Childhood

The Greatest Gift

When I was a kid in Catholic school, every year in late fall we were recruited to sell Christmas Seals to raise funds for the poor. As an incentive, there were trinkets we could win for certain levels of sales. The books of stickers each sold for a dollar. One year, the award for selling 5 books of seals was a beautiful plaque of Mary, holding the baby Jesus. This plaque was made of plastic, but It looked to me as if it were carved from a beautiful, dark piece of wood. Mary’s expression captivated me. Her head was tilted sideways and she was demurely looking at the baby she held in her arms. She looked simply ethereal to me. I felt the love of a mother for her child, emanating from that simple plastic object. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt, I had to give this to my mother for Christmas. 

Now, selling five dollars worth of Christmas seals in today’s world, I know, seems quite achievable. Nowadays, parents bring children’s fundraisers to work, and kids have family members to sell to. But, this was the year 1971, and the world was much different then, especially where I lived, in rural Upstate New York. We were the only non-farm family on a road where the nearest neighbor was a mile away in either direction. Our next door neighbors were literally, cows, hay and cornfields.  I went to school in the town of Little Falls, a 45 minute bus ride from home. The city kids in class could go door-to-door a couple blocks and meet their quota.  My options for sales were limited.  But I simply burned with the desire to achieve this, and took my share of the books with great hope in my tender, 10-year-old heart.

After school, while it was still light outside, I asked my Mom if I could go down to the neighboring farm and try to sell some Christmas Seals. I think at first she kind of hesitated. I imagine she didn’t want her daughter pestering the neighbors for money. I think our conversation probably went something like this.

Me: “Mom? Can I go down to Helmers and sell some Christmas Seals?”

Mom: “Oh, I don’t know…”

Me:“PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE?!!”

Mom: “Let’s wait until your father gets home and ask him”

Me: (knowing my father was no pushover) “But, it will be dark by then, and I won’t be able to go!”

Mom: silence

Me: “Mom! It’s to help starving poor children!”

Mom: “Well… I guess so…”

Me: “Thanks, bye! I’ll be back before supper!” (Door slamming behind me)

(I have to take a minute here and thank my Mom for giving me some freedom at a crucial time in my life, and for putting up with my energetic “persistence” (pestering!) for all of my childhood, and beyond. Also, I haven’t changed much in in 48 years!)

I hit the road with high hopes and a fistful of stickers.

The Helmers had three children, all of whom attended the public schools, and so, I would have no competition for sales. Eddie was the eldest. He and I had a tenuous friendship, almost like a sibling rivalry at times. We once played a game of “My father could beat up your father” one hot summer day, when we were bored, and sitting on the concrete step outside my kitchen door. The game ended when he claimed his father, and their whole herd of cows could beat up my father, our dog, her six puppies and me, and I replied my father armed with our lawn mower would scare all the cows away and run down his father with said lawn mower.  Things got pretty ugly and he wound up going home. Luckily for me, Eddie was helping his dad milk cows, and so I got to sit down in Sarah Helmer’s kitchen enjoying some cookies and milk and pitching my Christmas Seals. Believe it or not, I was a very shy child who loved disappearing into books, hated getting called on in school, and blushed red as a beet when the spotlight landed on me. But,  I liked Sarah. She had a gentle manner and a very kind smile that crinkled the corners of her blue eyes. I put my glass of milk down, wiped my mouth with the back of my hand and got down to business.

“For just one dollar a book, you can help starving children all over the world,” I explained. “You can put these pretty stamps on your Christmas Cards to decorate the envelopes and show your support at the same time!”

Mrs. Helmer stood up and walked to a flour canister on the kitchen counter. She opened it and removed a bill, then came back to the table. “How many books do you have to sell?”

“Five, ma’am.” I thought to myself, great, one down and just four to go!

Sarah smiled and placed a five dollar bill on the table in front of me. I realized, I didn’t have any change. Now what would I do? 

“I’ll take them all.” I could not believe my ears. A whole five dollars!

“Oh, thank you, Mrs. Helmer!” I handed her all five booklets, and clutched the bill. I couldn’t wait to get back to school with all my books sold at once! 

“You are quite welcome. Would you like another cookie? You can take it with you.” Clearly she could see my eagerness to run home with the loot. 

I could not believe my luck. In one fell swoop, my goal of getting the perfect Christmas gift for my mother was achieved. 

Now that I didn’t need to worry about making other sales, I pocketed the money and decided to take the long way home, through the fields and woods, instead of the road. I jumped over the ditch and took to the November cornfields, skipping past the dried chopped- off stalks, kicking clods of dirt with the toes of my sneakers as I went, watching the clods explode in dust clouds, left and right. I ducked under the barbed-wire fence bordering the cow pasture and cut through ancient apple trees to the other side, which bordered yet another cornfield, then, the edge of our property. I burst through the kitchen door, and my mother looked up from a crossword she was working at the kitchen table. “What took you so long? I was about to phone the Helmers to ask about you!” 

“I had cookies and milk.” I waited for her to ask the big question.

“I hope you didn’t overstay your welcome.”

“Nope! She wanted me to stay!” I was bursting with excitement.

Mom looked up and smiled. “So? How’d you do?”

“Mrs. Helmer bought them ALL!” I reached into my pocket to show Mom the five dollar bill. My joy turned to alarm. It wasn’t in my pocket!

“Mom! I lost it!”

“How’d you lose it?”

“I don’t know!” I wailed.

“Well, you have to retrace your steps, it must be on the side of the road. You can find it!”

My heart sank, as I recalled that fateful decision to take the long way home, through the acres of pasture. All the skipping, and zig-zagging I did. I would never find it. 

“Don’t worry, if you don’t find it, you can explain it to the nuns,” my mother said. 

I thought of the shame of telling Sister Regina, I lost the money for all of my Christmas Seals. And then, the heartbreak of losing out on the best Christmas gift for mom on top of it all. I couldn’t even tell her that. I felt tears burn the corners of my eyes, and a huge lump rose in my throat. 

“Mom, I have to go look for the money.” I was running out of daylight and the prospect of my father getting home from work and having to explain it all to him, and live the nightmare all over again. Even thought I knew he would understand, I still felt so ashamed to have been so careless and irresponsible with so much money.

“Okay, but do not stay out after dark.” My mom didn’t sound very hopeful. I put on my lucky coat, the one that looked like the color of fall leaves, my favorite, but also the one I tore open on the back, ducking under a barbed wire fence. I only got to wear it for playing now. I was convinced it camouflaged me when I tried to sneak up on animals. I needed all the help I could get to find this money.

There wasn’t much joy in retracing my steps to the Helmers. The sun was getting low, a cold wind came up, and my eyes hurt from trying to discern a bill from the tall grasses. Occasionally, I thought I could detect my footprints in the dirt next to the cornfield, but my hope was fading as quickly as the afternoon, by the time I approached the spot next to Helmer’s where I hopped over the ditch. Nothing. I walked the edge of the road to the Helmer’s driveway and realized, I was going to have to admit defeat and turn to go home.  I didn’t want to run into Eddie or any of the Helmers who would wonder what I was doing hanging around the farm so late in the day. I turned around to go home, straight up the road this time. I ruefully looked at the ditch wishing I hadn’t made such a stupid decision to go home that way, and that is when I saw it. Stuck in the tall grass at the top of the ditch, fluttering in a gentle breeze, was a five dollar bill! Could it be my eyes playing tricks on me? No! It was real as real could be as I snatched it lest the wind steal it from me. This time I kept the bill in my hand, and headed straight home up the road, flooded with relief and happiness. 

To this day, I wonder how on Earth I managed to find that five dollar bill. It was a tough lesson in persistence and personal accountability that I will never forget. I am grateful my mother allowed me the space to try to find the money, rather than swoop in to give me the money and fix the problem, which would have taught me nothing. The memory of my mother opening her gift that year is one of my most precious, even 48 years later. I’m sure my mother put two and two together, when she realized I earned the gift by selling Christmas seals. I’m sure that is one reason the plaque still hangs in my parents’ house in Maine, all these years later. 

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Why I Write

I love how, for the writer, writing can bring the past back to life. Today I rewrote the summer of 1971. Once again, I walked through dark green cornfields in Upstate New York, climbed the twisted boughs of apple trees, watched puffy white clouds lumber across a turgid sky, nudged by the heavy breath of mid summer. Fistfuls of juicy blackberries stained my fingers, dripped down my chin as I crammed the sweet, warm gems of the season into my mouth. Oh, to once again roam the sweet spot of childhood when summers stretch endlessly before you, ripe for adventure and offering a treasure trove of sensations: icy cold creeks to plunge dusty, bare feet into, where shiny darting minnows dare you to catch them in eager, cupped hands, the taste of ice-cold sweet watermelon slices and hot, buttery corn on the cob. Saturday morning cartoons shared with your little brother, the two of you tangled on the couch in a twist of spindly arms and legs, as you fought for your own space and argued half heartedly over Flipper or the Flintstones. Your Mom half listening and refereeing from her seat at the kitchen table, sipping coffee and working a crossword. Ah, close your eyes and come with me, we will escape the icy grip of winter and leave this middle age behind! Just take my hand, and hear the sound of the screen door as it slams behind us. Feel the grass as we kick off our Keds and run heedlessly through the back yard, into the fields and the thickets beyond. The sun is warm, the wind is light and the corn fields are whispering our names!

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So I said to myself…

SO I SAID TO MYSELF…..

Growing up, I remember my Dad would periodically burst into song or little sayings from time to time. We kids could recite a litany of those little gems and sometimes still do, as adults. In fact if I were to turn to my brother or sister today and sing “Far across the blue water!” The other one would respond “Oh, Lordy, Lordy!” And we would be the only ones who knew what the heck that was. We thought it was endearing and funny, especially since Dad was by nature very serious, and reserved. It gave us a glimpse into a much more playful side of him. I think every kid craves these glimpses into the personalities of the adults that surround them. These are happy little memories.

One of the things he would say was “So I said to myself – Self!” And that was it. We never knew what he said to himself, but it was a funny thing to amuse ourselves with, the thought of Dad talking to himself…

I hadn’t really thought of this little story in years. Until yesterday while sitting at my computer, working (or trying to) and just not feeling it. There are so many distractions and uncertainties in that area of my life right now – not worth going into at the moment. (Suffice it to say if there is such a thing as a three quarter of the way life crisis, I just may be having one! )I was working at home and so, there were no other humans around. My little Quaker parrot was happily reciting everything he knows how to say, over and over. It went something like this:

“Aw, pretty bird, Finn! Good Morning (10 times) Peekaboo! Hey baby! Night night! ‘Mokey! (Smokey is the dog’s name and Finn doesn’t do the S sound) This went on for a good 10 minutes. For some reason this evoked the memories of the one liners Dad would drift by and say. Then I had an inspiration. Good thing nobody was home except the animals.

So, I said to myself – “Self! Remember who you are! Strong, smart, capable and with super powers that have pulled you through harder times than these! Get back to your therapy – your pen (keyboard) and write. You’re good at it, you have been doing it since you could hold a pencil. Stop lamenting what you cannot change, but LIVE EVERY DAY as fully as you can. Keep showing up at work and giving it all you’ve got, because in this life, it’s all about how you show up EVERY day that makes a difference. Got it? Good, now get back to work and make me proud!”

Thanks, self, I needed that!

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For Tracey

For Tracey

Chopping onions and peppers tonight and you came to mind.
Unexpectedly.
Just last Monday I rode my horse to the end of the driveway and you drove past.
Unexpectedly.
I waved furiously and our grins met in mutual recognition. I thought, “We will talk about this in a couple of Thursdays” where I expected to see you again at our knitting circle. You on my right, watching over my work, teaching me the elusive “Russian join”, picking up my lost stitches, our needles clicking as companionably as the conversation encircling us. But you left us and this world on Saturday.
Unexpectedly.
I wonder if you liked chopping onions in front of the kitchen window as much as I do? Why does this thought even cross my mind?
Oh my talented knitting friend.
You will forever be the hole in the work, the dropped stitch never to be picked up again, a bright colored marker on the row where I will pause to remember.

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Writer’s Block

It’s happening again. My mind feels like a maze, and I’m running from idea to idea, bouncing off the walls inside my head. I stare into space for hours, thinking about nothing. I check my social media accounts manically, in between games of Candy Crush Saga. “Bing, bing bing! Richochet Rabbit!” That is my brain. There are about a hundred tabs open on my iPad. One of them is my book. This creation that was trapped in my head for about 20 years, suddenly released from prison a year ago. It came out as memoir, then fiction took over. It was entirely out of my control. It flowed from brain to fingers then became 10,000 word group of essays. Each told a story. “You need a plot for this to be a book, with a beginning, a middle, and an end,” a wise writing friend told me. “But I’m a pantser” I said, “Writing by the seat of my pants, that’s a thing.” I had read this, which flooded me with relief at the time. I thought my career as a writer was done for. Not organized, no story line. Finished. And it was not over, however, one can only fly by the seat of ones pants for so long. I knew this, just needed to hear it. So, I went back to school, pushed through the online course I had enrolled in from the Success Publishing Academy. Shout out to Alexa Haddock Bigwarfe from Women in Publishing and founder of the WritePublishSell web page- I highly recommend it!) Back to learning the basics. From that, I learned how to brainstorm an outline, which every book must have eventually, if not in the beginning. Voila, the plot became clear. With that, a key chapter that I had stopped writing at one point as I did not know where it was going beyond into a dark woods, became a real turning point in the story. Woot! Yay me. I typed furiously. I could even picture the cover of the book, based on this chapter. I sketched it and shared with an artist friend of mine. I was firing on all cylinders! I still write some stuff with pen and paper, and I tend to take notes while I am typing . Anything that pops into my head randomly, goes in a small notebook. Then, bang, that proverbial brick wall stopped me completely. There I sat with 100 tabs open, and a pile of note paper covered with gibberish. Work got busy, the garden needed planting, I had a cocktail on the deck at sunset (unlike the stereotype, I cannot write after I drink alcohol.) On and on. So I searched online “How to conquer writer’s block” Hey it works. I once Googled “How to find a lost parrot” and it worked. But that is another story! I digress. One suggestion was “Write about writer’s block” And, it’s working, because, well, here I am, I just wrote this blog. So, cheers my writing friends! I am going to hop on over to the tab that is my book and get back on track now. I hope maybe this helps someone else refocus, hope this reaches you as you bounce from tab to tab, on the brink of despair! Do not give up! As my high school writing teacher wrote in my yearbook: “Keep Writing!” Thanks Mr. Merrigan!