Tag Archives: Memories

Classic Post: Christmas Tree Chronicles

This post first appeared on December 2, 2020.

Do you remember that first Christmas tree you, as an adult, hauled home?

Maybe you and your beloved cut a fragrant evergreen at a Christmas tree farm amid silvery snowfall.

Or you procured a Charlie Brown escapee or spent precious dollars on a Salvation Army find.

I wish we, as newlyweds, had considered those alternatives. We’d saved $50 for Christmas. Total. We possessed no lights or ornaments. We spent our bankroll on family gifts instead.

However, neighbors offered bottom branches removed from theirs. Humming “Deck the Halls,” I accented the pine-scented boughs with little red balls.

Voilà! Christmas!

The next year, I vowed to have a tree, though possibly decorated with popcorn strings and spray-painted macaroni — and the red balls.

My sister-in-law to the rescue: “Why didn’t you tell us you needed Christmas stuff? Mom gave us bunches.”

How I celebrated that tree in our government-subsidized apartment! We’d never go without one again — though some Decembers proved more adventurous than others.

Later, when Hubby was training day and night at a hospital, I stuffed our Christmas tree into our only car’s trunk.

Whew! Now to drag it downstairs to our basement apartment. Except, where were my keys?

With the tree. In the trunk.

Did I mention I was pregnant?

After a grand tour per city bus, I finally arrived at Hubby’s hospital. They paged him: “Dr. Phillips. Dr. Phillips. Your wife locked her keys in the car. Please report to the front desk.”

He displayed zero Christmas spirit, but he handed me his keys. After another city tour, I drove myself and the tree home.

Little did I know what Christmas tree tribulations awaited me as a parent.

The following year, Hubby and I set up the tree in our daughter’s playpen.

Why didn’t we corral her instead?

Child-raising theories then advocated free-range offspring. No dastardly playpen for our baby.

As our family expanded, Christmas ideals shrank to survival for us, the kids, and the tree. Trying to hide it from rampaging toddlers, we moved the tree to different locations each year. All in vain. Our son’s destructo gene zeroed in. I covered the tree’s lower branches with harmless ornaments, hoping he would eat those.

He climbed it.

To this day, I don’t know if our son consumed broken ornaments. He is 30-plus now, so I guess the destructo gene was linked to another granting him an iron stomach.

This year, our empty-nest tree mostly fears my smacking it with the vacuum. With no inkling of its predecessors’ sufferings, it basks in gentle serenity, glowing with lights, tinsel and memories.

Unnoticed little red balls, polished by 47 Christmases, still shine.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: What Christmas-tree tale can you tell?

This Is MY Hometown?

If you still reside in your hometown, changes might raise your eyebrows and ire. Soon, though, surprises make themselves at home, part of everyday experience.

Hubby (top row center) and I (bottom row middle) were high school sweethearts.

Visiting a distant hometown, however, shifts one’s universe. A once-busy shopping center has been conquered by Bennie the Bomb Fireworks. Why did town fathers allow trees to grow so big? That implies we’ve added rings to our girth, too.

My husband and I grew up in the same city, but our parents — and we — moved decades ago.

Now, new roads have sprouted like kudzu vines.

We’re lost.

Though I can’t find our motel, I’ve located the street where I failed my driving test. I remind Hubby that I’ve never received a traffic ticket, whereas I can point to the stoplight he ran to earn one.

Image by Helmut Jungclaus from Pixabay.

Hubby and I recall our accidents: mine, near the high school, watched by God and everybody; his, when a coal truck smacked his Opel two weeks before our wedding.

We cruise past former homes.

“They cut down my favorite tree!” I complain. Without my permission, yet.

“Our yard’s taken over by creepy little gnomes,” Hubby rants. “They’re by my room!”

Columbus North High School entrance, Columbus, Indiana.
Even the door was delicious.

We tour our old high school. Star Wars technology prevails, even in drinking fountains. The school now boasts a food court instead of a cafeteria. Too many choices! A few familiar areas comfort us. We recognize the classroom where we counted red-eyed and white-eyed fruit flies for our deep, dark genetics project. His locker’s still nearby — next to my ex-boyfriend’s. A nice reminder of how lucky Hubby is to have reversed the situation.

We visit the ice cream parlor where not only I, but my mother ate hot fudge sundaes after school. The store where Hubby rented prom and wedding tuxes. The restaurant where I, wearing the world’s ugliest uniform, served customers for a dollar an hour. The pre-McDonald’s fast-food restaurant where Hubby donned a folded paper hat and baggy uniform pants five inches too short.

Our 1975 wedding in East Columbus United Methodist Church.

We visit childhood churches that nurtured our faith in Christ. We reminisce about our wedding.

Finishing the tour, we agree: Our hometown is where we live now, not where we resided 50 years ago. However, this place continues to impact us. Nothing will change that.

Not even a gnome invasion.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: Have you visited your hometown recently?

Watermelon-Eating Essentials

There’s a right way to eat a watermelon. And then there’s the best way.

The right way: demote store-bought melons to chunks on fancy toothpicks or fake-looking balls. Eat in air-conditioned comfort.

The best way?

First ingredient

Order a summer day so hot that gooey blacktop shifts under your steps.

Second ingredient

Our family, uncharacteristically dressed up in this photo, are more at home lounging on this porch — one of the best places in the world for eating watermelon.

Reserve a screened-in porch with adequate waterproof seating for friends and neighbors, because the best watermelon is never eaten alone. Also, never serve it indoors. Irate mothers, who obsess about irrelevant issues like freshly mopped floors, will cut eating sessions short. Watermelon loses its flavor if eaten where consumers cannot also apply sticky juices directly to arms, legs or tummies.

Backyards, decks and parks present good watermelon-eating sites, but flies and yellow jackets — like some human relatives — come whether invited or not.

Third ingredient

Gather newspapers. My family has used these inexpensive, disposable watermelon-eating place mats for generations. If dampened sufficiently, newspapers imprint “City Sewer Plan Stinks” or similar headlines on new white shorts.

Last ingredient (but not least)

Harvest watermelons, bought not from strangers, but grown in one’s own patch — although my late father declared stolen ones the sweetest. As boys, he and his brothers patronized patches owned by Mr. Purvis Williams. Of course, when Dad amazed his Louisiana hometown by becoming a minister, he swore off such pastimes. Having returned as a 79-year-old retiree, however, he celebrated his first watermelon season back home by investigating local patches filled with fat, green-striped orbs almost bursting with juice.

The best patch’s owner: his new pastor.

Dad complimented him on his beautiful melons. The minister promptly invited Dad to help himself.

A Southerner himself, Dad understood the man was being lyin’-polite. Still posing as an ignorant Yankee, though, he took quick advantage. Dad raided the pastor’s patch. Despite tender consciences, we helped him devour the melon one sweltering July afternoon. It rated only semi-stolen, but I couldn’t imagine anything sweeter.

Still, this feast didn’t compare with those of my childhood, when Grandpa iced down a dozen from his garden in a horse trough. The entire family gathered, and every uncle, aunt and cousin received half a melon. After we finished, the adults, anticipating the imminent Watermelon Seed War, banished us kids to the yard, where we discharged our arsenals without harming any adults. Occasionally, a toddler stuck seeds up his nose. Always good for a little excitement.

Sometimes, Dad peeled thin green slices from the rind. Fashioning these into Billy Bob buckteeth, he gave us big, green-toothed grins.

Decades later, after we’d devoured the last luscious bite of his pastor’s watermelon, Dad saved the seeds to plant the next spring.

God help the rascally kid or retired minister who tried to steal his watermelons.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: Is a watermelon feast one of your summer traditions?

Lunch-Packing Crunch

Packing school lunches this year?

I’ll send you a sympathy card. Plus insights gained from years of therapy.

Imagine an alien mother from the planet Zoraxx who never, in her 400 years, has packed even one lunch box. Her reaction: “Honey, what are you thinking? Sending bags of food to school cafeterias full of food?”

Interplanetary viewpoints aside, I feel your pain. I, too, packed lunches. Along with parents today, I allowed quivery-stomach, school-lunch memories to influence me. During the ’60s, school cafeterias provided no salad bars. No a la carte. Just meals that met 700% of federal fat requirements.

Sadly, my cruel mother refused to pack 25 lunches a week.

What attitude. She didn’t go to work or school. She needed activities to keep her out of trouble.

My parents also rationalized by saying a day’s worth of school lunches for five kids cost $1.25. We couldn’t eat hay for that price. They even had the gall to wish they, too, could enjoy school lunches.

Years later, I understood. My children’s school menus sounded delicious! Maybe because my own lunch consisted of a week-old Happy Meal and a half-chewed teething cookie. I tried to sneak into the school cafeteria line, but got carded. Sigh.

Given this perspective, what made me abandon the you-will-clean-your-school-lunch-plate-and/or-die approach?

Fear. My children weighed less than their tennis shoes. If each lost five pounds, teachers might mark them absent.

So, I ensured their survival by packing lunches. I remembered who ate mustard on the sandwich top, who ate mayonnaise on the bottom, and who considered Grey Poupon the devil’s recipe. Still, my little lunch police rendezvoused during recess to confirm I had not committed fraud. They measured cheese slices, weighed bologna and counted peanuts in granola bars.

I did my best, but committed the unforgivable sin: I sent vegetables in their lunches. Not just normal celery and carrots.

Turnips. I sent sliced turnips.

Only later did I comprehend the dire consequences. One piece might trigger lifetime exile from the popular tables, where everyone ate prefabricated food and jockeyed to sit beside the third grade rock star. Turnips banished my children to tables occupied by kids whose mothers had concealed dangerous weapons, such as zucchini, in muffins.

At least they couldn’t trade away the turnips. Even kids with hummus brownies refused to touch turnips.

No matter what the planet Zoraxx mama thinks, lunch-packing instilled character into my family. Later, despite living with college roommates who subsisted on Ramen Noodles with Cheetos sauce, my kids actually bought and ate fresh vegetables.

They now pack school lunches for their offspring.

I will send them sympathy cards, too. And enclose a few turnip slices.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: What school lunch item still gives you nightmares?

In Defense of Muzak

Yes, it’s true. Without bribery, I listen to Muzak®, aka elevator music, aka easy listening.

Writers who discuss music of any kind may as well bungee jump into a volcano. Pulitzer Prize winner Dave Barry learned this when he dissed singer Neil Diamond. When a flabbergasted Barry received piles of hate mail, his delighted publisher commissioned Barry to write an entire book about music he loathed. And hired an army of lawyers.

No one’s hired even one for me, so I’ll stick to easy listening’s positive aspects — though nobody admits to liking Muzak®. Like scorn for gluten, happy endings and the Pledge of Allegiance, disdain for elevator music has become fashionable.

Critics dismiss it as simple — God protect us from simplicity! — and even happy.

Everyone knows happiness is for lightweights like Jane Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, who flunked Mr. Darcy’s standards: “Miss Bennet he admitted to be pretty, but she smiled too much.”

Contemporary Mr. Darcys believe Muzak® should be banished to avoid annoying unhappy people who want to stay that way.

Still, I don’t rubber-stamp all easy listening songs, Frank and Nancy Sinatra’s hit, “Somethin’ Stupid,” sounded stupid in 1967 and still does. When I am put on hold with “Send in the Clowns,” I can grind my teeth with any Muzak® hater.

Still, is it fair to label all elevator music as unworthy of elevators? Many arrangements, instrumentalists, and vocalists are superior to the originals.

While you writhe in shock, allow me to mention other Muzak® positives:

  • It sounds better than “Your call is important to us. Please stay on the line for the next decade or until you die, whichever comes first.”
  • Elevator music evokes naps, which benefit all humankind.
  • It employs hungry musicians, so they’re less likely to play under our windows on Saturday nights.
  • It provides opportunities to sing along in stores, mortifying children and grandchildren.
  • Actually, elevator music brings generations together. Oldie lovers feel smug because they know what “real” music is. Critics of yesterday’s hits flaunt trendy musical taste. Everyone feels superior — truly a win-win situation.
  • Easy listening music also transports one to the past e.g., dancing at the prom. Sure, Muzak® also may provoke memories of a date painful as shin splints, or a breakup that resembled a Sylvester Stallone film. Given enough violins, though, such misery can be transmogrified into sweet melancholy at the remembrance of young love. At worst, you can congratulate yourself that you dodged that bullet.
  • Finally, Muzak®, in provoking memories, proves I still have one.

I imagine Dave Barry, my fellow bungee-volcano jumper, would agree this discussion is worth it.

“Sweet Caroline,” anyone?

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: Do you secretly like Muzak®?

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?

Christmas Tree Chronicles

Do you remember that first Christmas tree you, as an adult, hauled home?

Maybe you and your beloved cut a fragrant evergreen at a Christmas tree farm amid silvery snowfall.

Image by Jill Wellington from Pixabay.

Or you procured a Charlie Brown escapee. Maybe spent a precious dollar on a Salvation Army find.

I wish we, as newlyweds, had considered those alternatives. We had saved $50 for Christmas. Total. We possessed no lights or ornaments. We spent our bankroll on family gifts instead.

However, learning of our treeless holiday, neighbors offered bottom branches removed from theirs. Humming “Deck the Halls,” I accented the pine-scented boughs with little red balls.

Voilà! Christmas!

The next year, I vowed to have a tree, though possibly decorated with popcorn strings and spray-painted macaroni — and the red balls.

My sister-in-law to the rescue: “Why didn’t you tell us you needed Christmas stuff? Mom gave us bunches.”

How I celebrated that tree in our government-subsidized apartment! We’d never go without one again — though some Decembers proved more adventurous than others.

Later, when Hubby was training day and night at a hospital, I stuffed our Christmas tree into our only car’s trunk.

Whew! Now to drag it downstairs to our basement apartment. Except, where were my keys?

With the tree. In the trunk.

Did I mention I was pregnant?

After a grand tour per city bus, I finally arrived at Hubby’s hospital. They paged him: “Dr. Phillips. Dr. Phillips. Your wife locked her keys in the car. Please report to the front desk.”

He displayed zero Christmas spirit, but he handed me his keys. After another city tour, I drove myself and the tree home.

Little did I know what Christmas tree tribulations awaited me as a parent.

The following year, Hubby and I set up the tree in our daughter’s playpen.

Why didn’t we corral her instead?

Child-raising theories then advocated free-range offspring. No dastardly playpen for our baby.

As our family expanded, Christmas ideals shrank to survival for us, the kids, and the tree. Trying to hide it from rampaging toddlers, we moved the tree to different locations each year. All in vain. Our son’s destructo gene zeroed in. I covered the tree’s lower branches with harmless ornaments, hoping he would eat those.

He climbed it.

To this day, I don’t know if our son consumed broken ornaments. He is 30-plus now, so I guess the destructo gene was linked to another granting him an iron stomach.

This year, our empty-nest tree mostly fears my smacking it with the vacuum. With no inkling of its predecessors’ sufferings, it basks in gentle serenity, glowing with lights, tinsel and memories.

Unnoticed, little red balls, polished by 45 Christmases, still shine.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: What Christmas-tree tale can you tell?

Our Normal Vacation

Summer trips with stops at Stuckey’s and Storybook Land. Sleeping in genuine teepees at the Woocheekoochee Warpath Motel — with a swimming pool!

A normal vacation for many kids during the 1960s.

But nobody ever accused my family of normalcy.

Any July morning, Dad might casually inform my mother he planned a family departure to visit his parents in Louisiana. At 8:00 p.m. that day.

Mom would have scorned comparison to that Wonder Woman hussy in bustier and tights, but she herself represented a true marvel. By 8:00 p.m. she had washed and packed clothes. She had canned every ripe tomato and pickle within 20 miles. Pets were exported and schedules rearranged with the decisiveness of a Fortune 500 CEO. Why Mom also cleaned our car remains a mystery. One root beer stand stop, and the station wagon again was infested with French fries, seats freshly graffitied with ketchup.

Her most amazing feat: Mom never hired a hit man to bump off Dad.

Arriving home, he flattened station wagon seats, loaded suitcases and cooler, then stacked us on top.

Dad loved all-night driving because he endured few dollar-eating, time-consuming restaurant stops. No tinkle breaks every two miles. Nothing to interrupt his love song of the open road — after children nodded off.

I often awakened with a sibling’s foot in my ear or an arm strangling me in a half nelson.

Sometimes, I awoke to discover Dad catching a few winks along an unknown highway. Waking siblings — especially the baby — was a capital crime. So, I watched in mingled hope and terror as headlights approached: hope because they lit the darkness; terror because the Hatchet Murderers of America were traveling tonight, too.

Mornings, we played tag under cedars at a Tennessee rest stop while Mom cooked bacon and eggs over a campfire. The smells alone made the all-night drive worth it.

After crossing the Mississippi River, we soon stopped outside Monroe, Louisiana. Mom extracted The Washcloth from its plastic bag to scrub us, making us smell as if we’d spent the night in a dumpster. Still, it ranked above spit and shine with The Kleenex, Mom’s substitute if she forgot The Washcloth.

Dad called Grandma from a phone booth. We all knew this dialogue by heart.

“Mama, we’re in Louisiana.”

“No, you’re not.” She’d fallen too many times for his fibs. “You ain’t left Indiana.”

“Mama! We’re just outside Monroe.”

Grandma Oglesbee, wearing the wary expression she usually did when my dad fibbed to tease her.

She didn’t buy it.

Finally, Dad admitted what Grandma had suspected all along: “The car broke down. We haven’t left home.”

“I knew it! Ya’ll think I’m soft in the head.”

His favorite part of “normal” vacation: 30 minutes later, when we pulled into Grandma’s driveway.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: What vacation memory can’t you forget?

Tablecloth Remembered

Ecuador, where Hubby and I spent six weeks on a medical mission four decades ago.

I forget many things. And I had forgotten about this tablecloth.

Years ago, I almost added it to the giveaway pile because we rarely used it. One day, though, the tablecloth floated to the surface like bread cast upon the waters.

Strangely, the scenario involved a TV stand my brother-in-law gave us as a wedding present in 1975. When eventually retired from TV duties, it functioned as a “temporary” end table.

After more than four decades, I could not stand the old stand one more second.

Rummaging through a closet, I found the gold and white tablecloth, woven more than 40 years ago by a friend in Ecuador, where Hubby and I did a six-week medical mission.

I cannot remember the weaver’s name, but his portrait is etched in my mind: chamois skin, a black braid down his back, topped with a jaunty black fedora. He wore the local uniform: white shirt with a poncho, black pants, and rubber boots. His tiny wife wore a full, black skirt and shawl clasped with a monster-sized stickpin that could have fended off Godzilla. Their children were miniatures of their parents.

They all thought gringos were certifiably insane.

The missionaries liked their vegetables and chickens small, whereas any person with a brain would grow them big to feed a large, hungry family. Gringos, who owned kitchens the Quechuas only dreamed about, ate picnics outside. Norteamericanos ignored ancient wisdom that the night air caused every malady from sniffles to liver disease.

Mentally unbalanced and possibly deficient, they lacked basic life skills. They couldn’t finagle decent prices at the market. Despite their height — the gringos also were known as la familia de gigantes, the family of giants — their volleyball team consistently lost because they didn’t cheat.

Such people obviously needed help. The weaver and his family, among others, offered it. They even joined us on picnics.

The weaver’s wife gave me a monster stickpin. “It’s not real silver.”

That, and the lovely tablecloth I bought from her husband at a reduced price, communicated friendship woven into its warp and woof.

Back in the States, we purchased an oval dining room table instead of a rectangular one, so the tablecloth lived a largely undisturbed existence for decades. Now, however, it graces the TV stand, redeeming it with a beauty I never expected.

One more show-and-tell reminder that the forgotten sometimes can reproduce the unforgettable.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: What forgotten memento brings back memories for you?