Monday, December 27, 2010

Their Last Conversation?

My father-in-law, Bob, and his cousin, Aunt Trudy, are the children of first generation immigrants. Their parents came to America on a boat from Germany in the late 19th century and both grew up speaking German as a first language. They both claim to not remember German at all. English was the language of America it was demanded that they speak it. So they did.

Trudy remembers that her aunt, Bob's mother, was given a fresh tomato by somebody working on the boat. She was perplexed by this gift since she had never seen a tomato in her life. So, she threw it at him - thinking it a toy or a piece of a game.

Bob and Trudy were raised as siblings, which was common in those days of the Depression, when families saved money by living together and getting on each other's nerves. She had to take care of him but didn't mind too much. She put him in the buggy and volunteered to go the market, a daily task in those days of iceboxes and milk deliveries. While she was praised as being 'such a good girl' and taking care of the baby, she had an ulterior motive. The baby buggy could hold the groceries and she wouldn't have to carry the heavy bags back to the house. This girl was smart. The problem, according to her impatient father, was that she was a girl.

Aunt Trudy turned 100 on her last birthday. Bob had turned 87 a few weeks earlier. They had a habit of speaking to each other on the phone about once a week, talking about the same old things since nothing exciting happens in your house when you rarely leave it.

It has been apparent for a few years that Aunt Trudy is losing her memory and she finally allowed for live-in companions to keep her safe from heaters, matches, and stoves that won't turn off.

We thought Bob's old age meant a lot of crankiness. It has become shockingly apparent to us that it is much more than that. He is losing his mind in bits and pieces, coherent and mindful one minute and wandering the house and asking for his long-dead parents the next. It is worse at sundown, when he is constantly adjusting the heater, looking for bills that have already been paid, fixating on his calendar of names and dates, and trying to take out empty trash cans at 4:00 in the morning.

Aunt Trudy was a brilliant money manager who worked for the County of Los Angeles. She supervised 80 people and had the eyes of a hawk. She travelled extensively and could carry on a conversation with anybody about just about anything. The first time Aunt Trudy met my mother, they talked for 2 hours about shared memories of living in Hollywood - landmarks, stores, churches, and the famous people they saw. This they did while eating Chinese food at a South Pasadena eatery, with me wedged between them, my eyes going back and forth in this conversational tennis match.

Bob was a supervisor at Western Electric, the company he went to work for before he was drafted in World War II. At the end of the war, they calculated his back pay, gave him a raise, and welcomed him home. He retired after 42 years, disgusted by the lack of work ethic shown by younger, newer employees.

So I think about Aunt Trudy and Bob and I wonder about their weekly phone conversations. When was the last time they had a decent, coherent conversation? Was there a particular date in which all things were normal and then they weren't? When tangled memories meet, where do they overlap? Is there comfort in that? Bob would complain to me that Trudy was "losing it" one minute but brush her lapses off as "an act to get attention" the next.

They've known each other for 87 years, the one and only constant in each other's lives. She lived her first 13 years on the planet without him and then he was there and she reveled in the fact that his little strawberry-blond head fit "right there" in the crook of her shoulder. He was a bright spot in the dreary upbringing and heavy workload expected by immigrant parents.

At which point will that constant be lost? Where do those fleeting, treasured memories go? Can they be held onto for dear life? What happens when one of them forgets? What kind of heartbreak is that?

I wonder these things. I wonder about the cruelties of dementia and the stealing of somebody's mind.

I wonder about their last conversation.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Recollections of a Childhood Friend~

When I was in the third grade I met my first-ever best friend. She was slow in coming to me but one day she arrived, standing in the door of Mrs. Fletcher's 3rd and 4th grade classroom, accompanied by the principal, a rather imposing woman by the name of Margaret MacDonald. I always swore to my mother that Mrs. MacDonald was in love with Mr. Dieter, the vice-principal, but mom wasn't convinced. "Then her name would be Mrs. Dieter," she said, discouraging my romantic fantasy about these two authority figures at Mingay Elementary School.

"I would like you to meet Debra Pats," Mrs. MacDonald said from the doorway, and my new best friend was led to a desk right next to mine. I was awestruck, to say the least.

I figured that it was MY fault Debra was there, because I had complained to Mrs. Fletcher only days before that I was the "only third grade girl" in the classroom. What power I yielded! Bill and Ruth Pack bought a house on Rose Street and answered my prayers for a best friend.

Of course, what Mrs. MacDonald really said was, "I would like you to meet Debra Pack," but I heard "Pats" and continued to believe that to be Debra's last name for quite awhile. I do believe I argued with Debra about the matter, but she took it in stride.

I had neighborhood friends, of course, but we were thrown together by proximity and the friendships of our parents. I liked them well enough, but Debra was a true friend who loved me no matter what I said or did.

Debra knew how to draw and had the most beautiful handwriting I'd ever seen. She admired mine but it was nothing compared to hers - flowy and wavy, with capital Ds that I tried to copy by the hour. She taught me to draw a horse's head, but I never quite got the body.

We became inspeparable. School ended at 2:50 and Debra and I would join hands and race home to her house to watch Dark Shadows. To say we loved that show would be an understatement. We recited plot lines, acted out entire scenes, and argued over who got to be Sarah Collins, the doomed younger sister of Barnabus, the vampire. The show started promptly at 3:00 and rushing home was critical. We devised methods for getting home faster - skipping sidewalk squares, jumping over squares adjacent to sprinklers, and whiplashing each other up Maple Street, across Jeffries, then past my street, Evergreen Street, and finally - Rose Street.

Debra and her sister Sherrie lived next door to Brian McGill. Brian was in our 4th grade class and played the guitar. We both loved him but Debra agreed to let me be the primary Brian admirer. Sherrie and Brian became addicted to the show that followed Dark Shadows, and new soap opera called One Life to Live. At first, we made fun of them but within a few weeks we were hopelessly hooked.

Early in the 4th grade, Debra had her appendix out and, not to be outdone, mine was removed a few months later. When Debra broke her arm, I was beside myself. Sheer terror kept me from hurling myself off the monkey bars, so I simply called up the Pack residence and announced that I had broken my arm.

The gig was up when I was picked up for an outing. Mr. Pack was driving and Debra and I were deposited in the backseat. Mrs. Pack turned around in her seat, faced me with a smile and said, "Now, Kim, what's this I hear about you breaking your arm?"

I gave poor Debra fits by correcting her spelling and calling her on all manner of errors. She retaliated by never mentioning my abyssmal abilities in math and always complimenting my endless attempts at creative writing.

My life was thrown into turmoil when Debra announced that her family was moving to Orange County. I was devastating and kept trying to argue her out of it. I remember when she stopped by to say goodbye. Mr. Pack overshot my house and Debra came to the door and we were at a loss for words. We promised to write.

I wish I had saved all our letters. We shared everything but a lack of transportation kept us from visiting each other over the years. We excitedly met at Disneyland for my high school's Grad Nite and had the best time. She came back with me on the bus and spent the night. My stepsister had borrowed my car the day before and left a cooler of beer in the back seat. Debra and I were awakened by my mother, screaming at me for having beer in my car.

I have always been sporadic about Christmas cards. Debra is devoted - sending new holiday newsletters each year, replete with family details and the latest research she has conducted into her family history and a nefarious missing link to the patriot Patrick Henry.

Last week I received a package in the mail. It was a signed a copy of Debra's book,
Unmarked Grave: Remembering an American Patriot. I read the book in 3 sittings. My friend's research is amazingly detailed and filled with historical antecdotes that do my history-major heart good. I grew to love these characters and was disappointed when the story ended.

Does my dear old friend know that I have been dabbling in genealogy over these many years and I also have a famous ancestor whose story I would love to tell? How could she know this? She is the one sending Christmas letters - I am the one reading the letters, intending to write back, and never making the time.

My friend wrote a book. I feel pride. I feel pangs. I need to write my own book. Luckily, I won't have to jump off monkey bars or get abdominal surgery.

Tonight I ran my finger over her name and chuckled at the mispelling of her maiden name. It should have read, "Pats."

Monday, November 29, 2010


Today, during our word work study, I dicatated the word club and the kids began sounding it out and writing it down.

Several of the young spellers wanted to know what "club" meant. I explained that clubs are groups of people who tend to like the same things, like a bicycle club, a chess club, a service club, a car club, etc.

After a few seconds, Noah looks up and calls out, "MASSAGE CLUBS?"

Accidentally Overheard in First Grade~

After lunch today, the first graders filed in and sat on the rug for one of their favorite times of the day: A read-aloud. Jenny picked up November, by Cynthia Rylant, selected because it provides closure for our Thanksgiving celebrations and sets the tone for our upcoming holiday festivities.

As Jenny reads, she models the 'text-to-self' connections between the story and her family's Thanksgiving celebration. The kids share their own connections and then Jenny carefully and quietly instructs them to open their journals and write down their connections. The kids get busy writing and everybody is on task for quite a while.

After about 20 minutes, Marcus comes up to Jenny with his closed journal. Jenny asks him if he is finished and he replies that, yes, he is done.

She asks him to read his Thanksiving writing to her and he hesitates.

"Uh, Miss Jenny?"

"Yes, Marcus," replies Jenny.

"Um. I, uh.... I uh..... Well. I ACCIDENTALLY wrote down whatever I wanted."

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Nonie's Sewing Box~

I finally bought a sewing machine. This purchase has been a long time in coming, put off by the confusing and pricey sewing machine displays at JoAnn's designed to make anybody who doesn't sew a little nervous.

What happened was this: My couch cushion needed repair. I bought some fabric and hunted around for somebody with a sewing machine to help me. Said machine owners were miles away, at work, or otherwise engaged. Discouraged, I went to Sears to buy an iron, which would allow me to repair the back of the couch with heat-activated adhesive. On my way to the iron display I saw it: A sewing machine on sale for $79.99! (My iron is missing. How does one lose an iron? I don't know. It's a mystery.)

So, I bought a sewing machine, determined to repair the couch cushion myself. It took me several hours to read the manual, thread the machine, and figure out the bobbin. (The latter still has me confused.)

Once the machine was ready, I cut the fabric for the repair and realized I needed pins. I looked in my paltry little sewing box, which is actually a re-purposed 1980s bacon storer from Tupperware. No pins! Picturing boxes of pins, I looked other places but the pins were in hiding.

Suddenly, I remembered. Nonie's sewing box has been sitting in my livingroom for several months now. If pins were to be had, they would be in Nonie's sewing box. I remember her little red pin cushion that looked like a tomato or a strawberry, and the balsa wood pin holder my father made her in Boy Scouts. Surely, they would be in the sewing box!

I opened the box and caught a whiff that I can only describe as Nonie, my grandmother who sewed like a professional and made Susan's and my clothes while we were in elementary school. They were beautiful clothes, frilly dresses, skirts, button-down shirts, and even pants. Nonie made us pajamas, pillows, bathrobes, and matching outfits.

The smell from the box was pure nostalgia. I could picture her. In the box there are needle packages from the 1950s, an array of thread, knitting needles, crochet hooks, packages of vintage snaps, and some mean-looking tools for affixing grommets. For a minute I just touched the things she touched - and remembered.

Alas, there are no pins to be had, so I used needles to hold my potential cushion seems together. They worked well and I think Nonie would have been proud.

But... I still need an iron.

Test Tube Trials~

In my ongoing attempt to be a better teacher of science, I bought two packages of test tubes from Steve Spangler Science. These sturdy little tubes are actually 2-liter soda bottles, before they are blown up by extreme heat and filled with soda.

Our first classroom experiment involved colored water and vegetable oil, an exploration of the density of liquids. The kids were most impressed by the food coloring diffusing through the measuring cup of water, I think, than the actual travel of the colored water through the vegetable oil to settle at the bottom of the test tube.

The kids dutifully took the test tubes home and explained to their families what the experiment was about. Accompanying each test tube was a hand-labeled diagram of the whole process, our attempt to be "scientific" and "document things like scientists."

About half the young scientists returned the test tubes, despite my wheedling, cajoling, and elevated nagging. We piled them in the bathroom sink at school for washing. And this is where the adventure begins.

The attempts to wash the test tubes in the sink with scented handsoap were unsuccessful. So, I piled the oily lot of them into a basket and took them home, where they sat for a couple days in my school bag. Yesterday, I dumped them all into a sink filled with hot water and dishwashing liquid, where I let them soak while I did other things.

That didn't work. The tubes remained oily and I was perplexed. I switched the tubes to the other sink with a fresh batch of really hot water and more liquid dish soap. That didn't work either.

After a couple hours of unsuccessful soaking, I decided to add some bleach. Clorox is the mainstay of my deep housecleaning. If bleach can't clean out that oil, I figured, nothing can!

Well, I am here to tell you that trusty Clorox did not do the trick. The test tubes remained oily and my kitchen smelled toxic. After rinsing out the now-sparkling sink and still-oily test tubes, I began pondering what I always use to clean icky messes. The answer came in a flash: Cleanser.

"Cleanser won't work," Dan said, when he saw me sprinkling the sink full of test tubes. I added water, ignored Dan, and waited for the cleanser to de-grease these obnoxious test tubes. I dutifully waited a couple of hours, allowing the trusty cleanser to do its dirty work.

The cleanser was a huge disappointment. Not only did the test tubes remain oily, they were now covered with a film of oily cleanser. Big ick factor here!

Dan is a huge fan of Pine Sol. He suggested I try soaking the tubes in his favorite floor cleaner and see if the "fresh pine scent" would do the trick. Pine Sol always reminds me of public restrooms, but I agreed to try. Not only did it NOT work, it didn't work overnight, and my whole kitchen smelled like a public restroom.

I asked Dan to pick up some dishwashing soap that cuts grease, like Dawn. He came back with Simple Green, which made no sense until he explained that it was the only cleaner he could find that actually promises to cut grease.

Simple Green's label lies. I scrubbed out each tube with a toothbrush to tackle the patina of cleanser and then gave up. The offending scientific tools sit in my dish drainer, oily as ever.

Our next scientific adventure will entail dry ingredients only.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Hebrew School~

This is a bonafide transcript of a conversation I had early one spring morning, before my first cup of coffee.

Me: "So, Juliet, how was Hebrew school?

Juliet: "Fine."

Me: "How did you do?"

Juliet: "Fine."

Emily: "How did I do?"

Me: "When, Emily?"

Emily: "At Hebrew school."

Me: "How did you do at Hebrew school, Emily?"

Emily: "I don't go to Hebrew school."

All Tied Up ^~^

Walking up the stairs from lunch one spring day, Jenny notices that one of our first graders is missing. She asks the boys at the end of the line, "Where is Azariah?"

Dylan: "He's tied."

Jenny: "Tied?"

Nathan: "Tied up."

Jenny and I exchange glances.

Dylan: "It's okay. He likes it."

Writerly Wregret and the Lizard Story~

I have been remiss this school year in keeping up with my blog. It isn't that I haven't been writing, but most of my commentary, reflections, and anecdotes have been sent via eMail or posted on Facebook. This has left my blog a bit bereft.

It is a sad thing to lose those precious "writerly moments" that provide the grist for my writerly mill. My task today, at various times, will be to dig these things up and report them here, where they really belong. Otherwise they get lost.

I am reminded of the Lizard Story. It took place back in 2003, with my first T-1 (transitional first grade) class at Wilsona School. We were walking to lunch and passed by a stretch of overgrown bushes that provided shelter for a variety of critters, including an extremely fat lizard.

My students looked forward to the possibility of finding this lizard each time we filed past, on our way to somewhere else. Occasionally, they were rewarded, but usually, the lizard remained incognito.

On this day of the Lizard Story, the lizard was in the shade, under the bush, and very still. The kids located him and some very funny exchanges ensued. I know they were funny because I raced back to class and immediately and wrote the story down in the form of an eMail that I sent out to everybody I could think of at the time. This meant less time for lunch, but a great story is a great story.

My friends and family howled at the Lizard Story. I received many accolades, including a message from my father advising me to keep track of these stories. I took his advice - but too late for the Lizard Story.

My friend Ann reminded me of the Lizard Story after I began my blog. She said it was hysterical and that I simply MUST include it. She, however, didn't save it. She meant to - but she didn't. One of my favorite professors said she saved all my messages in a folder, but for some reason she couldn't locate the Lizard Story either.

I remember asking my dad by eMail and he replied that yes, he recalled the story. He even chuckled. But, he didn't save it and he couldn't recall exactly which kid said what and when with regard to this lizard. He could only recall that the story was very funny. The timing, he said, was impeccable.

There are two fat lizards that live in my backyard right now, tormenting Eadie at every opportunity. They flip her the bird and scurry up the wall, out of her reach, and then just... sit there. When I see them, I get annoyed about my lost Lizard Story all over again.

So there was this lizard under the bush and the kids looked forward to finding it each time they walked past the bush. I remember that Justin wanted to catch the lizard but the other kids were against it. Somebody said something and somebody else said something else and half the kids were flat on their bellies on the cement when they were supposed to be filing into the cafeteria for lunch.

It's kind of like retelling a joke and messing up the punchline.