Tag Archives: Childhood

How Do You Like Them Apples?

“A is for apple.”

Today, little Apple lovers might expect a Macintosh laptop on an alphabet book’s first page. In 1959, however, technology never entered my mind. Instead, I eyed the luscious red fruit on my teacher’s desk. I focused on bites, not bytes.

I savored the school lunch’s apple crisp — until Joey Bump told me the topping consisted of fried ants.

Smart guy. He doubled his apple crisp intake.

Ants notwithstanding, I come from a long line of apple lovers. Every autumn Dad bought bushels of fragrant fruit at a nearby orchard. He peeled an apple with a surgeon’s precision, dangling the single long red curl, then sliced it into white circles whose dark seeds God had arranged in a flower pattern. A boy during the Depression, Dad scoured the woods for fruit — for anything — to nourish his scrawny frame. Forever, he would regard apples as a cause for celebration.

Whenever we visited my Louisiana grandparents, Dad bought Grandma bags of apples, fruit too expensive to frequent their black-eyed peas/turnip greens/corn bread diet. My four siblings and I waited for Grandma to share.

The apples vanished within seconds, never to reappear — while we were there, anyway.

Dad often surprised Grandma, driving all night from Indiana to visit. Once, he brought four-year-old Kenny, whom Grandma hadn’t seen for a year. Kenny and Dad dozed in his truck until they smelled bacon’s tantalizing fragrance. Dad’s resolve wavered. Did he dare rile his mother and risk losing a free breakfast?

Dad debated only a moment. Handing Kenny a bag of apples, he pulled my brother’s cap over his eyes and sent him to Grandma’s door. Hunkering down in the truck, Dad watched apple drama unfold.

At Kenny’s knock, Grandma appeared. “Child, what are you doing here at this hour?” She showed no sign of recognizing Kenny. “Where’s your mama? Your daddy?” She cast a wrathful eye at the truck.

When Kenny offered her the apples for a quarter, Grandma suffered pangs of conscience. How could she take advantage of this baby-child?

But the bargain apples proved too much.

Grandma retrieved a quarter from her old money sock.

As she handed it to Kenny, he tilted his head back. “Hi, Grandma!”

Dad strode to the porch, wearing a huge grin.

Grandma laughed and cried. When her voice returned, she said her 35-year-old son needed a good licking. How could such a bad apple turn out to be the only preacher in the family?

Grandma hugged Kenny, then welcomed him and his prodigal daddy, stuffing them with eggs, bacon, biscuits and gravy.

But no apples. The bag already had found a new home — under her featherbed.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: What’s your favorite apple dessert?

Commercials Then and Now

My husband and I view a television program for a grand total of 63 seconds before a carrot chorus line high-kicks across the screen. Then an older couple, whose idea of a good time has deteriorated to shivering in separate bathtubs, teeter on a cliff’s edge.

One ad (guess which one) strikes me as mildly funny. I chuckle.

“You’ve seen that a hundred times.” Hubby rolls his eyes.

“I have?” I prod my memory. Zero recall.

“You never pay attention to commercials.” He makes this sound downright un-American.

I resent the slam on my patriotism. Plus, he’s dead wrong. I remember lots of commercials — except they belong to a different era.

Decades ago, Captain Kangaroo lauded Wonder Bread, which built strong bodies 12 ways. Captain K. always celebrated my birthday with a big cake. He reminded me to say my prayers. So, when the Captain told me to ask Mom to buy Wonder Bread, I did. But Mom said it was expensive. Gasp! How could she flout the wisdom of Captain Kangaroo?

She gave in, however, to lovable hucksters who taught thousands of children — including my husband and me — to spell “Nestlé” before they could spell their own names. Danny, a ventriloquist dummy, sang, “N-E-S-T-L-E-S, Nestlé’s makes the very best—” and Farfel the dog chimed in, “Choc’-late!” with a loud snap of his jaws. Good stuff.

Even black-and-white TV couldn’t diminish the Ali Baba richness of Kenner’s Sparkle Paints. Not only would Sparkle Paints pictures glitterize and glamorize my room, they would magically protect me from arithmetic, besides bringing about world peace.

I received Kenner’s Sparkle Paints as a gift! But my attempts — plops, glops, and slops of paint — resembled nothing on TV. Since Russian Premier Nikita Krushchev still banged his shoe on podiums and yelled during other commercials, Sparkle Paints didn’t accomplish world peace, either.

Although now a child cynic, I still enjoyed commercial jingles, including Speedy the Alka-Seltzer® mascot’s “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh, what a relief it is.” And I, along with a gazillion other schoolchildren, wished we were Oscar Mayer wieners.

Medical commercials, however, caused me concern. I didn’t know what Preparation H® treated, but it had to be life-threatening because when I asked Dad, he didn’t want to talk about it.

Some commercials embarrassed me. I wished Mr. Whipple and his friends, who squeezed Charmin toilet paper in public, would disappear.

Nowadays, though, with Victoria’s Secret models joining the TV carrot chorus line and Vagisil/Viagra enthusiasts telling me much, much more than I want to know, I tend to veg, remembering only commercials of yesteryear.

Never thought I’d say this, but Mr. Whipple, I really miss you.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: What’s your favorite commercial? Your un-favorite?

The Simple Life?

Life today has become so complicated that we need computers to help us understand our computers. Appliances, cars and GPSes bully us 24/7. Cell phones accompany us everywhere, like chaperones — or personal jailers.

We dream of escaping to The Simple Life.

Decades ago, I lived the dream in Mexico, where my missionary parents ministered in a small village. They never punched a clock or answered a phone.

The townspeople loaned us a four-star hut with a thatched roof. Constructed of random boards, cardboard and dried mud, the walls somehow remained standing.

A restroom visit was simple. There wasn’t one outhouse in the entire village.

We awoke each morning to breakfast fragrances, rising from the communal campfire. Women in dark skirts and shawls rocked back and forth over stone troughs, grinding corn for tortillas. They shaped then flipped flat circles of dough onto a metal sheet over the fire.

They stuffed us with these tender, smoky treats spread with wild honey. But I, a narrow-minded five-year-old, refused the slimy raw eggs they offered.

Thus, I escaped deadly germs. I still might have consumed a few, however, because the villagers regarded washing hands as frivolous.

They kept their lives simple.

My siblings and I didn’t need video games. My six-year-old brother Ned and a neighboring burro supplied sufficient daily entertainment.

Ned and I considered the animal’s owner an atheist because he never attended church meetings. His burro was an atheist, too. Every day, Ned shinnied up the animal so he could ride like Roy Rogers on Trigger — until the pagan burro gleefully dumped him into a colossal cactus.

Each evening, lanterns appeared like wandering stars on the darkening, rugged landscape as people walked to church. Mommy pressed magic buttons on her red-and-white mother-of-pearl accordion, playing lively songs that reminded me of cantina music. She led the singing with her high, sweet voice. Daddy’s bass voice rumbled like friendly thunder. Like Jesus, he didn’t use a microphone; still, they probably could hear him in the next village.

No one owned watches to check how long he preached. We kids often fell asleep and found ourselves in bed the next morning. The hut accom-modated two mattresses on the floor — one for us three preschoolers and one for our parents — with plenty of room for hundreds of fleas that wanted to share in our missionary endeavors.

Decades later, I learned that one day, having braved fleas, germs, dirt and nausea (she was pregnant again), Mom dampened Dad’s enthusiasm for village life with a potent line: “I said I’d live anywhere with you, but this is ridiculous.”

And I realized my complicated life is pretty simple, after all.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: Have you ever tried to escape to The Simple Life?

Firefly Romance

As a child, did you run barefoot through the summer dusk, catching fireflies? Like me, you probably incarcerated them in mayonnaise jars with holey lids.

My parents tried to persuade me to release them.

This made no sense. My folks constantly looked for ways to save money. What wasn’t to love about a cool invention that lowered the electric bill? Still, when they insisted the fireflies were crying for their mommies, I freed them, trusting they were flitting home to hugs, baths and clean jammies, too.

Growing older, I wondered if something less Disney was going on. Sure enough, research revealed those Snow White scenes were actually firefly date nights. Since their adult lives last only a few weeks, love strikes these bugs like lightning; they do some serious speed dating.

Like me, Sara Lewis, a Tufts University scientist, loves to watch fireflies. Unlike me, she gets paid. For the past 25 years, Sara has noticed different species use specific flashes and delays to communicate. Opposites often attract, as seen in the following Photinus marginellus exchange:

P. marginellus Guy: Flash! (Two-second pause.) Flash! (Two seconds.) Flash! (The P. marginellus guys are the faithful, consistent types, but a little boring.)

P. marginellus Girl: Flash! (Zero delay. The P. marginellus girls are a little easy.)

A reversed pattern characterizes Photinus carolinus fireflies; with six flashes in three seconds, guys define the word “flashy.” P. carolinus women, however, wait 10 whole seconds before emitting short, coy responses that declare these dudes better show up with candy and roses.

Which some do. According to Lewis, males often bring “nuptial gifts” — food to sustain females as they lay eggs. Even in the insect kingdom, women love their Fannie May’s. Tied with red satin ribbons, thank you very much.

Because the girls are so picky, P. carolinus guys often gather in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the North Carolina-Tennessee border. There, they synchronize flashes to attract their ladies’ notice, creating spectacular light shows.

Unfortunately, there is a dark side to all this love and light. The female of one species fakes the signals of others to lure unsuspecting males to her place for dinner — with him as the main course!

Eww. I’m tempted to go inside and refresh my psyche with a pure-minded sitcom.

But strains of the Mills Brothers’ old song, “The Glow-Worm,” float through my mind. Hundreds of fireflies appear, tiny lights glimmering like shiny gold confetti. My husband joins me, and we hold hands, glad that children won’t lack fireflies for their mayonnaise jars.

And that these sparks light up summer evenings for all young — and old — lovers snuggling on a porch in the summer twilight.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: What’s your favorite firefly memory?

Magic Trees

When I was small, trees were magic. Especially the trees outside our church.

As preschoolers, my brother and I discovered friendly low branches that invited a climb. Every pint-sized Sunday school attendee welcomed that magic.

Moms, however, did not appreciate magic trees — especially mulberries. They transformed starched-white-shirt-and-ruffly-dress VBS populations into glorious, purple-tie-dyed messes.

Trees remained magical throughout my childhood, serving as bases, houses, castles and cathedrals. Schoolyard bike races morphed them into traffic cones. On sweltering days, I stayed within Mom’s sight under our backyard’s shady oak, yet traveled thousands of miles as I devoured library books.

Now an adult, I have planted trees that infuse oxygen into our atmosphere, provide shade and enhance property values. But I hadn’t visited magic trees for a long time.

Until our extended family’s campout, when sullen clouds alternately spat on us and poured rain like a waterfall.

Thanks to yummy pancakes and sausage, the group survived the morning. When rain held off, older kids found plenty to do. But as parents of a five-year-old and his three-year-old foster brother tried to fix a group lunch, the little boys seemed destined for war.

Anyone with sense would have run for a bomb shelter. But I am Grandma. Edging them out of range, I blurted, “Let’s visit magic trees!”

Perhaps the skeptical three-year-old had seen too much to believe in magic. But he followed his brother and me to an empty campsite, where the five-year-old beat on a maple with a stick.

He chortled, “Now the tree’s awake!”

I’d wake up, too, if clobbered with a six-foot cudgel. “What’s the tree saying?”

“He says I should visit a different tree.”

Smart maple.

By now, the three-year-old was a believer, too. We awakened all the empty campsite trees. Some also told us to visit different trees. But several told stories about nesting birds and skittery squirrels. Special trees talked only when tapped the perfect number of times. Then they whispered tales understood only by the chlorophyll crowd and preschoolers.

One oak interrupted, “Time to eat. I’ve been calling you for ten minutes.”

Correction: Hubby had entered the land of magic trees.

Instantly, my fellow adventurers dashed for the dining tent.

“Couldn’t you have waited?” I said irritably. “That tree was just about to tell us whether they make a noise when they fall.”

He rolled his eyes, as if barbecued chicken and macaroni salad could compensate for his breaking the sweet spell.

The five-year-old and I could visit magic trees again. However, court dates threatened to keep the three-year-old from adventuring with us.

But for one misty summer morning, he talked with magic trees.

I pray he will do it again.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: Have you visited magic trees lately?

Soda Fountain Magic

Entering Zaharakos Soda Fountain as a preschooler, I knew magic was for real.

I spotted curlicue iron tables and chairs my size. Glass cases held hundreds of chocolates, hard candies and jelly beans. Had I reached heaven early? The adult friend who brought me confirmed this with ice cream I didn’t have to share.

Tired of the rock-hard chair, I pattered across the gleaming black-and-white floor to the counter’s red stools. They turned round and round! My friend’s objection didn’t surprise me. Even if a stool was designed to twirl, grown-ups always said you shouldn’t.

An enormous 1908 orchestrion — a self-playing pipe organ with drums, cymbals and triangles — fascinated me. Did jolly ghosts fill the high-ceilinged room with music?

Occasionally, Mama took us to Zaharakos. How I longed to dig into that pile of roasted cashews! But even a small packet cost too much.

My mother’s generation had frequented the place during their teens, so we cool adolescents of the 1960s avoided the fountain as if it radiated fallout. Still, celebrating my first job, I treated my little sister at Zaharakos.

I said grandly, “Order whatever you want.”

We ate huge sundaes. I played the orchestrion and bought cashews, toasty and delicious beyond belief.

Later, newly engaged, I chose fabulous Zaharakos candies for my future in-laws’ Christmas gift.

Fast-forward a few years to a visit by my mother. Adulting had drained away my coolness, so we visited Zaharakos. The mirrors gleamed, but the near-empty soda fountain’s stained counter, dull woodwork and damaged tin-patterned ceiling didn’t brighten our day.

“Everyone came here after school. ‘Meet you at the Greek’s!’ we’d say.” Mom gazed at the broken orchestrion. “The fountain’s dated now. I guess I am, too.”

Decades later, I shared a similar feeling when visiting the area. I stopped for a treat, but Zaharakos, a landmark since 1900, had closed. The orchestrion? Sold to a California collector.

Not long ago, though, as I traveled past my childhood hometown, something sent me off the interstate.

Miracles do happen.

Inside Zaharakos, red stools flanked gleaming, marble counters, and mirrors glimmered amid rich woodwork. Pint-sized curlicue tables and chairs again held little diners. The original orchestrion played, grand as ever.

I sent yummy birthday chocolates to my mother.

She no longer remembered events of five minutes ago, but she recalled Zaharakos.

The soda fountain had worked its sweet magic once again.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: What’s your favorite soda fountain treat?

Want to travel back in time? Visit Zaharakos on the Web or plan a trip to experience the magic of their old-fashioned soda fountain: http://www.zaharakos.com/

 

Sneaking Stuff Past Mom

Despite video games, Sneaking Stuff Past Mom still ranks as the number one activity among children.

Sadly, I’ve always been a remedial sneaker. Once, having splashed puddles while wearing a Sunday dress, I deliberately approached my mother. Digging my toe into the floor, I muttered, “I don’t want to talk to you.”

Oh, I tried to change. “Cleaning” my room, I employed the time-honored method of stuffing all worldly belongings under the bed.

Mom made me finish the job, doubling my workload.

I swiped my face with a washcloth, sans soap, hoping I could evade inspection.

Mom clapped me into the bathtub, scrubbing me like her linoleum.

If only she hadn’t possessed that infallible radar that detected fingerprints on hidden Christmas gifts, books under mattresses, skirts rolled to mini-length under long coats, salivating dates on phones. Driving the car, she could tell we’d been speeding. And with whom.

She zeroed in on silences that told her everything: I didn’t get the part in the play; I couldn’t bear my concave bustline one more minute; and the boy who had entered my world exited without a backward look. These she treated with prayer, hugs and freshly baked muffins.

Throughout the years, Mom’s radar remained potent, even when my siblings and I reached adulthood. I caught my brother, a lieutenant colonel in the army, smoking a big cigar.

Panicking, he said, “Do you think Mom knows?”

Though I lived 2,000 miles from Mom for decades, I often heard over the phone, “What’s going on? I’ve been praying for you for three days.”

Often, she already knew.

“Mom, I’m 25 (35) (45) (55) years old. Please stop peeking over my shoulder!”

I thought her radar would never falter.

I was wrong.

During Mom’s final years, I hid several things from her — including her diagnosis of dementia.

Her radar didn’t function as it once did. But some aspects remained. No way could I sneak my stresses past her. She touched my cheek, hand soft as worn cotton. “Honey, you’ve been working too hard.”

Her radar still detected hurting people around her in waiting rooms, restaurants, stores. Once at an airport, she insisted a trendy-looking woman sit beside her. As the kindhearted stranger cooperated, I felt 16 again. Mom, please back off.

My mother talked her ear off. Eventually, though, the woman talked, too. Mom listened to a poignant tale of early widowhood and single-parenting struggles.

She slipped an arm around the woman. “You think God doesn’t love you anymore. But He sent me to tell you He does.”

That lady couldn’t sneak stuff past Mom. She went away blessed.

So did I.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: Did you ever try to sneak stuff past your mom?