Tag Archives: Indiana

Classic Post: These James Whitcomb Riley Days

This post first appeared on October 11, 2017.

Photo from Pixabay by Michelle Scott.

My fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Baker, read James Whitcomb Riley poems, along with other Hoosier literature, after noon recess every day.

She brought poems and stories to life in a way that made my ears and mind tingle.

However, she enforced “rest time.” We had to lay our heads on our desks while she read, an indignity that smacked of kindergarten naptime. After all, we were nine-year-olds, soon to reach double digits.

We didn’t need any dumb rest time.

Decades later, I realized that after policing a playground resembling a crash derby without cars, then facing a similar classroom scenario, she might need the break.

Not all of Riley’s poems topped my “favorites” list. Braver classmates asked Mrs. Baker to read “Little Orphant Annie.” Why did they like those repeated references to “gobble-uns” that would get us if we didn’t shape up?

I already slept with my knees near my shoulders to avoid giant spiders lurking at the foot of my bed. Adding gobble-uns to my nighttime freak-out list didn’t induce much sleep.

Even more frightening, Little Orphant Annie had to do lots of housework.

The James Whitcomb Riley poem I liked best was “When the Frost Is on the Punkin,” which celebrates autumn in Indiana. That poem tasted good, like tangy cider, and still does:

“But the air’s so appetizin’; and the landscape through the haze
Of a crisp and sunny morning of the airly autumn days
Is a pictur’ that no painter has the colorin’ to mock
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock.”

Steve and I harvesting our homegrown pumpkins.

However, James Whitcomb Riley never would have received an A on a grammar test. He would have been the very first down in a spelling bee.

Mrs. Baker and other teachers deluged us with homework, tests and even demerits to ensure my classmates and I spoke and wrote correctly.

Yet my teacher read us his poems almost daily.

Grown-ups never made sense.

Despite my confusion, James Whitcomb Riley’s magic sang in my head and heart. A Hoosier like me, he wrote about the land and life I knew and loved. He instilled pride into us for who we were — kids in a country school in a county where farmers helped feed a nation and the world.

Photo from Pixabay by Adina Voicu.

His poems still resonate with me, especially on a crisp, fall Indiana morning with a shimmer of silver on my lawn, and gold, russet and scarlet leaves flying in the chilly, sunny breeze. James Whitcomb Riley still reminds me of all I cherish in my native state.

Even if he didn’t know how to spell.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: Did your childhood teachers read to you? What was your favorite read-aloud story or poem?

I Flunked Euchre

I was born and raised in Indiana, the heart of the “Euchre Belt.” Along with understanding all things basketball and eating dinner plate-sized tenderloin sandwiches, I learned how to play euchre, right?

Wrong.

My father, a card-shark-turned-pastor, nixed cards. Even Old Maid made him uneasy. While friends learned to play euchre and that favorite pastime of the devil, poker, I grew up calling clubs “clovers.”

Instead, our default family activity consisted of singing around the piano.

Once, at an Indiana University summer music camp for high schoolers, I sowed the wildest of oats. My sort-of boyfriend, who also attended, volunteered to teach me euchre. He became my partner.

By evening’s end, he was crying. Why, I didn’t know. The clover issue bothered him. Also, I considered spades hearts too — pointy black hearts. He took that personally.

The relationship crashed.

Dad was right. Playing cards messed up your life.

Then, I met my dream guy: taller than me, with bigger feet and a cute smile. Like me, he enjoyed school. More important, he shared my Christian faith, as did his family.

Eventually, he invited me to his grandparents’ get-together.

I was ecstatic. Until everyone started playing heathen euchre.

Worse, no piano graced their living room.

How could this relationship survive?

Especially, as I learned his parents and grandparents played euchre every week. Grandma and Grandpa even gambled (gasp!), winning penny pots and cans of applesauce and beanee weenees.

My parents would want me to be polite. When my hosts insisted on teaching me euchre, I tried to learn.

Only now do I realize the extent of their kindness. Even Grandpa didn’t pounce on me — mostly because Grandma fixed a steely eye on him when I, his partner, trumped his aces.

Fortunately, my future husband was too in love to notice when I trumped his.

However, even he tired of waiting while I pondered various plays. He joined the others in extended coffee and bathroom breaks. Grandpa built a garage.

“With practice, you’ll do fine,” my sweet, future mother-in-law assured me.

She was right. After 25 years of marriage, I could play without anyone building garages.

Of course, our children caught on to the game as preschoolers. Their children also are fast learners.

The Phillips family playing euchre.

When we play with friends, the card sharks my father warned me about, they can’t play plain euchre. No, we must bid and think high and low and upside down.

You mean the cards read the same upside down?

My euchre education continues.

Occasionally, even the friendliest card sharks lose patience with me. But the important relationship hasn’t crashed.

He still possesses a cute smile. And Hubby can sing around the piano, too.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: What in-law tradition tripped (trips) you up?

Breakfast with My Brother

Me at 16 with my brothers, circa 1969.

I measure the distance between extended family in states rather than miles. The lone exception, my brother Ned, lives in another part of Indiana.

A year apart, we played together like twins until I started school, where he acknowledged my existence only by a raised eyebrow.

Fortunately, he no longer regards sisters as threats to his manhood. We phone occasionally, but not often enough. I recall several years ago when we met halfway between our homes for breakfast.

We chose a mom-and-pop establishment, where we could indulge in illegal eggs over easy, crispy bacon and infinite cups of curl-your-hair coffee. Or the mortal sin of biscuits with gravy.

Entering, I saw no sign of Ned. As I walked toward a vinyl booth, I expected — and received — the who-are-you-stranger? once-over.

Homeland Security should catch onto this resource, one that could revolutionize national safety procedures. We don’t need metal detectors or X-rays. If the government would pay a tableful of these locals to drink coffee at security points, no terrorist in his right mind would try to get past their scrutiny.

Born and raised in rural Indiana, I knew I’d broken the rules. No woman eats breakfast alone in a strange town. As a sweet-faced waitress brought me blessed coffee, I pulled out my Bible and read while I waited. Eye-lasers clicked off one by one. Their owners swiveled back to their breakfasts. They gave Congress and the weather their morning cussing and analyzed high school basketball with an expertise that would put ESPN out of business.

Until my brother walked in. Immediately, the force field returned. As Ned headed toward my booth, question marks formed in the air, visible as if smokers had blown them.

“Good to see ya, Sis!” Ned trumpeted. He knew the rules, too.

The diners returned to their vivisection of basketball referees, as the waitress took our order. She brought us waffles, eggs and ham. Biscuits and gravy.

With bowed heads, we asked God to bless the cholesterol. Our words filled and warmed us as much as the steaming, delicious food. We solved our kids’ problems (if they would just listen!). We cheered the utter perfection of our grandchildren.

All too soon, our separate worlds called to us. We promised to connect sooner next time.

Before we separated, I demanded a hug, just to give the town conversation material for the next few weeks.

Ned’s eyebrow went up. But the hug happened.

It can’t happen today, in 2020.

But after this blasted COVID crisis ends, I’ll collect every one of those hugs that have piled up in the meantime.

Even if he raises the other eyebrow.

Image by Adina Voicu from Pixabay.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: Whom do you want to hug post-COVID?

T.C. Steele, Mother Haines and Not-So-Partly Cloudy

Not long ago, while we were camping in southern Indiana, it rained. And rained.

So much for “partly cloudy.”

We had loitered in every restaurant within 50 miles. Where to now?

Artistic inspiration struck me. “Let’s visit the T.C. Steele historic site!”

Forty years before, Clara Haines, known at our church as “Mother Haines,” had recommended it. We college students had heard she dabbled in painting, but she obviously spent most of her time starching doilies.

One brief visit to her home opened our eyes and minds. Doilies adorned tables, but paintings covered the walls. Glowing colors pulled us into sun-dappled landscapes and stark snow scenes.

Our young jaws dropped. “You painted these?”

She nodded and said she’d learned to paint from T.C. Steele. She encouraged us to see his home and works.

Steve hiking in the Hoosier National Forest.

Four decades later, we did.

We’d never viewed Steele’s Rembrandt-like portraits. Wealthy Indianapolis patrons had been immortalized by his brush, some of whom now regarded us with lifelike interest.

But Steele’s Impressionist late-nineteenth/early-twentieth-century Hoosier landscapes nailed us to the floor. I stared until I needed extra eye drops. How Steele had loved his native state!

As do we.

While hardly luxurious, the Steeles’ “House of the Singing Winds,” with its Victorian rugs, player piano and stuffed peacock kept their bewildered neighbors’ tongues wagging.

Living in log cabins, the Brown County natives must have considered their new neighbors aliens. This man didn’t work — just painted pretty pictures. Whoever heard of a woman who couldn’t cook? Instead of raising food, she planted hundreds of flowers.

Though only 50 miles from their native Indianapolis, the Steeles must have felt likewise.

Yet, walking through her gardens between downpours, we saw that Selma loved her adopted home, remaining years after her husband died. Selma also moved an 1875 log cabin to her property. Knowing its history — the cabin’s owner had raised seven children there with one wife and 11 with another — perhaps Selma considered it a reminder that regardless of hard adjustments, they could have been worse!

Selma Steele’s formal gardens are designated a “Historic Iris Preservation Society Display Garden.” Visitors to the T.C. Steele State Historic Site can walk the gardens, tour the home and visit Steele’s studio. https://tcsteele.org/visit/

We bought a print of one of Steele’s winter scenes because it reminded us of Mother Haines’ similar landscapes and her comment: “Painting snow sounds easy. But I used 23 colors in that snowbank.”

As Hubby and I sat in the Steeles’ porch swing, we envisioned the Steeles entertaining other painters and students like Clara Haines, then a young mother who braved muddy, treacherous roads in a Model T to learn from the master artist.

Time and effort so well spent. Thank you, T.C. Steele and Mother Haines, for gracing our lives with beauty 40 years later on this not-so-partly-cloudy day.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: What artist resonates with your state or area?

OMG, It’s Monday! Prayer: Giving Thanks for Winter?

O Lord, I’m tempted to gripe about dreary winter. Still, in January, I don’t do yardwork. I skip washing the car, because everybody’s car is grimy. And while poor souls in Hawaii must maintain abs of steel, my flab I conceal with warm, fuzzy layers. OMG, thank You for Indiana weather!  

Kayaker vs. Landlubber

My husband zeroes in on kayaks the way my radar finds ice cream parlors.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” he drools. “Long, slim — probably has great moves.”

I suppose I should be grateful that he’s not observing a Jennifer Aniston look-alike. For years, though, I resisted his enthusiasm in favor of practical considerations, such as bills, college savings and investments in ice cream.

Unfortunately, I asked what he wanted for Christmas.

Armed and dangerous with Internet facts and figures, he proclaimed an inflatable kayak as the bargain gift. “Costs less, yet withstands white-water conditions.”

White water?

He nearly lost his case.

Even writing about big waves shifts my stomach into N for nausea. Yet, this boat represented the boy’s special Christmas wish. …

We bought the kayak.

Hubby pumped it up in the living room to “test inflation pressures.” Later, in his office to “calculate seat placement.” Then to “practice paddling.”

“You’ve paddled canoes all your life,” I said.

“Entirely different technique,” he retorted.

Having braved his office carpet, he foamed at the mouth, waiting for spring. However, tornadoes sabotaged every plan for the kayak’s maiden voyage.

Then, days before a promising campout date, I fell, bruising every muscle I owned. Some landlubbers will do anything to avoid paddling a kayak.

My husband never once insinuated that I’d ruined our kayaking adventure. Because he said he’d paddle solo.

Hubby salivated as he hand-pumped the kayak.

Me? Not salivating. Donning a life jacket (Ouch!) seemed a sufficient challenge. As did entering this inflatable kayak. It threatened to drown me before we left shore.

Somehow, we managed, and Hubby expertly steered us through glass-like water reflecting blue sky draped with tulle clouds. Wild rose thickets wafted exquisite scents across the water.

We spotted ducks, geese leading mini-parades of fuzzy goslings, sunbathing turtles, and minnows playing in the shallows. Orange and black orioles, the first I’d seen in Indiana, darted past. A heron eyed us, unperturbed.

Meanwhile, my husband paddled and paddled. And paddled.

I could handle that. Why hadn’t he told me kayaking was so wonderful?

However, the troublemaker wind kicked up bigger waves.

This might prove a little more challenging than your office carpet.

Waves morphed into whitecaps. Whitecaps on a central Indiana lake?

My stomach plummeted. Waves slapped us ever closer to an island’s rough shoreline.

Hubby dug in, and we edged toward our bay, where the wind couldn’t bully our boat. Finally, we reached it.

Will I ever kayak on the sea?

Only if anesthetized.

More kayak trips on Indiana lakes and rivers? My stomach votes no.

But this landlubber votes yes … even when she’ll have to paddle.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: Have you ever changed your mind about your husband’s favorite pastime?

Where a Writer Goes

Some compare a writer’s life to a monk’s: starved, withdrawn from the speaking/smiling world and — like author Annie Dillard — incarcerated in a closet-like room decorated only with a picture she drew of a cow pasture.

I’ve experienced hermit weeks, although starvation doesn’t enter into the equation. Because I can’t draw cows or anything else, I allow myself a window.

I’ve also holed up in libraries, more exciting than most imagine. Take the Notre Dame library, where I did research for a biography of St. Augustine. Entering the skyscraper bearing its gigantic “Christ the Teacher” mural (known to football fans as “Touchdown Jesus”), I dared not speak to anyone, as even janitors appeared to be Fulbright Scholars.

I fought with a computer catalogue, then hunted for an elevator, which I finally rode to the philosophy and religion department on the 14th floor. Encountering a locked door, I rapped on it.

Silence.

I banged until my fists hurt.

Ditto. I’d spent forty-five minutes for nothing?

A brave aide on the elevator ride down asked if he could help.

“The philosophy and religion department is locked,” I griped.

“Which floor?”

“Fourteenth.”

“The philosophy and religion department is on the 13th floor. Father Hesburgh lives on the 14th.”

Taking a break from libraries, I traveled to story settings. Non-writers assume a publisher arranges free, first-class flights to exotic spots with four-star hotels. Instead, halfway to Cave-In-Rock, Illinois, I stayed at my daughter’s. Having been hugged, mugged and slimed by three sweet grandkids, a dog and a cat, I slept on a sofa. Eat your heart out, Karen Kingsbury.

Afterward, I drove to the enormous cave on the Ohio River where, during the early 1800s, enterprising pirates ran a tavern. They lured flatboat pioneers with “Last chance for a hot meal and mug o’ grog before the Mississip, matey!”

“Guests,” however, ended up at the bottom of the Ohio.

Climbing alone around the cave’s mottled walls, I listened to dead voices while the I-don’t-know-nothin’ river flowed past.

Maybe the Notre Dame library wasn’t scary, after all.

Rachael Phillips, Eileen Key, Cynthia Ruchti, and Becky Melby sampled the popular Door County sundaes.

Many of my stories, though, take place in pleasant places:

  • I’ve watched children in Peru, Indiana, defy gravity, homework and other laws of the universe by participating in their annual Youth Circus.
  • I’ve visited all 31 covered bridges in Parke County, Indiana.
  • I’ve ridden in an Amish buggy whose GPS consisted of the horse’s memory.
  • I’ve traveled through Door County, Wisconsin, researching that Martha’s-Vineyard-of-the-Midwest setting, including exactly how many yummy cherries are used in their famous Door County sundaes.

Currently, I’m staying close to home. But not for long, because we writers are a brave, daring breed.

Maybe I should set my next story in Hawaii.

 

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: If you were (are) a writer, where would you place your story?

Escape to the Circus

I used to threaten to run away to the circus. But Mom refused to drive me there. So, I gave up.

Decades later, I decided to attend one. Not just any circus. This one starred kids — Little Leaguers, 4-H ribbon winners, teen hamburger flippers — who reside in a town nestled among cornfields.

I’d known about the Peru, Indiana, Amateur Youth Circus all my life, but never went. Research for a novel sent me to this circus’s spring practice.

As I entered the arena, unicycles nearly ran me down. Diving into a restroom, I considered changing my novel’s setting to a hospital.

I peeked out. No more unicycles. No one swallowing swords. Just everyday children carrying gym bags. I followed them inside.

Adults clustered on bleachers, talking and helping kids with homework. A gold-scrolled wagon — the concession stand — emitted a fragrance of hot, buttered popcorn. Research can be wonderful.

Above, adults climbed webs of ropes resembling the work of overachieving spiders. Below, teens and children hauled equipment without once mentioning child labor laws.

A herd of little kids wearing leotards lined up to turn “somersaults” — mostly belly flops. But they didn’t quit.

Neither did grade-school jugglers practicing with Hacky Sacks®. The “old guys,” who had shaved maybe once, flipped clubs under legs and high in the air, missing most of the people climbing around the ceiling.

I greatly admired the jugglers. From afar.

When more kids hung from the ceiling than clothes in my closet, I white-knuckled my seat. Children swung on trapezes and spun on cables. One teen girl shinnied up another walking a wire 10 feet above the floor. The walker shuddered. The long pole she carried shuddered. I shuddered.

But the walker regained her balance. The climber slowly rose above the walker’s shoulders, legs shaking — then dropped.

I nearly swallowed my grandma fist.

The climber fell into a net. She bounced nonchalantly then dismounted.

A few more practices, and the paramedics and I were on a first-name basis.

That July, though, Hubby and I returned to see the actual show. Would these super-spangled young circus stars live up to their billing?

Did they ever. No belly flops for the little tumblers. They somersaulted and cartwheeled. Bigger children soared above trampolines and flipped friends onto each others’ shoulders. Performers balanced on bicycles, unicycles, enormous sparkly balls. They hung from hoops, rings and trapezes. Some spun, hanging by ankles, necks and teeth. The jugglers tossed fiery clubs. We watched high wire walkers perform a seven-girl pyramid act.

My buds, the paramedics, stood by.

I didn’t faint once. And I couldn’t wait until the next July.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: What are your favorite circus memories?

What Time Is It, Anyway?

I live in Indiana, where longstanding time change gripes have solidified into a Hoosier tradition. A child during the 1960s, I recall debates: Should the Eastern Time Zone stop at the Ohio or Illinois border? In the middle of Indiana?

When the time changed, I was dragged out of bed and taken to church or school when I’d rather sleep. But I endured those indignities daily, so why the brouhaha? Neither “springing forward” nor “falling back” made sense. Both sounded dangerous, possibly resulting in scraped knees and Mercurochrome, an orange antiseptic (now rarely used) that stung worse than any injury.

Early controversy centered on urban versus agricultural concerns. Some farmers believed Daylight Saving Time undermined cows’ health and confused chickens. Extended morning darkness, they claimed — the farmers, not the chickens — would make their children lazy. Long summer evenings would encourage kids to party late like decadent city cousins.

As a teen, I reconsidered time changes. Maybe my parents would miscalculate my curfew?

No, they were pastors. Congregation members, upon finding an empty church, might bang on the parsonage door early or arrive only to hear the last amen, but my folks always got it right.

Finally, in 1972, lawmakers established a mostly Eastern plan, with no Daylight Saving. Everyone carried slide rules to calculate the timing of television programs and events in neighboring states. We and our chickens were content. Cows never missed church or favorite sitcoms. We Hoosiers, along with the independent-thinking citizens of Arizona, thumbed our noses at the rest of the country.

Until 2005, when Daylight Saving Time, in the name of energy conservation and business, became law. My children and their spouses endured a nightly barrage of theological questions: Why does God want us to go to bed when it’s light outside? God made the sun. Why isn’t it working right? Where does God keep all that daylight He saves?

Excellent questions, especially the last concept. Did you save any daylight last summer? Me, neither. If only I could have deposited the daily 9:00 – 10:00 p.m. sunshine into a rainy-day account, accumulating enough interest to brighten March.

Perhaps daylight can be preserved like pickles. We could offer jars of daylight to relatives who threaten to stay extra because “it’s too dark to start home.”

Politicians, so good at passing bills, would you also mandate the best method whereby we can save summer daylight?

Until then, I, like thousands of other Hoosiers, (yawn) will keep our semi-annual griping tradition alive and well.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: Are you a Daylight Saving fan? Why or why not?

 

OMG, It’s Monday! Prayer: March Madness

OMG, It’s Monday! Prayer: Oh, my God, during March Madness, I don a helmet. With ear plugs. You made my husband, whose signature is sanity, who keeps brown socks in one drawer and black in another. Yet he succumbs to basketball psychosis. OMG, bring healing. But please, not until April 6. (Go, Hoosiers!)