. Bless the hands that prepared the food…and drink for the nourishment of our…spirits, and let us really enjoy this day of fellowship. Ay-men.”

Ever so slowly, things came back to life, but Denny couldn’t stop grinning. He whispered, “Honey–that felt so weird.”

Uncle Al sensed my husband’s discomfort and said, “Denny, what would Reverend Auchard say about you giving thanks to God in our tavern?”

With no hesitation, Denny said, “Al, my dad would stand up and shout, ‘Ay-men and halleluiah.’ ” And that’s what my father-in-law would have said no matter where he was.

My father-in-law was a teetotaling country preacher in Kansas, and his experiences during prohibition were hair-raising. Just thinking about him reminds me of the time that he and the county bootlegger…

Uh oh.

Contractions have started.

I’m giving birth to another story.


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ART LESSON: How to Create a Line Drawing

I  miss teaching art so let’s pretend that you’re in my 10th grade drawing class. Today’s lesson is about seeing objects in a different way. Objects do not have black lines around them to show their contours, but we’ll pretend that they do.

Lines, outlines, and curves become shapes that represent objects. When demonstrating this with a pen it is called contour drawing. Let’s try it together.

Materials: black marker like a Sharpie with a fine point and a brown paper grocery bag.

#1) How to “see” the outside contour without drawing:

Place the object you’ve chosen to draw about five feet away on a table. It could be a potted plant, kitchen utensils, scissors sticking out of a container, a chair, etc.,

Practice Seeing:

Start looking wherever you want but pick a point on the outside edge of your object. Let your eyes travel slowly around the edge of the object. Go slow, but keep your eyes moving ’til you get all around the outside edge and end back where you started.                               #1 Practicing seeing the outside contour of an object

Practice Seeing while Drawing (Blind drawing):

Now, put your pen in hand and your hand inside the open bag so you can’t see what you’re drawing. Pick a point on the outside edge again and pretend your eyes are glued to the tip of the pen and you’re traveling around the edge with your “eye-pen.” Do NOT lift your eye-pen from the paper but do keep traveling slowly all around the outside edge of the object as you draw the imaginary line that is  the outside contour. With any luck your line might actually match up with the line that you started. Now, cut open your paper bag so it will lay flat and have a look at your drawing. It will look sort of odd but it takes on a new and curious life. The resulting shape is called a contour. #1 Blind Drawing –  inside of a paper grocery bag.

I like blind drawings because they’re funky but interesting. Now, stop admiring YOUR  blind drawing and do the same thing on a clean sheet of paper or on another paper bag cut open so it can stay flat and go to #2.

#2  Drawing the contour while LOOKING at the object and LOOKING at your drawing.

This time your eyes and hands are still working together but you can see what you’re doing. Bounce your eyes back and forth between the object and your drawing so you can keep the lines sort of where they belong. But still go slow as you travel around the outside edge of the object with your “eye-pen.” If you speed around the edge, the drawing will look rushed and too smooth and you won’t get a decent grade in this class. Pay close attention to every change in the direction of the line. Don’t rush and don’t miss a single bump or set of wiggly lines. Just keep looking back and forth at the object and at your drawing. Don’t worry if your line goes astray. That’s part of the charm of contour drawing. Just keep traveling all the way around the outside contour of the object and don’t miss any of the detours. Enjoy the trip to the end. With any luck you’ll end up where you started. However, if  your line doesn’t match the original line just fake it. Create a new line and introduce it to the old one. Trust me. They’ll be only too happy to meet.  The outside contour has now created an enclosed shape that is the same as a silhouette or shadow picture. Admire it for a few seconds and then move on to #3.

#2  Drawing while LOOKING at the outside contour of an object

#3) NOW, let’s get serious about looking for inside shapes or empty spaces inside of this silhouette. There are many. If you’re drawing a chair or kitchen gadgets sticking out of a container, there might be a lot of inside shapes (empty spaces). They may SEEM  like empty spaces but think of those “holes” as shapes or inside contours. The shape of empty space is called “negative space” or “negative shape.” Most people refer to it as the “background.” Background (empty space) is as important as the object you’re drawing. The shape of the background space works with the shape of the object to create an image that uses the space well.

Think of the positive and negative shape-spaces as a married couple. One partner is more noticed and outspoken and the other doesn’t mind a partner that hogs the limelight because love and admiration for each other holds them together.

Negative space (the shape of empty space) is as important as the object you’re drawing. The shape of the object that you’re drawing is called a “positive space” or “positive shape.” Don’t miss any and try to include them all; both positive and negative shapes.

#3 Adding the INSIDE shapes (empty spaces)

Isn’t this nifty? It’s coming to life.

Okay, okay…let’s move on to #4

#4) This is the time to look for any other lines or shapes that will liven your drawing and give it some “bling.” Do some more “seeing” and add any details you might’ve missed that are INSIDE of all shapes.  It’s like putting on your makeup, jewelry, cologne, after shave, hanky in the pocket, name tag, etc. There are more steps you can do on your own without me here such as adding different shades of gray, adding color, texture, pattern or whatever sounds like fun.

BUT, if f you leave the image as is with no more bling, the end result is called a LINE DRAWING. . Ta dah!

This is a line drawing by me, Betty Auchard

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Reinventing Myself

The first time I reinvented myself I was the new girl in the 10th grade after my family moved from Iowa to Colorado. I made my own clothes and wore two braids that hung to my “buttocks.” I had four girlfriends and our little group was low profile, so very few students knew who we were. I didn’t have a clue that other kids referred to me as “that girl with long braids.” but how could they miss me? I was the only girl in Englewood High School who looked old-timey.

Because of my homey clothes (not homely) and long braids they assumed I was from a Mennonite community, though I wasn’t. Eventually I felt a need to look modern and I wanted to cut my hair. After a week-long discussion with my parents they broke down and gave permission only if I promised that I wouldn’t change anything else about myself. I made a promise that I couldn’t possibly keep and then almost broke a leg getting to the telephone to make an appointment at the beauty shop. Mom insisted on going with me to supervise the job.

I was thrilled but terrified. What if I didn’t like looking modern? I sure couldn’t glue the braids back on. After two hours of all kinds of snipping, washing, drying, and curling, the transformation was complete. I looked in the mirror and couldn’t stop staring. I felt so pretty that I assumed I must have looked pretty.

I floated out of the beauty shop and into a clothing shop where Mom let me buy a pleated skirt, Sloppy Joe sweater, cute penny loafers, and angora anklets. Before going to school the next day I dabbed a hint of color on my lips and caught the bus. I felt so happy and confidant that I thought my pounding heart must have shown through my sweater. My friends liked the new look but no one else knew who I was. They had no idea I was that girl with long braids. They thought I had recently enrolled. A boy stopped me in the hall and said, “Hi there. I haven’t seen you before. Are you new?”

I said, “Yeah, I think I am.”

This change in appearance changed everything. I was no longer shy and trying to blend with the furniture. I dredged up some confidence and became active for the remaining two-and-a-half years of high school. It was the first self-discovery period in my life.

Now jump ahead 50 years. I was 70, widowed for two years and couldn’t stop writing about it. My notes eventually became the memoir, Dancing in My Nightgown. The adjustment of being alone after a long, good marriage prompted all kinds of stories that I wanted to preserve so I would not forget what widowhood was like. I knew that I’d better get used to being alone because, for sure, things would never be the same again.

While thinking those pitiful thoughts I realized that being alone meant I could do anything I wanted without negotiation. It was a scary but liberating idea. I felt the same way when I was 15 on the day of my haircut — just as scared but excited. At 70, I had no idea that my obsessive writing about the funny/sad experiences of widowhood would lead to another reinvention of myself. But it did.

Now I’ve been writing steadily for 13 years which has resulted in a second memoir: The Home for the Friendless. Reflecting and writing about where I came from, who I am, and where I might be going has changed my life in more ways than I can mention. The work of writing is fun. The work of editing and revising is fun. The work of getting published is just plain hard work and promoting and marketing is actually a necessary grind that can’t last forever because it is so NOT fun. As a public speaker with two books to sell, I enjoy meeting new people until it starts to be a job that I have to do. And once you publish a book it really is the author’s obligation to help market it, just like when you give birth to children your obligation AND desire is to take care of them. Both are commitments.

Now, at 81, I day-dream about un-inventing myself. I would like to live a more private life. I’m tired of pretending that I can hear what people are saying even though I wear hearing aids. My children tell me that I often laugh inappropriately. Heck. What I hear is sometimes funny, but apparently it’s not. I look forward to NOT pretending that I hear every word. In addition to that I want to work in the garden again and keep the roses deadheaded. Now, they just die and the petals fall and dry up where they land. I would like to read more books with no homework assignments such as giving feedback. I long to take one of my grandchildren on a vacation without their parents. I would like to sew again and start up my neighborhood water color group. We used to gather once a month in my kitchen where I taught water color lessons. I love teaching art. I would also enjoy flirting with gray-haired studs before I lose the desire to do so. There are all kinds of things I really want to do while I still remember what year it is. But I can’t stick with one thing for a long, long time because the fun just plain wears off.

I think about winding down. I don’t know when to start but when the time comes, I’ll let y’all know. I promise.

– Betty Auchard

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Scoping Guys

I’ve been single for a long time and my friends keep asking, “Do you have a boyfriend?”

“Nope, not yet.”

“Are you looking?”

Of course. All the time.

“Then, what’s taking so long?”

“I have preferences that limit my choices.”

It’s true. My list of “wants” is so long that it’s ridiculous and things on my list sound shallow. For instance, I don’t want a boy-friend who is shorter than I. Now isn’t that silly? Tom Cruise is shorter than Katy Holmes and she’s fine with it. Not me. I feel chunky as it is, and a shorter man would make me feel like an elephant.

And here’s another thing…if a man I’m scoping is wearing cut-offs I do not want his legs to be skinny. Don’t ask me why because I don’t know, but I do want his thighs to be well-developed. I would also enjoy strolling with a man who is well-coordinated and walks with purpose. I want his face to be open and friendly, and I want his lips to be noticeable and not too thin. He must have eyes that smile and stay stuck to my face when I’m talking so I know that he’s listening. I want him to laugh with abandon and have a healthy sense of humor. I hope he’s smart, but not smarter than I am. He must enjoy reading, movie-going, walking, talking, and dancing. He will be spiritual, but not doctrinal. and a bonus would be kindness and patience. He must appreciate me just as I am, because it’s too late to change. I want him to be affectionate and loving because I can crank up my passion if time allows.

You now see how long my “want” list has grown and a pretty good reason I do not have a boyfriend.

In spite of these hurdles I’ve spent the last eleven years scoping guys and I love it as much as men love eyeballing women. But sometimes my enthusiasm backfires. One such occasion was a magnificent spring day when my children and grandchildren took me to the Oakland Zoo. I spent a long time getting dressed and looking good in case a nice gentleman hit on me. I needed to stay in practice and my bright pink sweater set might catch his attention…whoever he is.

(At this point in my story I will describe it as though we’re there in person so you can witness it first-hand) Eleven of us are walking in a disorganized line with me straggling behind. My 12-year-old grandson, Nathan, is strolling in front of me and points out various interesting creatures. Then I feel a strong tap on my back. I crank my head around expecting to see a nice fellow who wants  to ask a question just so he can flirt with me. But, no such fellow is there. Hm. I assume two things: that a large twig has  fallen from the trees onto my shoulder, and that I am wayyyyy too eager.

Then Nathan drops to the end of the line and walks behind me when  I hear him suck in his breath and say,  “OMIGOSH, NONNIE–you’ve got a huge bird poop on your back!”

My two daughters fly into action, remove my bright pink cardigan and clean it up in the women’s rest room. What a mess. That bird must have been an eagle. But I have to forget this unfortunate experience and enjoy the rest of the zoo.  We catch up with rest of the family and are now approaching the camels. They look grungy and moth-eaten with half of their hair missing. I guess they’re molting and I say, “Nathan, those camels look so weird.”

“Where?”

“Right over there.”

I raise my hand and point to the camel pen…and wouldn’t you know–another Eagle-sized poop plops on my outstretched arm; back to the rest room to clean up. By now, all delusional daydreams  of romance are right down the toilet. Instead of being hit upon by a nice man I am being hit upon by a large bird that is attracted to bright pink.

After a few days of sulking I pull out of it and start scoping guys again because the fun is in the hunt. But what happens if I find the man I’m describing? The possibility scares me. If I find him, I might have to keep him — but not all the time. Sometimes we can stay at his house and sometimes at my house and sometimes we can just just take a long break from each other.

Since the hunt is more fun than the prize I can scope guys until I die…but whatta way to go.

PS Today, August 18, 2011 is my 81st birthday, and I do not intend to grow up.

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Fill ‘er up!

I was 18 when I learned to drive a car.

I was 68 when I learned how to put gas in it.

Why did it take so long?

Because that was my husband’s job and after he died his jobs became mine. Besides that, the gas tanks scared me to death. I’d seen too many movies where gasoline spilled on the ground, a careless cigarette got tossed into it, and the whole station blew up.

For several months my children took turns filling the tank and I was so grateful I could have cried. When no one was around and the tank was almost empty I felt panic stricken. I took slow deep breaths and realized there was no way out. I needed to learn how to do this awful job myself. But I needed help. So I called my neighbor and said, “Gracie, do you mind going with me to the Shell station to teach me how to use the gasoline pump?”

I actually thought she would say, “No problem.” But she didn’t. She said, “You mean…you don’t know how?”

“No. Denny always did it. ”

“I can’t believe that you drive a car and don’t know how to put gas in it.”

I was not a dimwit. Gracie acted like I didn’t know how to tie my own shoes. I said, “Well, it’s true. Will you teach me?”

The silence meant that Gracie’s shoulders had dropped a foot and she was thinking it over. I waited until she said, “Okay, let’s get this over with.”

On the way to the Shell station at the foot of our hill she said not one word. It made me uncomfortable. I wanted her to break the silence and she finally did after I stopped at the first tank. She said, “You’re not even close. Pull the car up. Not that far. Back up. Not that much. Try again. Okay, okay, stop. Now–step one: get out your credit card and stand next to me and watch what I do.

I felt like I was back in fourth grade when the teacher tried to explain the ruler to me; all those lines and numbers. I wasn’t gettin’ the ruler at all and was more interested in her pretty fingernails and the ring she wore. The same was true with Gracie at the gas pump. I was in awe, distracted by her efficiency, not listening to the instructions she rattled off so fast they flew right past my brain. I didn’t have the nerve to tell her to slow down so I just kept watching her smooth moves. She must have been nine-years-old when she learned how to drive.

At least my car tank was now full. But two weeks later it was empty again and the kids were all at work. I had no choice but to call Gracie again, because I could not recall her instructions.

She said, “I already taught you how to do this. Have you forgotten?”

“Yes, I have.”

“Then write it down this time.”

I was beginning not to like Gracie very much but I needed her, so I wrote fast because, again, she was hurrying. I think I got it right and thanked her over and over, realizing that my gratefulness was kind of sickening.

After the tank got low the third time I took my notes with Gracie’s instructions and tried hard to leave the impression with other customers that I had done this all my life. But I was nervous and had purposely left the card on the seat so I could pretend to be looking for something in the glove compartment while reading step one. After step one was accomplished I glanced at steps two, three, and four. I managed to look like filling the tank was a ho-hum job instead of a nerve-wracking necessity.

It seemed that I was finished but I was looking for a button that said, The End.” I was so afraid of pressing the wrong one. It could send gasoline spilling all over the concrete causing a deadly explosion that I always saw in the movies during gas station scenes. I was eternally grateful that nothing spilled and I was alive. Before driving away I looked around to make sure I was not still hooked up to the tank. I’ve seen those kinds of scenes at movies, too, where the driver leaves and takes the gas tank with him.

When I pulled out of the Shell station I couldn’t keep a smile from taking up my whole face. I was in rapture. If I could fill my own tank with gas when it scared me so much, this meant I could do anything. The world was mine. I smiled so hard that my face hurt, but I felt like a new person.

It seemed the car was floating down the street when I came to the stop light. Me, my full tank of gas and my smile sat there waiting for the light to turn green. Out of the corner of my left eye I noticed the man in the passenger seat of the car to my left kept glancing my way. So I glanced back and he waved and I waved back, feeling a tinge of excitement because he was flirting with me. I felt I should smile more often because it obviously made me look like a hottie. A smile can sure change your looks.

Then he rolled down his window and I knew he was going to hit on me, so I rolled down my window and said, “Yes?” I was feeling flirty, too.

He said, “Ma’am, your gas cap is hangin’ off.”

My smile froze in place and I said, “Oh, thank you SOOO much.”

What a bummer!

What gas cap? I didn’t remember any gas cap. Where was it? I got through the light, pulled to the curb to see what a hanging-off-gas-cap looked like. And there it was sitting in a little thingie inside of a small door that was wide open. I didn’t remember seeing that before, but I must have touched it because I had put gas in the car. I screwed the cap back on, shut the little door and drove home knowing that a smile is just a smile and that practically everyone but me knew how to fill a tank.

But maybe they didn’t.  I needed to find them and teach them how to do it.

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Guest Post: Red Pepper Dreams and Dr. Seuss Nightmares

This is a letter I received from a fan, Darryl Trapp,  who read my newest book: The Home for the Friendless

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve discovered that I simply cannot eat and drink the same things that I did when I was in my twenties. First to go were Vodka Gimlets (lime juice = acid indigestion). Next it was eggs (I developed an allergy.) After last night, I’m crossing red pepper hummus off the list.

When I was a kid, my mother was convinced that comic books, scary movies, and Dr. Seuss would give me nightmares. The only time I could get a fix of “Green Eggs And Ham” was if I snuck off to the children’s table at the doctor’s waiting room and pretended to be reading “Highlights” magazine. I can honestly say, though, as far as I can recall, none of those taboo objects of my childhood actually caused my nightmares, at least not directly. I read comic books at my best friend’s house, saw both “Psycho” and “The Birds” as a young child (thanks to my older siblings), and feasted on Dr. Seuss books at the doctor’s office. I had nightmares, but they usually had to do with flying and suddenly dropping out of the sky.

I’ve come to the conclusion that certain foods bring on these nightmares. Like Ebeneezer Scrooge, that “bit of undigested potato, that dab of gravy” can wreak havoc on a night’s sleep faster that you can say “double dip sundae.” Last night I had a snack of pita chips and red pepper hummus before going to bed. I paid dearly for it. I dreamed myself into Betty Auchard’s book, The Home for the Friendless – but I was an eight year old Betty whose mother was taking her for an operation.                                                               

I (as Betty) had developed a weird, mysterious growth, underneath the surface of the skin on my face, and it needed to be removed…not my face, but the growth. Without batting an eye, Betty’s mother, Waneta, escorted me to the local doctor, who evidently didn’t feel the need to operate within the confines of a hospital, but instead of an operating room, he used a hybridized Airstream trailer that was parked in his driveway. The sign on the roof said, THE DOCTOR IS IN. Very convenient for the emergency removal of almost anything.

The operation was a success, but to my horror, I discovered that the “growth” was a whole other face, complete with nose, chin, brow and lips, which the doctor had somehow removed all in one piece. It looked a little like the mask used in The Phantom of the Opera; white and waxy. Disoriented from the anesthesia, and terrified by this bizarre turn of events, I slipped away while the doctor was otherwise occupied, wanting only to be home with my mother. Keep in mind that I was a homeless 8-year-old Betty in this dream.

Moving from backyard to alleyways, I traveled from suburb to downtown. Nothing looked familiar. This was Cedar Rapids, Iowa of the 1940’s, complete with streetcars and congested with pedestrian traffic, but with a very different topography. The streets had changed and suddenly bisected at acute angles. The real Cedar Rapids is laid out in a square grid. In the dream, buildings shot up to impossible heights, bypassing the modern skyscrapers that exist today. Hills popped up where none had existed before. Everything had taken on an odd, dusty coloration.

I wandered into a department store looking for help, and suddenly even the laws of physics had deserted me. Without warning I found myself climbing up the banister of a set of stairs sideways as if it were a ladder. A trapdoor loomed in the floor – which was actually the ceiling of this topsy-turvy world. I could see two saleswomen, far below or was it above? I tried calling out to them for help, but my voice dwindled away, like a whisper on the wind. I was lost and alone, hurting and sad, and all my eight-year-old self wanted was to find my way back home. I was lost and friendless.

I woke up shaken and sweaty. From here on, I’m sticking to warm milk for a bed time snack. And just to be safe, I’m avoiding Dr. Seuss.

By Darryl Trapp, a grown up man

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Betty’s Book Tour in Iowa

Betty’s Book Tour in Iowa

As many of you know I live in California and I had my first book tour promoting The Home for the Friendless in Iowa from June 8 to 16. The memoir stories are set against the backdrop of the Depression and WW2 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa where I was raised. My literary publicist, Stephanie Barko (www.stephaniebarko.com ) in Austin, Texas set all of the events up many months before they happened. Scheduling these personal appearances in my home state was only one small part of our book activities because Stephanie and I worked together for ten months promoting The Home for the Friendless with a “virtual book tour” that took place on the Internet. I never left my computer chair while traveling all over the country. My wardrobe was pajamas and my face and hair were in complete disarray most of the time. .

That was a virtual tour — this tour was different because my brother and I had to dress nice. He was my driver. We stayed in three different hotels in Iowa and drove over 900 miles. Gas was cheaper there.

Here was our schedule.

June 8, flew to Omaha, Nebraska, met my brother, Bob, and just started driving.

June 9, Iowa Public Radio Interview with Charity Nebbe in Iowa City – excellent interviewer

June 11, History Center book talk and signing in Cedar Rapids, Iowa – Great stories told by all

June 12, Tanager Place reunion former residents of The Home for the Friendless, same town

12 former residents of the institution attended the first annual reunion and now they want to meet every year.

June 13, Peal Family reunion in Tucker Park, Hiawatha, Iowa – met cousins I didn’t know I had.

June 13, Public Library book signing, Ames, Iowa – several writers in this audience

June 14, Prairie Lights Book Store, Iowa City – audience of summer writing workshop members.

June 15, St. Matthews Church, book signing , Cedar Rapids, Iowa, members were mostly seniors

June 16, Convent, retired nuns Mt. Mercy University, Cedar Rapids, Iowa – like no nuns I’ve met!

June 17, Left for California; from the air I saw miles of farms under waters of the flooded Missouri River. Terrible sight.

Highlights:

Bob and I reviewed our lives while driving from one town to another, laughed a lot and put miles behind us.

Charity Nebbe, a wonderful interviewer, asked many questions about our childhood. Even interviewed my brother, Bob.

The History Center program was a good mix of 24 people who shared stories about growing up in Iowa.

Tanager Place, the modern day rescue organization for children in jeopardy, hosted a reunion for former residents of the original Home for the Friendless. Twelve “kids” aged 50 – 85, attended. All of our records from 1902 to 1978 are at Tanager Place. It’s like a college campus with nine acres of land with classrooms and cottages. In the picture below I am in the front row between the red and blue blouses and my brother, Bob, is right behind me in the back row, third from the right.

The Peal Family reunion, June : the above photo represents cousins from three of the six uncles in the Peal Family. Bob and I are on the left end of the picture, and next to me is Bonnie whose dad was Uncle Jiggs on page 34 of The Home for the Friendless. The next six cousins in the above photo were in the story, Outhouse Adventure on page 110. This photo, taken on June 13, 2011, was a reminder of our frequent family gatherings as kids in one of the many parks in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, our hometown. But this time, none of our aunts or uncles were there. The only one still living was too frail to attend, and my cousins, brother and I were the new generation of  OLD people. First-cousins-once- removed were in abundance and we had to get acquainted all over again. Picnic food was plentiful and I could NOT get enough of the sauerkraut salad; YUM.

Ames, Iowa is one of the locations of Stephens Press, my publisher, and we had a lovely gathering of interested citizens in the public library there.

Prairie Lights Book Store is well known and I was at first intimidated about appearing there. The audience was made up of men and women from all over the United States who were attending the famous summer writers’ workshops hosted by the University of Iowa. By the way, the university was the first to ever  have a degree in creative writing. Famous authors graduated from there and are also on the faculty for the summer workshops. Those people attending were down to earth and not one bit too sophisticated for me. What a relief that was.

St. Matthews Church was a responsive crowd of men and women, our contemporaries (77 – 81) who knew exactly every location that was mentioned in the book. They, like my brother and me, are living history. I wonder if they realize it?

Mt. Mercy Convent and the retired nuns were such a surprise. I expected formal older women in long black gowns with black veils over their heads and hands folded in a permanent pose of prayer. But they don’t look like that anymore. These lively ladies looked like anyone you might meet in the grocery store. They were such fun and laughed at all the right places. What a great way to end our book tour.

My brother and I missed the presence of our younger sister, Patty, who we lost to cancer in March, 2010. But she was with us in memory during this whole trip.

Frequently asked question: Betty, do you plan to write another book?

My answer: Nope. I’m way too busy writing and illustrating my blog stories that I change every three weeks. See them for yourself at www.bettyauchard.com/blog.

PS I’ll write a blog story later about going to Las Vegas to record the audio book for The Home for the Friendless. This time I’ll be reading from a teleprompter instead of a paper manuscript. I love reading for recording. It feels like one long open mike night.

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Guest Post: Sandi Corbitt-Sears, Editor

Betty and I met in cyberspace more than 10 years ago. She was just embarking on the first steps toward a career as a published author, and I was exploring the idea of writing fiction. Destiny landed us in the same online writer’s class. As we posted our assignments and participated in discussions, Betty and I connected on another level. Soon, we were emailing and phoning outside the group.

We continued to stay in touch after the class ended and had an opportunity to meet in person when Betty was in Nebraska for a reunion. At some point, we began to work together on the wonderful stories that became her first book, Dancing in My Nightgown. She would write a story, and I would suggest changes. The transition to a writer/editor relationship was as effortless as the friendship we had developed.

I’ve been editing for many years, and each experience is different. Working with Betty, however, wasn’t just different. It was special. The process reminded me of working with clay. The stories she created took on a life of their own, and I was privileged to help mold them into finished pieces. As we removed a blob from one place and added it in another spot, subtle details gradually took shape. We fine tuned and smoothed that clay until it became a work of art. Always, it was a labor of love.

Sometimes the process became heavy on the “labor” part. Translating life experiences into words can be hard work. That’s when silliness stepped in to lighten the load. If you’ve been reading Betty’s blog, you’ve sampled her delightful sense of humor. Fortunately, we found the same things funny. Most of it wouldn’t make anyone else laugh, but she and I found those exchanges hilarious! It could be a simple typo that completely changed the meaning of a sentence or a wacky idea that cleared the confusion when we ran OUT of ideas.

Eventually, the time came when each of her books was finalized and released to the publisher. Those were bittersweet moments for me. Excitement about the delicious possibilities for Betty had to share space with an awareness that our daily back-and-forth communication had come to an end.

That’s the nature of life, of course. Beginnings and endings tend to occur in pairs. Fortunately, endings are often transformations in disguise. Betty and I continue to work together on projects, and I celebrate her every well-deserved success. Other than Betty’s family members, I’m pretty sure I’m her biggest fan. She is a brilliant example that it’s never too late to become the person you were meant to be.

Sandi Corbitt-Sears, editor

www.sandi@writefriend.com

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Holes Happen

Holes Happen

Sometimes you dig a hole for a good reason and sometimes holes just happen. The news reports that the earth has opened up and swallowed sidewalks and cars. Now those are pretty big holes. Little sinkholes have appeared in my back yard and they cause us to trip, which brings us to the conclusion that most holes should eventually be filled up. Why? Because the space they occupy is wasted and could be used again.

Examples: the hole in my tire; the hole in my heart when a boyfriend dumped me; the depressions in my lawn where the earth caved in, and the two-foot pit we dug for our Doggie Dooley (a sort of waste station for dog poops).

All of the above holes were real. The tire had to be pumped up all the time; the old boyfriend had said, “You walk too fast. I’m outta here,” and the hole in my heart took a while to heal. The lawn holes caused us to stumble and fall. So we watch our step until they’re filled in. The Doggie Dooley took a lot of time to dig since the opening had to be the exact size of the metal flange that fit into the top so the lid could cover it up. That’s where we dumped the dog “logs” and then sprinkled magic powder on top of the pile to turn it to compost. The lid kept people from accidentally disappearing into the opening. We filled it with dirt again after our dogs died and planted a flowering vine that grew as fast as Jack’s beanstalk. No wonder.

Those holes are behind me now, but a new batch turned up recently. One of my adult grandsons called and said, “Nonnie, can I come for a visit?” I was delighted. “I need to use your washing machine because the one in my apartment house is always busy.” So he “visited” my Magtag  and was folding his socks and said, “These darn holes…”

“What holes?”                                                                                                                           

“In all of my socks,” he said. “I should just buy new ones and throw these away.”

“Oh no; don’t throw those socks away. Let me darn those darn holes.”

“Do what to these darn holes?”

I said, “Darn them.”

“You mean like cussing and swearing at them?”

It was obvious that the darning-holes-in-socks job was no longer part of the English language, so I explained. “Grandson, in the “olden days,” back in 1949, women mended the holes in socks.”

“With a sewing machine?”

“Heavens no; by reconstructing the fabric.”

“How would the fabric be reconstructed?” my grandson asked, so I explained.

“New fabric was created with a needle and darning thread by crisscrossing the strands across the hole as though weaving on a tiny loom. The thread color had to match the sock and a darning egg was pushed inside of the sock heel.”

“A darning…egg?”

I explained that a darning egg was usually made of wood with a little handle. When placed into the sock it made the newly woven area fit the shape of the heel. I used a light bulb in place of my long lost wooden darning egg. I got so caught up in the serene pleasure of mending my grandsons socks that I completely lost track of how much time and work I had put into filling up a sock hole with thread. It was unusually satisfying and the finished product looked like new. I was so proud of my work that I shared the results with everyone in my family and begged to mend their worn out socks so I could bring them back to life.

It takes a lot of time and effort to mend a hole in a sock, but the same is true for anything in life that loses its “wholeness.” We would be happier, be better company, and feel more fulfilled if we’d just take time to fill up those darn holes.

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Ode to the Clothesline

With no warning it died this morning, and it was only 25 years old. My deluxe top-of-the-line 1986 clothes dryer chugalugged, choked, then came to a stop. I was in shock. I had a profound connection with that machine so I needed an hour to grieve. I snapped out of it and lifted the wet sheets out and slopped them into a laundry basket and then to my car. I headed for the High and Dry Laundromat a few blocks away, lugged the heavy basket inside and waited my turn for a washing machine to spin out the water and then kept my eyes open for an empty dryer. A gray metal folding chair beckoned me to sit, so I did while I daydreamed about installing an old-fashioned clothes line in the back yard. What direction should I place it? If it’s the wrong way while wind is blowing the sheets will wind around the line instead of flapping in the breeze. And there are rules about how things are hung. I started reviewing them in my head.

I must never hang laundry outside on Sunday because it just isn’t done.

Before using the line it must be wiped clean with a wet cloth.

Sheets and towels go on the outside lines and underwear hangs out-of-sight on the inside.

Don’t’ use two clothes pins for one item, as one pin can be shared with the next item.

Never leave clothes pins on an empty line because it’s tacky.

If the weather is below zero the clothes will freeze dry and the whites will be whiter.

Before dinner, all laundry must be off the line, folded, and put away.

As these thoughts of a simpler life style flitted through my head I felt self-righteous and honorable. Visions of tribal women washing garments in the creek connected me to my ancestors and I could see them draping wet clothing to dry over bushes and boulders. How strange, feeling bonded to ancient relatives while waiting my turn for an electric clothes dryer.

Drying laundry reminded me of an old-fashioned poem that someone had sent. It stated that the clothesline was a free newspaper because by “reading” the clothesline you could tell what was going on in the neighbor’s house. If the family had been sick with stomach flu there would be extra sheets, nightclothes, and bathrobes hanging there. If they were having company the fancy tablecloths would be flapping in the breeze. If the lines were bare the folks were probably on vacation. If there was no inch to spare they had probably returned. The only stanza I remembered by heart was at the end:

Clotheslines are now of the past for dryers make work less.

What goes on inside a home is now anybody’s guess.

I really miss that way of life. It was a friendly sign

when neighbors knew each other best

by what hung on the line.

“Ma’am, I’m finished. You can have the dryer now.”

A man’s voice snatched me back to the High and Dry Laundromat. I grabbed those sheets and pillow cases, slung them into the dryer and set it on high, glad to be getting this job behind me. The fantasy of installing a clothes line disappeared in a puff of daydreams. I got real and wondered what kind of dryer to buy.

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This is Not an Emergency

“You’ve reached the Los Gatos Fire Department. What is your name and address?”

“Operator, this is NOT an emergency.”

“Oh—okay—how may I help you?”

And that’s how it started. All night long rain hammered the windows and garbage cans clattered down the street. It was unnerving. I needed coffee and came downstairs to the sound of electronic beeping. It frightened me because I had never heard this noise before.  It was from the oven. The display panel flashed  F1 in red letters like a bomb warning.

I said to no one “What should I do?”

I found the oven manual; dialed the 800 number.

“Sorry,” they said, “but we are not open on Sunday.”

Next was the Pacific Gas and Electric Company. “We have a major power outage and are responding only to emergency calls.”

Beeping was not an emergency even though it was driving me mad, and that flashing red F1 was scaring me to death.  I found the Problems Page. There it was in bold letters: F1 and F7. It read: press the off button and hold it for three minutes. If that doesn’t work disconnect the power to the oven.

The heavy cord behind the refrigerator– look for it. I coaxed the fridge out an inch at a time so I could peek behind it. There was no such thing as a cord coming from the oven, but the dust bunnies back there looked like baby rabbits. Then I remembered: the built-in permanent oven connection was in the cupboard under the oven. Yep, there it was. Out in the rain I went to open the breaker box behind a large rosemary bush. I pressed the wet branches aside and opened the panel, found the breakers for the kitchen and dining room and turned them off. Back to the kitchen to see if the beeping had stopped. It had not. It was still screaming at me.

Got my hand pruners, went back out in the rain to cut off some branches; tossed them aside and repeated the power-off-for-three-minute-routine twice again and finally gave up. Neither of my two sons answered their phones, so the police station was my next contact. The dispatcher said, “Call the fire station and here is their number,” and that’s where this story started.

The fire station lady said she would have to send someone out. I said, “Okay, but this is NOT an emergency. Tell them NO SIREN.”

“Mrs. Auchard, I’ll tell them NO SIREN, but they’ll have to come out in a truck.”

The word “truck” fooled me. I imagined a fire station “pickup truck.” But five minutes later the heavy rumble of machinery on the street announced the real thing: a genuine fire engine with no siren. The big thing lumbered to a stop in front of my house and I waved the firemen inside. Two tall young Gods had come to my aid. I explained the problem and one of them spoke up. “Take me to your breaker panel.” I led him to the outdoors and he suggested I stay in out of the rain.

I said, “I’m already wet from going back and forth three times and I want to see how you fix this.” He showed me the main switch that would shut off everything in the house. (Why didn’t I see that thing? I could’ve saved them a trip.) He threw the lever in the opposite direction and it stopped the maddening beep that was causing my Headache from Hades.

Mission Accomplished. But I almost said, “Before you leave, could you guys pull the fridge out all the way so I can vacuum behind it?” I chickened out and said instead, “Could you guys push the fridge back against the wall for me?”

My dirty floor behind the fridge was not an emergency and neither was a maddening, mind numbing beep that couldn’t be shut off. They were trials that tested my preparedness. I was not prepared, so the next thing I must find is where to shut off the gas and water in case a REAL emergency comes my way.

All illustrations are by Betty Auchard.

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Guest Blog: 9th grade student essay

Both of my parents have hazel eyes. My dad’s eyes are a more golden hazel, and my mom’s are a more green hazel. But the one unique thing about me is that I have gray-blue eyes. When the sky is cloudy or it’s about to rain, my eyes become as gray as the sky itself.  When the sun is high and the sky is clear, my eyes are   bluer than the ocean. Even if I’m inside a building my eyes seem to know what’s going on with the weather outside. My eyes don’t just tell the weather, they can express my feelings too. If I’m sad or gloomy their color will be more in a grayish tone. If I’m happy and joyful they will be brighter than a blue highlighter.

Sometimes I wonder, maybe my eyes know me better than I know myself.

LMA

My granddaughter wrote this for her 9th grade language arts assignment as an example of the literary terms, simile and metaphor.

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EAT LESS MOVE MORE

I live in my computer chair because I’m promoting my new book online. This means that The Home for the Friendless is popping up in social networking places such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, GoodReads, and LibraryThing, and all of these important places spell their names funny. In addition to those sites, I’m learning about bookmarking, tags, blogging, html, and RSS feed. If you’re as new to the Internet as I am, these words are daunting.

I take online book tours and I don’t even leave the house. I’m sitting down all the time and usually in my nightgown, housecoat and slippers. I crawl out of the desk chair to get a bite to eat or use the bathroom. Sometimes, it feels like I’ve forgotten how to walk or how to see things in focus. And my torso is one big love handle. The worst part is this: after a lifetime of health, I now have high blood pressure. It went up last summer when I was trying to meet a book deadline. After a long revision, the final manuscript was sent to the printer. Seems like the right time to take a break, doesn’t it? But marketing started while the manuscript was at the printer being transformed into a book, and it’s still going strong. Even though all this work is on the computer screen, I am surrounded by piles of printed pages that I edit the old-fashioned way…with a red pen as I SIT in a lounge chair.

Enter stage left…my doctor.

She says, “Betty, your added weight gain and your physical inactivity have caused your blood pressure to go up.”

I say, “What?”

She says, “Record your blood pressure every day at the same time while standing up (This is the way they do it now) and take a 20-minute walk three times a week. Eat a healthy diet (We all know what that is) and email the results to me every week.”

I am determined to bring down my blood pressure by changing my routine. I will NOT open email the minute I jump out of bed. I WILL get dressed and hit the pavement for a 20 minute walk…ten minutes one way and ten minutes back. I can do this. I’ve started over many times in my life so I’m getting used to it. The best way for me to make a renewed commitment to health is to think about the present day and nothing more. Tomorrow I’ll think about THAT day and nothing more. If I see progress in lowered blood pressure I will welcome each new day with a song in my heart.

One more thing: I found an electronic helper online called www.myfooddiary.com. It costs $10.00 a month. I log my goal weight and every morsel of food I’ve swallowed and then I enter my exercise. The program reports many things but primarily how many calories I have consumed, what I ate too much of, and what I forgot to eat like vegetables or fruit. Green smiley faces mean that I did a good job and red frowning faces tell me I blew it. I eat three little meals a day and two tiny snacks. Lord only knows how this will end, because I’m hungry and I still need to take my blood pressure.

In spite of frequent lapses in my commitment, the motto, EAT LESS- MOVE MORE is tattooed to the inside of my brain, and it’s permanent…the tattoo AND my brain.

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Starting at the Bottom

I opened my email and read “Bon jour, free-handed branded.”

What the…?

I opened another and read, “Good Afternoon, belt jot.”

I couldn’t’ figure out what was going on, so I deleted them and moved on to read the next message: “Howdy Septic Apply.”

This was a bad dream. The next message made no sense either.

“Well, well, well, unraveled tide. Salute, sallow-skinned moderns.”

The next letter was from my daughter. “Mom, good news. Louie got a job.”

I was thrilled because my grandson had been looking for a long time. I asked where he worked and she said for an advertising company. I was impressed and asked what his duties were. She said, “He creates SPAM messages all day long and someone else has to mail them.” I tried to gasp quietly and asked how much he got paid, and she said, “Not much; the lowest hourly wage that’s legal.”

“Oh. I see.”

“He’ll probably give you a ring and let you know.”

“OK. I’ll look forward to it.” So, the next email I opened greeted me with “Well, well, nostrils education.” I knew Louie was practicing his spam on me.

I replied with, “Take that postmark’ Elijah.”

“Back atcha, sobbing tip toes.”

I came back with “What next, tweed beam?”

He answered, “Would you, would you, puzzling expiring?

I wrote, “Good afternoon, belt jolt.”

“Nonnie, don’t leave yet. Whaddaya think of my SPAM?

“Louie, it’s very clever and nicely weird.”

“Thanks. I’m working my way up.”

“Up to what?”

“To longer sentences. It pays better.”

(Jobs are hard to find, so if anyone can write funny SPAM, Louie can.)

This is a SPOOF, and I have no grandson named Louie. My youngest grandson is Nathan and he works at Safeway.

But I must admit that I now read SPAM before deleting so I can save the ones that make me laugh. I may have discovered a funky art form.

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Art Lessons from Mother Nature

As many of you know, I gave up visual arts for writing over 12 years ago to write books; the most recent being The Home for the Friendless. However, I had a profound art lesson experience from nature this year. I had neglected to rake up the endless array of leaves in my back yard before the rains came. After many weeks of lying around on grass and ground, the result was shallow mounds of moist, moldy compost everywhere: the lawn, concrete, and wooden deck. When I finally took time to scrape it all up, fat little sow bugs scattered to reveal an art show of flawless leaf prints. Mother Nature was trying some of her innovative techniques. Images were layered, wrinkled, crinkled and flat in stunning shades of reddish-black to grayish-mauve. I showed my children when they came to visit and we all agreed; “This ”found art” must be photographed.” But we never got around to it before the lawn mowing man arrived to groom and clean up the back yard.

Clean Up is the ugly term here. Mowing Man left and the back yard was as tidy as I’ve ever seen it when it dawned on me that he had hosed and scrubbed away nature’s art project. You might think this a fish tale like the leaf prints that got away. It’s not a tall tale, but it does remind me that beneath each unsightly surface, some beauty doth remain. http://www.natureprintingsociety.info/ 

Here is another way to create prints made with leaves that will NOT get away.

1. Find a sturdy leaf from a tree and dip it into water with detergent added. Blot dry.

2. Paint the vein side with water colors or any paint that dries fast.

3. Place painted side onto clean paper.

4. Drop a Kleenex on the leaf and press, being careful not to budge the leaf one bit.

5. Remove Kleenex, then the leaf and hope for a good print. Problems occur when using too much water or when moving the leaf while printing. Just practice this part.

6. “Leaf” the print alone or add things to it such as arms, legs, hats, or high heels. 

7. Admire and show it to friends.

____________________________________________________________________________

 Try this out; it’s fun. What caption would you suggest for this print?     

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The Mad Walk

I will never forget the day of my mad walk. It happened one Saturday when my husband, Denny, and our oldest son, Dave, “surprised” me with a gift. They disappeared for hours and returned with boxes. I said, “Hey, you two…what’s going on here?”

Denny said, “Don’t ask. It’s a surprise.”

So, I pulled weeds in the garden while waiting for my gift. They finally called me inside, told me where to sit, watch, and listen. After a few seconds the TV screen exploded in bright light and a helicopter zoomed toward me. I ducked when it flew over my head and disappeared behind the sofa. .

Dave, said, “Mom, isn’t it great?”

“I don’t know. What just happened?”

Denny said, “We installed a surround system for the television. D’ya like it?”

I didn’t like it. Our family room was now a movie theater. I said, “It’s not cozy. How can I enjoy knitting while watching TV?

“Betty, you’ll get used to it.”

“How much did this cost?”

“Don’t ask.”

Resentment crawled over me like a swarm of ants. The guys knew I was mad but I had no words, so I got up and left in a huff to walk off my pissy mood. The farther away I got the madder I felt. I stomped up the hill on Daffodil Drive and just kept going. It was a new neighborhood and so quiet that it was eerie. I wasn’t sure which street to take next, so I took a left on Hyacinth Drive to see where it might lead. It led to Panorama Loop. I had never heard of these streets and it was beginning to look woodsy and not like the suburbs. But I had to keep walking. I didn’t want to get home too soon because they would think I wasn’t mad anymore. Denny buying something expensive without my input brought out the worst in me.

But my anger was turning to nervousness because Panorama Loop never seemed to end. I felt lost and worried and it was turning dark. I heard traffic in the distance and eventually saw car lights. It was Rose Boulevard. Then I realized how far I had gone and it was a long way from home. I followed the familiar street to Blossom Hill Road and then to Wood Road and finally to the street where I lived. I was relieved to get home but the guys must NOT know that. So I cranked up my pouty face again and walked in the front door.

“WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN? WE WERE WORRIED SICK.” My husband and son did look kind of scared. That’s when my anger softened and my manner got calm.

I said, “Okay, Denny; I’m not happy with you. A few days ago I wanted to buy a garden mulcher and you said it wasn’t cost effective.”

Denny listened like a puppy being scolded, knowing that he was in the dog house, so I pushed on.

“You said we could buy mulch for my garden cheaper than making our own.”

Still, silence from the guys, so I used an even quieter voice because “quiet” is scary.

I got up real close and said, “This thing you installed –we can go to the movies a lot cheaper than buying our own fancy sound system. Is it cost effective?

Denny sighed. He knew I was right and said, “Dave, do you want to go with me and buy a mulcher for your mother?”

“Yeah, Dad; I think we should.”

I like that long walk I discovered by accident, and I take it now for exercise; not for blowing off steam.

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Read My Lips

My sister, Patty, was five years younger than I. I say “was” because Patty died in March 2010. She never got to see the stories in The Home for the Friendless published along with the family photographs and the glossary called Betty’s History Lessons. I had printed all the pieces that included her and had them bound so she could read them while she was still well enough to do so. Without the help of my brother, Bob, and my sister, Patty, there would be no book.

I had placed a long distance call to my sister in June, 2007, so we could discuss the details of her favorite story. It was about a trick that Bobby and I had played on her, but not to be mean;  to make her feel better. I’m not sure she ever believed that, but it was the truth. On the day of the phone conversation, Patty was trying to give me the real details of this event that had made her cry her eyes out when she was only ten. While telling the story from her point of view, she coughed so frequently that she couldn’t finish a sentence. I urged to her to stop and we’d continue another time, but she wouldn’t give up. Finally, I insisted that she get her husband on the phone and she did. He said that they had an appointment with the doctor to see why she couldn’t get over that stubborn cough.

The stubborn cough turned out to be throat cancer and her larynx had to be removed.

For the next three years Patty wrote notes as fast as she used to talk. Her husband bought 9×6 lined yellow tablets by the package. When she was really excited, she tried to mouth the words as she gestured wildly, fingers pointing and hands flailing the air. It was truly funny and it made us all laugh hard including Patty though we couldn’t hear her. We were a close family and one of our own was in bad shape, so we got used to dark humor. 

When Patty was in the hospital she had to learn to communicate with note-writing. She once wrote this note to me: “I should learn sign language because no matter WHAT I need help with, I have to write it down.” I wrote back that everyone else would need to learn it, too, but she was laughing silently again, and I didn’t get the joke. So she wrote me this note: “Stop writing. YOU CAN TALK.” So I created a card just for her. She loved it and so did the nurses. Thank goodness I made a copy because the nurses liked it so much that she gave them the original. The card is here.

You might notice that I drew the cartoon of my sister then cut it out and pasted it on top of a picture from a catalogue for down comforters. I also added a few lines on top of parts of the magazine image to tie the whole thing together. You can’t read the note on her tablet, but she could. Since my sis couldn’t talk after turning on her call light for a nurse, she got used to writing, “I have to pee.”  

_________________________________________________________

In memory of Patricia Ann Reffel 1935 – 2010

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Don’t Wear Slippers in the Forest

 

OH NOOOOO…I’M GOIN’ DOWN! OOF!

Tripped on thin air, hit forest floor on

first day of work vacation in cabin;

 bashed ribs and right knee.

I know, I know, I wore

the wrong

shoes,

in a hurry;

didn’t pay attention;

not a good way to start.

Rain poured heavy for two days;

no Internet; only channel on TV is QVC.

OH NOOOOO…I’M GOIN’ DOWN AGAIN!

Darn that extension cord; bashed left knee.

What next? Call daughter? YES!

“Hello, daughter? FETCH ME HOME.”

While awaiting her car, the bedroom door ran

into me and things sticking out gashed my right arm;

blood flowed. Result: no work done, right arm,

right cheek, right elbow, and spirits bruised.

Am healing well, but hurts to burp,

sneeze, laugh. Must rest now;

tired and sleepy. OUCH!

Hurts to yawn and hurts my pride.

Must remember next time to 

wear New Balance shoes. 

___________________________________________________________

 I invite your comments as long as you don’t call me “clumsy.”

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Any Tree Free. Merry Christmas!

On Christmas Eve, 1942,  anticipation was about the only thing left that was not rationed. Underprivileged children were just as excited as rich ones waiting for morning to come, and although I no longer believed in Santa Clause, I still believed in magic. No matter how poor we were, a decorated tree materialized on Christmas morning. After we three kids fell asleep, my uncle gave Dad a ride to the nearest lot to pick out a little tree. Poor families in Cedar Rapids, Iowa  knew that the lots closed before supper and one of them always left a sign that read ANY TREE FREE. MERRY CHRISTMAS. When Dad and Uncle Cullen returned with our free tree, my parents decorated it so quietly that we never knew what happened.

That year we awoke to a freezing house, squealing with delight at the sight of our most important gift of all–a decorated tree. It had appeared like magic while we slept. There were lights in every hue, wrinkled tinsel, and small packages placed beneath it. Best of all was the fragrance of the forest right in our own house. No rich kid could have been happier than I was that morning.

Mom started the coffee and Dad disappeared to the basement to crank up the furnace. It was a special day and we all deserved heat even though our fuel allowance for the month was almost used up. We kids dragged our blankets to the living room and immersed ourselves in the magical beauty of the Christmas tree, the smell of coffee brewing, and carols playing on the radio. Once we felt heat wafting through the vents, Christmas morning became all that we ever hoped it could be.

As the warmth seeped through the kitchen and the living room, we threw off the blankets and started stripping paper from packages that had our names on them. What a happy mess! We shared our gifts, helped smooth and fold the wrapping paper for next year, and then wore ourselves out playing our new games: Bingo, Old Maid, and Authors. The pictures of the authors were interesting, and I was entranced by them having three names like Robert Louis Stevenson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. When I asked, “Do you have the card Little Women by Louisa May Alcott?” I felt like a big shot as though I knew Louisa personally.

While the family was busy with other things, I huddled closer to the tree hoping to memorize everything about our most important gift of all–the one we never saw until Christmas morning.  I stretched out underneath it, lying face up with my head close to the trunk and my nose nudging the lower branches. I closed my eyes and inhaled the perfume of pine. It smelled so good I could taste it. Then I gazed straight up the center through all the shiny stuff at my warped reflection in colored balls. My magic mood helped me to become something else: one of the branches, an ornament, a bug in a forest, a girl who believed in fairies. Music in the air, snow in the garden, and lying under a tree that had decorated itself transported me to my favorite place, the land of make-believe.

Mom said that I was too old for fantasy, so I never let her know what I was really doing with half my body sticking out from under pine branches. I was on the lookout for a Christmas elf.

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“Feel free to leave a comment or your own story for other readers.”

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A Friendless Proselyter in Iowa

Last week I got a lengthy email from a priest in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He had read my book, The Home for the Friendless and told me that two of my childhood friends mentioned in Part 4 were boys he had known well. I often wondered what happened with those two rowdy brothers and I soon found out. One of them became a priest and was Spiritual Director to the Cedar Rapids priest before his ordination. What a treat that was to hear about the 12-year-old I threw hand grenades (gourds) with when we played war in our garden.

The priest told me even more that threw me back in time. He said that he shops at a Hy-Vee Grocery Store across the street from where our house once stood. This modern store probably took the place of Tom Combs’ homey old corner grocery that had a gas hose sitting on a platform above the cars. The gasoline drained into car tanks by gravity and no pumping was required.

During our exchange of letters, my new friend, the priest, wrote this note:
“I have always wanted to write about my own great grandmother who was born in Iowa in the 1870′s. She lost triplets up in Canada when the nurse gave medicine to the babies instead of to my great grandmother. All three of her babies died.”

Stories give birth to stories just as women give birth to children. When the grieving parents moved back to Iowa they were thrust into another story that was even more dramatic than the first one. When the priest read my book he was reminded of his own life which proves that one family’s saga is a link in a chain of families with stories to tell. If you’ve ever sat around after dinner with guests who started sharing tales, you know how storytelling can go on and on.

What is the most inspiring kernel in your family’s story that you have not told or written down yet?

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Thanksgiving in the Tavern

Thanksgiving in the Tavern

The most out-of-the-ordinary Thanksgiving I ever had was at the Uptown Village Café, a family tavern in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. My Auntie Marge and Uncle Al owned the café in the late 30’s and 40’s, and they always kept it open on holidays because many of their older customers practically lived there. Uncle Al made hot toddies for his patrons every year so they could celebrate with old friends.

On Thanksgiving Day in 1950, my new husband and I were the out-of-state relatives, so it was decided that Thanksgiving dinner would be in the tavern even though we were surrounded by customers laughing, drinking, and playing shuffle board. The waitresses used card tables to extend one of the booths almost out to the shuffle board game where three happy old men were in the middle of a noisy, hot competition. Instead of the shuffle board surface being on the floor, it was like a long, miniature bowling alley on legs. The polished oak surface was so beautifully slick that the shiny steel discs shot across it like greased lightning.

After our makeshift dining table was prepared with napkins, wine glasses, plates, and utensils, the relatives claimed their assigned seats, and the buttery golden turkey, trimmings, and side dishes were placed in the middle of us. What a scrumptious sight and smell. Uncle Al wanted to do everything right, and with no forewarning, announced, “We have never had a Thanksgiving dinner in this tavern before, so I feel we should give thanks to God for this memorable event. Denny, since you’re a preacher’s son would you do the honors?”

Denny was accustomed to leading a group in prayer, but not in a tavern. He hesitated, unsure of what to do next because the mix of dance music, beer mug clinks, laughter, cash register dings, and steel discs clanging against each other on the shuffle board were not a churchy soundtrack. Denny was comfortable being a preacher’s kid but I had never seen him so flustered. He took a slow, deep breath and said, “Everyone…please, let us bow our heads.” It gave us time to pull ourselves together, which was all the time needed for the beer-drinking patrons to take notice.

My head was bowed but my eyeballs were straining sideways to see why everything was suddenly hushed in the tavern. The radio had been shut off, steel discs were no longer sliding, and all nearby patrons stood silently in place, with heads bowed.

Denny waited a moment with eyes closed and then said loud enough for all to hear, “Dear God — on this exceptional Thanksgiving Day, we ask that you be with us in this tavern. Bless the hands that prepared the food for the nourishment of our souls and bodies. We thank you Lord for our many blessings — and may we live in peace and harmony. Amen.”

Ever so slowly, things came back to life in the tavern, but Denny couldn’t stop grinning. He leaned closer and whispered, “Honey, that was so weird.”
Uncle Al must have read my husband’s mind and said, “Denny, what would Reverend Auchard say about you giving thanks to God in a tavern?”
“Al, my dad would say ‘Amen and halleluiah’ to that.”

Do you recall a noteworthy, oddball, or uncommon Thanksgiving? If so, share it with us now as a Comment.

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Outhouse Adventures

During the Great Depression and long afterwards, many poor people didn’t have indoor plumbing. My family was in that category, so naturally, we heard many humorous horror stories about outdoor toilets. My husband remembered very clearly that during the winter time in Kansas when he was just a little kid, he fell through the large hole and managed to crawl out an opening in the back. Lucky for him that everything below was frozen solid. 

In my book, The Home for the Friendless on page 110, is another outrageous story of an outhouse adventure. My grandmother was babysitting all of my cousins on the farm after their mom was resting up from the birth of her 7th child. While I was there, the family dog, Spike, fell through the outhouse hole onto the foul waste below. It was summertime and nothing was frozen. What to do? Grandmother lowered my nine-year cousin, Hubert (what a little hero he was), headfirst into the hole while all the rest of the cousins held onto her skirt and to each other. Hubert grabbed Spike and both he and the dog were pulled back out into fresh air. But Spike staggered to his feet and shook his coat furiously, sending icky stuff flying every where. A few of the kids helped Grandmother to grab Spike and hold onto him real tight while the rest of the kids hosed him clean. It meant that every kid who got splattered had to strip naked and get hosed off, too, and their clothes tossed into the rain barrel. It was an awesome sight: kids running around naked squirting each other with the hose and Grandmother standing there with shoulders sagging, waiting her turn.

I have no doubt that reading this has brought an outhouse story of your own to mind. So, let’s hear it.

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Friendless Kids: Then and Now

During the winter of 1937, with no warning, my mother dropped off my brother, sister, and me at the Home for the Friendless in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She said, “This is a nice place. You’ll like it here, and I’ll visit you every week.” We were met by Mrs. Kurl, who looked grim, but turned out to be a nice lady. She gave us a tour, and the place was so big our voices echoed in the halls.

At that time, during The Great Depression, childrens’ homes were full of kids whose parents could not afford to take care of them properly.  Although I knew that, I still felt abandoned.  Since I didn’t want my younger brother and sister to be scared, I wore my happy face, but when I found out we would be separated into three different dorms, I couldn’t hide my sadness.

The foster parent program today may avoid some of the issues that arise from housing children in institutions, but foster kids still have a rough entry into life at 18 when they roll out of the program.

What is your experience with children who feel abandoned?  Are you a foster parent or a counselor?  Did you grow up with both parents and still feel alone sometimes?

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Introduction

Going to bed at 7:30 was crazy. It wasn’t even dark. But that’s the way they did things at the Home for the Friendless in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The Home was an ancient brick building where my brother, sister, and I lived while our parents tried again to work out their problems. On our first night there, I bathed, brushed my teeth, put on nightclothes, and climbed into bed in the hot and stuffy dormitory.

Mrs. Stone, the monitor, shook her finger and said, “No more talking. Just stay quiet and go to sleep.”

“But it’s still light outside,” whined one little girl.

“Shhh.” As Mrs. Stone turned to leave, she stopped to add a warning. “If you get up during the night, don’t drink any water or you’ll wet the bed.” Then she disappeared into her apartment near the bathroom sinks.

Even though I was there with other girls whose families had problems, I felt terribly alone. It was miserable being separated from Dad and Mama and relocated to a strange place. I had pretended it was normal so my little brother and sister wouldn’t be scared. But that evening I couldn’t comfort them because they were in their own dorms. I knew I wouldn’t see them very often, and I already missed them so much I felt sick.

After flopping on top of the stiff sheets, I watched the last of the daylight spill over our beds from the windows. I felt abandoned. What were Mama and Dad doing while I was trying so hard to doze off? Were they arguing again or going to the movies? I got all twitchy, lying there thinking and waiting for cool air to arrive.

I could hear roller rink sounds from several blocks away. The organ was playing “Take Me out to the Ballgame,” and I could hear hundreds of skate wheels humming on the rink floor. The mingling of steel wheels and music in the air hypnotized me. I began to imagine how different things would be if I were a magician. I would soar back to the past and live with Mama and Dad again so we three kids could be cozy under one blanket and go to sleep after dark like normal people. It was not normal for my brother and sister and me to sleep during the daytime, in three different beds, in rooms filled with kids we didn’t know.

When the sun finally quit for the day, a kindhearted breeze wafted through the screens to cool my skin, and I finally drifted into slumber. I dreamed that I was flying with my brother under one arm and my sister under the other, and I was brave enough to fly wherever I wanted without asking permission.

It was fun zipping wherever I wanted to go, though something kept my flights from turning out right. It dawned on me that I had left Bobby and Patty behind, so I made a graceful U-turn back to the Home and into the boys’ window. Bobby was too scared to join me because he had forgotten that I knew how to fly. I grabbed the back of his pajama top anyway and whooshed into the nursery to scoop up Patty, but she was sound asleep. I fluttered above her, calling her name softly so as not to wake the other little kids.

My plan was to float through my parents’ window with Bobby and Patty and say, Surprise! But I didn’t know where they lived or if they remembered who we were. Mama and Dad were always moving. Why couldn’t they stay in one place for a while? It would make flying to them a whole lot easier.

Instead of gliding into my parents’ house, I found myself trapped inside a huge room that was inside another room that was inside another room. I got so airsick that I had to abort the flight.

I awoke tangled in my sheets. It took a while for me to go to sleep again, and then once more I was flying. That time we three kids made it to the great outdoors and were surrounded by blue sky instead of wallpaper. I loved the sensation, so I floated for a long time, holding Patty by her middle finger and Bobby by his thumb and kicking as fast as I could to stay up … until I saw telephone wires ahead. I dove under them and zoomed up, up, and away into wide open space only to find more telephone wires high above the earth.

I never did make it to freedom with my brother and sister that night, but since I didn’t know where freedom was, I decided it was a whole lot easier just to wake up.

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From Dancing in My Nightgown

In 1997, my husband, Denny, was diagnosed with a fast-growing cancer that started in his lungs and invaded the rest of his body. His symptoms were so dramatic that he had to be hospitalized for ten days before aggressive chemotherapy could even be started. His prognosis was not hopeful, for we learned there was no cure. Our lives were turned upside-down. I felt that two trains had flattened me—one was cancer and the other was Denny’s approaching death.

I spent each day at the hospital and went home each night and shut the windows and howled a wild primal cry that only I could hear as I stood naked under the shower. I knelt at the side of my bed wailing, not knowing what words to say except, “Help us, help us.” But I returned to the hospital daily and wore a brave face and wondered if Denny could tell that my eyes were swollen. If he did, he never mentioned it. He was too busy trying to persuade his bloated limbs to move so he could get out of bed every fifteen minutes to pee. He refused to give up and focused all of his energy on staying alive. I was torn between believing him or the doctors who said that he would be lucky if he had twelve months left to be with us.

And the doctors were right. Denny died on July 9, 1998, almost ten months after he was diagnosed with cancer.

After Denny died, I needed to talk. Since there wasn’t always someone to listen, I started to write on anything that would take the mark of a pencil. That scribbling became my tool for healing. I grieved, I laughed, and I wrote so I wouldn’t forget what it was like. Writing affirmed that I was alive and that my experiences were important. To my surprise, that writing became a vital connection to others who were alone.

Dancing in my Nightgown is a collection of the stories I wrote after Denny’s death. They show how I dealt with the life-altering experience of losing my life partner and what I did to start over. I learned to embrace the rhythms of widowhood, which wasn’t easy, and I finally realized that my old life was over. Nothing would ever be the same again. It took a few years, but I came to view widowhood as an opportunity to find out what I could do on my own.

I had more to learn than most women. I had never been single before. I was barely nineteen when I married Denny, an old man of twenty-three, and I went straight from my parents’ home to my husband’s bed.

After Denny died, I had to find out how to put gasoline in our car. I was not freeway literate nor had I ever used a computer. Income taxes were what other people did, and I’d never paid the bills myself.

When I looked at a billing statement, I didn’t know what a minus sign by the “amount due” meant. Some amounts due were mysteriously higher each month, but I paid them anyway. When I finally called, my cell phone company said I was so far ahead that I didn’t need to pay the bill for at least three months. And the business manager at Mervyn’s said, “Mrs. Auchard, PLEASE stop sending us money.” I felt like Mrs. Stupid.

I’m still learning, and I make big boo-boos every week. But the road to recovery and self-sufficiency has been as filled with laughter, creativity, connection, and transformation as it has tears, self-doubt, and lonely nights. Now I’m doing so well that I sometimes feel guilty. But after suffering a loss, surviving and thriving are imperative for recovery and should be celebrated. I’m more than content. I’m eager to see what happens next…

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