Biting the Apple

Though I can use PCs, I really prefer Apples.  And I’ve almost always been happy inhabiting the alternate universe.

Not today.  Not right now.  There is trouble in paradise, and it all began a couple of days ago when I upgraded to the new OS, Mavericks– free for the first time ever.

Yesterday my iMac (circa 2006) started acting a bit strange– I had been working and took a break.  When I came back, expecting to immediately awaken the computer from sleep mode and begin again, I heard the sound that you hear when a keyboard key is being held while some other action is going on — a kind of bop bop bop sound.  I thought that was strange, and couldn’t get it to stop.  I simply restarted the computer, or at least tried to.  The screen flashed a couple of times.  Then I turned the power off, let it sit for a couple of minutes, and restarted.  It did.  But after a while, something else started acting up (I no longer remember what), so I simply turned it off.  

Tonight when I tried to restart it, I heard the start-up sound but only got a blue-gray screen.  Several attempts later, and no luck, I turned to my laptop and went to the Apple page.  That I was able to find something immediately upon typing “gray screen at booting up after upgrading to Mavericks” told me I clearly wasn’t the first to have this problem.

I tried a safe startup — turning it off, then on, and immediately upon hearing the “restarting” sound, I held down the shift key.  Nothing.

So I then tried to start using an install CD.  No luck.  Only now the CD won’t eject.  Common sense stopped me from following through with my first instinct — to hit the computer with a heavy object like a baseball bat.  I resisted, fortunately.

Wanting to blog (there’s a 30-day blog-every-day-challenge, sort of like the write-every-day-on-your-novel challenge), I turned to my laptop.  Thinking to check my email, I discovered that today I cannot get my email on the laptop.  It can’t connect with iCloud.  This is a new problem.  Yes, you guessed it — it started after I upgraded to Mavericks, the new OS.  

Rather than go into my usual mode at such problems — becoming obsessed with the problem and working at it until either a) I solve the problem or b) am exhausted after hours of no luck — I logged on to WordPress to blog.  Of course, that I had forgotten my password and needed to change it was the reason I’d tried to check my email for the link to reset the password.  Since I couldn’t do that with the laptop, I used my iPhone, got the mail, followed the link, and changed the password.  Once that was done, I could log on and begin.

Whatever topic I’d originally thought about writing on tonight about travel (my usual Friday focus) had flown out of my head in the meantime.  

Thus this rant for Day One of the blogging challenge.

Now that I think about it, though, this rant is about another kind of travel — into cyberspace and back, through a path of frustration.

Luckily, I have the desktop backed up — if that worked correctly.

I’ve been in my office chair attempting to work for an hour now.  

And just now there’s a message on my screen in the right-hand corner: ” What’s New in OS X Mavericks.  Take a tour now, or view it later from the Finder Help menu.”  

Somehow this wasn’t the kind of tour or travel I had in mind when I sat down an hour ago.

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Spooky Thursday Halloween

Another end of October, another Halloween.  Given our weather today, that seems appropriate.  Gray drizzly skies at best, with spates of lightening, thunder, and rain.  Oh, and add that we’ve been under tornado watch on and off, and that makes today perfect for Halloween.

Not that I’ve decorated or have any candy to give out.  No, I leave my porch light off now on Halloween — and even if it were on, there are few if any trick-or-treaters around.  Now it’s more common for cities to designate a particular day for trick-or-treating, and also for neighborhoods to have very localized house-to-house routes.  

After all, it’s become too dangerous over the years, what with needles in apples and candy, poisons and other chemicals laced into candies, and the like. 

Years ago I used to decorate and have candies and goodies ready — but for my friends’ children.  Those children are all grown up now, and as that happened, I got out of the Halloween practice.

But what a difference from the carefree, safe days of the 1950s and 60s in Egan.  For weeks and days ahead, we planned what to wear — homemade costumes or inexpensive purchased costumes.  

Another ritual involved figuring out what to give out to trick-or-treaters who knocked at our door. (And that was, of course, part of the excitement — never knowing exactly what goodies you’d end up with).  At our house, Mother would always have small brown paper bags already put together, with assorted miniature candies inside each.  Other mothers also prepared their treats; some were even homemade.  Anticipating Aunt Margaret’s luscious popcorn balls for days, I always saved those for last to eat.  I wanted to savor them.  Those almost-pure-sugar, filled with who knows what kinds of dyes, treats, formed into various shapes? Yummy.  Sometimes chocolate candies, often miniatures.  M&Ms.  Double-Bubble gum.  Sweet and sour candies.  

And don’t forget toys.  Often some houses had goodies other than candies.  

Our rounds of trick-or-treating usually followed the same format.  First, we’d simply go from house to house in the Sun Oil camp.  With nine houses, we’d finish up our first take and then bundle up in cars.  Our mothers would drive us to friends’ houses elsewhere around the area.  Sometimes, they’d drop us off and then pick us up several houses later.  I still remember the rush of holding out my pillow case at one house with my friend Charles and my brother and sister holding out theirs, then running off– giggling and stumbling — to the next house.  And the next.  

By the time our mothers called time, we usually had our pillowcase bags filled.  

Back at home, we’d sit in the living room floor far enough apart to dump out our pillowcases, sorting the take of the evening into piles so that we knew what we had.   Usually then some trading followed.  Then we started eating.

That could go on for days.  Not only did we have our own bags of loot, but also the leftovers from what Dad hadn’t given out.

Sugar rushes and crashes followed with abandonment.

Ah — that’s the word I’ve been searching for:  abandonment.  That’s the perfect word to describe how it felt each Halloween night, costumed and free to roam — without any fear.  We had no inking that by the 70s it would be necessary to x-ray candy (hospitals often offered this free of charge) because of pins or needles or other objects inserted into candy.  Homemade candy was on the way out as a choice simply because it was too easy to mix toxic materials into batters.  By then, children were allowed to keep homemade food items and candies only if the parents knew the people who gave those things out.

In graduate school, we had our own adult Halloween parties requiring costumes.  I remember one that required us to dress as our secret desires.  The last several parties I attended involved putting together costumes. 

In the 80s, I went in a white pants suit with a flamboyant shirt, had Monopoly money sticking out of my pockets that I could give away — I went as Edwin Edwards, the popular Louisiana governor who was subsequently sentenced to a prison term for felonies involving gambling and money.  Released for a few years, he can now be seen on a new reality television show, “The Governor’s Wife,” with his third wife, her teenage sons and his 60ish daughters as they squabble about all sorts of things, involving the newlyweds’ efforts to conceive using his frozen sperm.  Still a colorful figure, obviously.

Another costume that I used a few times was one I made — long plain blue dress, white apron and headdress, along with roller skates:  depending upon my mood, I was a) The Blue Nun, b) Our Lady of Perpetual Motion, or c) The Holy Roller.  Believe it or not — and many of my friends who know how clumsy I am will find this nearly impossible to believe — I never fell off the skates!  (Though I may well have simply removed them at times knowing the danger.)

At one party where I wore that costume, friends wore cleverly planned costumes.  One couple came as Princess Grace (with a steering wheel around her neck) and a mourning Frenchman.  Another came as a stock market crash — think of bandaids and wounds.  Someone was a monk — we had fun posing together.  My friend Tom Fox put on his old Army uniform and came as General Macarthur.  Tom was good at ideas for costumes — at the party where I wore the Edwin Edwards costume, he dressed up as Indiana Jones, complete with hat –and because he was tall and lanky, he even resembled the film character.

The last costume I made was for a Halloween party immediately following Hurricane Rita.  I cut up a blue tarp, made a poncho, and went as a blue roof.  I didn’t win for best costume.  I think maybe my friend Derek did; he went as a hurricane.  (Imagine a hardhat with a small circular hood attached, onto which a shower curtain was hooked.  Inside, Derek held a water pistol.  Yep.  Hurricane.  That same party, I think, offered a Trailer Trash Barbie, a guy in a short nun habit (with fishnet stockings), and many other inventive costumes.

One couple I know doesn’t like dressing up.  Their offering (and one I like to adopt):  Trick or Drink.  Think about it.  It’s fun.

Tonight, though the weather has improved, I guess some kids will go from door to door in their neighborhoods in costume, raking in whatever is waiting for them.

I may drop over at my friend Carolyn’s house.  She always dresses up to give out her candy.  Though I have joined her in costume at times, I don’t think I’ll dress up tonight.  

I’ll just yell “Trick or Drink” and wait for my reward.

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Brotherly Love

It’s been a weird week.  Last week, after I posted on Monday, I was busy with meeting friends, having appointments, and just hanging around the house.  By Friday, I was feeling a bit under the weather, though still looking forward to Saturday and Sunday, when I had things planned.  Oh, how wrong I was to plan.  

Saturday I woke up with a really sore throat and a fever; by Saturday noon I was sure that I wouldn’t make it to the wine and food event a few hours later.  I left the ticket in an envelope on my front door for a friend, then went back to bed.  By Sunday I was still feeling lousy, and canceled going to a concert in Lafayette with my sister and a friend.  

Today, I canceled an out-of-town appointment and slept in.  I got out for a few hours but won’t try any out-of-town appointments until next week.  I will get out of the house, but won’t do much of anything that’s strenuous.

Instead, as I slept (and I slept a lot over the last couple of days), I’ve dreamed of my brother.  I’m not sure why, but maybe it’s because I’m having the house painted, and the painter and his helper are having to re-nail the very nice and expensive siding that I had put on by a contractor, whose team apparently didn’t do a great job.

My brother Phil and I had a combative relationship, at least on one level.  We were pretty much complete opposites.  Yes, others sometimes thought we were fighting — and sometimes we were – but sometimes it was just the way we played with each other.  Disagreement was often the beginning of our discussions.

I was born in 1951; he was born in 1956.  When we were little, I was his big sister, “Cheryl Lynn,” and he was my little shy brother. He overcame the shyness.  And he grew up.  At some point, he decided, he knew better than I did — about almost anything.  He’d try to tell me what to do, or what not to do.  I’d resist, at times quite forcefully.  He was much more traditional than I in most ways.  

Yet that humor was always there.  When he was an undergraduate and I was in graduate school, he’d sneak up behind me and sing Randy Newman’s “Short People”:  “Short people got . . . no reason to live.  

       They got little hands
Little eyes
They walk around
Tellin’ great big lies
They got little noses
And tiny little teeth
They wear platform shoes
On their nasty little feet.”

He’d especially make references to my little hands, little feet, tiny little teeth.  

I’d usually respond in kind, calling him “Big Boy.”  He was maybe 5′ 9 1/2″ — not exactly tall.  

Then we’d just grin at each other.

People didn’t always get our particular brand of humor.

Even when he was in M.D. Anderson the last months he was alive, his humor never really disappeared completely.  Once when our cousin Jim came to visit, Phil brought up the time when Jim and his sister Barbara and I tricked Phil and Kay into going into a dark bedroom at the farm.  Phil was maybe 5; Kay was 3 1/2 or so.  Maybe they were a bit older.  The bedroom was haunted, we’d convinced them, by the ghost of our great-great Uncle Nim.  We got them into the room, which was dark, and then held the door closed.  Phil and Kay were frightened and cried.  We laughed.  Even in the hospital, Phil grinned about this — and blamed me.   The family joke — it was in fact not my idea at all, but Jim’s.  Yet Phil always loved to blame me.  And I always loved to claim my innocence.  

A couple of years earlier, Phil was in Oescher’s Hospital in New Orleans.  When he was out of surgery to have a brain tumor removed, and opened his eyes in recovery, the first thing he said and did?  He looked around at us, looked at me, raised his fist, and grinned as he said, “Just a little closer, just a bit,” shaking his fist.  I grinned back and taunted him “You can’t catch me.”  The nurse was a bit alarmed, looked at Dad, and before she could question him, he looked at her and reassured her, “They’re like that.  He’s fine.”  It was funny, and a relief to know that Phil was still himself.  

We often disagreed about so much.  When he helped me move into my house, he wanted to place furniture where he thought it should go, rather than where I wanted it to go.  A friend was helping, and he just looked at Dad and asked “Are they always like this?”  Dad just shook his head, laughed, and said “Yes.”  

Politics?  Oh, that was an easy conversation disagreement.  Sometimes, I think, he’d just bring something up to push my buttons and watch me explode.  Over the years, I learned simply to avoid topics that we were never going to even be able to talk about.

He’d lecture me about things.  Once when we were talking on the phone, he simply asked me what I spent a month.  I told him.  He started fussing that I needed to save more.  I shut him up — that monthly amount, I informed him, was after X amount went into the state teacher’s retirement system and another X amount went into my 403B account every month.  “Oh.” That was his last response.  He stopped fussing.  

Though I was older, he always tried to advise me, to look out for me, to be the protective big brother.  And his opinions were primary, of course.  

He was a meticulous, neat person — and any work he did reflected that.  Now that I think about it, maybe dreaming about Phil is connected to the renovations in the kitchen and to the painting job.  Phil ripped out the lower cabinets in my kitchen, built new ones, and installed them, along with a countertop and sink.  I’m not removing them, just repainting the cabinets.  Eventually, though, I will replace the countertops and the sink.  

Whatever I choose to do, I know he’d have a definite opinion.  This afternoon as I was shopping for supplies at a hardware store, I could hear him in my head, asking me if I’d forgotten anything.  Or was I sure I needed that kind of nail — or another.  

That my siding was a problem would only mean that he could remind me that I’d made a mistake.  

Of course, if he were still around, I’d have someone else to get advice from.

Not that I’d necessarily follow it, of course.  But I’d ask for it.

In reality, I know, my practicality isn’t far off from his, though perhaps less knowledgeable.  I never did some of the hands-on work that he did; he was (like Dad) reluctant to let me near power tools.  On the other hand, I do know a lot more than Phil often gave me credit for (or wanted to) simply because I listened a lot to him and to Dad.  And I watch a lot of HGTV.  

My inner adviser thus continues to make me think — and rethink– my choices.  Maybe that’s not a bad thing, though.  And it’s actually kind of weirdly comforting, too.

In the end, I guess my dreams these last few days have just been a way of working through the questions I have about the work going on.  

I’m not sure he’d make all the choices I’m making, but I hope that he’d approve.  

Either way, I’m sure we’d have a lot of fun disagreeing about it all.

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Monday Memories of a Kitchen Table

I spent the weekend in Egan, and while I was there, I went through a lot of old photos.  One of the ones I found just had to come home with me.  It’s a photograph of my mother, her mother, and her sister.

What’s so wonderful about it?  Well, they’re all together, and smiling, and it’s at my grandmother’s house in Beaumont.  So much about this photograph is so familiar.

The table always sat just where it is, underneath the air conditioner and by the door to the garage.  It was the heart of the kitchen, where we always sat.  There was a larger table (my mother and dad’s formal dining room table) in the left of the kitchen, where it’s not visible in this photograph.  We didn’t use it much, though — only for really large family gatherings.  I do have a photograph somewhere of one of these dinners — with my great-grandparents and others.  

This table, though, was the everyday one.  It was very 1950s.  I think it had an extension leaf, but don’t remember if we ever really used it.  I sat there as a child and as an adult.  My first teaching job was in Beaumont, at Lamar University, from 1975-1978, and I spent a lot of time then at that table.  I’d drop over a lot; I didn’t live too far from her.  

But in this photo, there are only the three women, a mother and her two daughters.  Here are the women who were the family.  

Image

My mother, Irene, is one on the left.  She’s tanned — and like her, I tan easily.  My sister Kay doesn’t.  Mother’s smiling — and that smile is not the fake “take my picture” kind, but the real one.  She’s about to laugh, I think.  When she was growing up, Mother was a tomboy; her nickname was “Butch.”  She loved baseball and basketball.

Her sister, my Aunt Dottie, is on the right.  She’s also smiling and happy, which is good to see.  Aunt Dottie lived in Georgia for years, and even after moving back to Texas that Georgia accent emerged at times.  My aunt was not a tomboy — she was very feminine.  

And in the middle is my grandmother, Ella, their mother.  Ella had auburn hair, but by the time of this photo the actual color tended to vary from month to month.  I always loved the rather dramatic silver streak she left.  This woman liked style, and she had style.  This is the face of a woman at ease with herself, and with the world.  She’s confident and in control.  Here she’s probably in her late 60s.  Yet her skin is soft and not lined.  She always took great care to remove her makeup every night, to use night cream to keep her face soft.  She needed glasses, but she wore contact lenses before I did — she had a set of blue ones and a set of green ones.  She liked to change it up, she said — and her eyes were always strikingly blue (or greenish blue).  With that red hair, those eyes were amazing.  And she knew it!

There’s a diet Dr. Pepper on the table, and ashtrays.  All of them were smokers.  Most of the grandchildren weren’t and aren’t, probably as a result.  Part of my memory of Ella’s house, though, is tied to her smoking — and to her face powder.  Even now I can close my eyes and that blend of sharp cigarette smoke and sweet powder is still there.

This is probably an accidental pose, but revealing nevertheless.  Ella, you see, was the central figure, and not just because she was their mother.  Mom, as I called Ella, had both girls by the time she was 18 — and she was on her own by then.  For a short while, she lived with her parents, but remarried by the time the girls were 2 and 4, and then was on her own again by the time they started school.  Basically, Mom was a single mother long before that was common.  She remarried in 1941, when Mother was in middle school and Dottie was in high school.

What doesn’t show is the fragility that lies behind my mother’s face, and my Aunt Dottie’s face.  Both suffered depression and anxiety among other problems, and growing up with that meant that their daughters had to learn to cope with those issues.  It’s a bond that isn’t visible here, but a strong one that still exists.  Mother and Dottie were close, all of their lives.  My cousin Carolyn is, I tell her and everyone, my “big sister.”  Carolyn lived with us the summer after my sister Kay was born, when Mother was very ill.  When we were in Beaumont, I spent time not only at Mom’s but also with Aunt Dottie and her family, and with my dad’s brother, Uncle James, and his family, who also lived in Beaumont.  

To care for her daughters, Ella worked hard.  She was a waitress in a cafe, and worked her way up to manager.  While she was managing the cafe, she was once robbed by Bonnie and Clyde — it was at night, as the cafe had closed.  When the much-glamorized movie “Bonnie and Clyde” came out in the 1960s (with Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway), she told me about it — she’d never been so scared, she said.  And they weren’t pretty, as the movie portrayed them.  Plus they were dirty, she said, wrinkling her nose.

For several years, she ran a boarding house on Pine Street in Beaumont.  The house had a turret, and a winding staircase with a bannister.  Mother used to tell me about sliding down the bannister, and I always thought that sounded neat.  The house was a historic home, built in the 19th century.  Somewhere I still have a Beaumont Enterprise story about the house; Mom gave that to me in a scrapbook of other things she’d saved.  Somehow I guess that she deemed me a family historian. That house is now an attorney’s office, but I’ve never been inside it.

Even after she married Poppa in 1941, she kept working.  During WWII, Mom worked in one of the plants in the area, though I don’t remember which one.  She drove a forklift and other heavy equipment.  One of the news photos and stories in that scrapbook is from WWII — and shows her in a story about food rationing and meatless meals.  

That’s pretty significant, at least for me.  In the 1950s, when she and Poppa moved back to Beaumont after a stint in New Jersey, Mom went to work at Fehl Elementary School, as the cafeteria manager.  She was efficient and clever, and her cafeteria food was really good.  I know.  I used to eat there!  We used the same recipes at her house a lot.

Mom worked, and saved.  She enjoyed dressing up.  She loved getting her hair done.  And she loved to dance and sing.  

That kitchen saw a lot of laughter while we watched Ella cook.  Even though you can’t see it, there’s a corner sink that I remember washing dishes in, and the refrigerator that was there still works — it’s at the Ware farm in San Augustine.  

The women here were close — and both of Ella’s daughters were dependent on her.  She was the dominant figure, always.  And when I was growing up, she could push my buttons quickly.  I think in many ways I’m a lot like her.  So many times, I’d be doing something and Mom would take over — “I can do this better/faster.”  She was used to doing it all.  I pushed back.  I wanted to do it for myself.  But she also taught me to dance, to embroider, to cook a lot of things.  She loved to read.  She loved to travel. She took Kay and me to Europe in 1974 after Poppa died and when I was going to attend summer school in England for six weeks.  

During WWII, my Aunt Dottie’s husband was in the service, so Aunt Dottie and my cousin Carolyn lived with Mom, Poppa, and Mother.  Carolyn’s earliest memories are of a different house, not the one with this kitchen.  I remember that first house too, but my memories are much vaguer than Carolyn’s.  It was a duplex, near Railroad Avenue.  That was the house where Mother and Dad had their wedding reception.

This is in many ways an ordinary photograph.  No special occasion.  No particular event.  Just family getting together.

That’s what is so extraordinary, though.  The happiness on these three faces makes me smile, and the photograph makes me tear up as well.  

My sister and I found this picture and just smiled.

And I’m still smiling.

It’s a wonderful image to have tonight.  Mother and Mom and Dottie, all happy, all smiling, leaning in and on each other.  A unit, safe and happy together.

 

 

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Rice Festival Friday

 

Today I did something I haven’t done in years: I went into Crowley for the first day of the International Rice Festival. Ever since we moved to Egan in January 1957, the Rice Festival has been part of my life. From 1957-1969, while I was in school, I was either in the festival or attending it — and usually both.

The festival was first held in October 1937 and named the National Rice Festival. During WWII, the festival was on hiatus. It was resumed in 1946 and renamed the International Rice Festival. It’s the oldest agricultural festival in Louisiana and is also one of the largest festivals in the state.

Traditionally, there are two parades – – the Children’s Parade on Friday and the main parade on Saturday. From the courthouse to the railroad tracks, all down Parkerson Avenue, food booths line the boulevard’s traffic median. At the end of Parkerson, by the railroad tracks, you’ll find the rides that are key to any festival. The food booths are always busy.

On the courthouse grounds, at the beginning of the downtown area, the main stage is always constructed. It looks a bit different now, but I remember so many years of stages built right there.

These booths looked quite different though, from the ones from years ago. Then most of the booths offered similar foods — funnel cakes, barbeque hamburgers (always using Jack Miller Barbeque Sauce), corn dogs, hot dogs, sausage, chicken, and so on. Today, though, I noticed greater variety. The booths offered Greek food, shrimp and crawfish dishes, gumbo, corndogs, and lots of the usual. Beer booths, margarita and other drinks — in addition to soft drinks and lemonade — also appear pretty frequently. Cotton candy, of course, is also around. No festival is right without it.

When I was a kid, the festival was always on Thursday and Friday, and we got out of school for both days (at least in Acadia Parish). I don’t remember when the festival shifted to the Friday-Saturday schedule that is usual now.

The Friday parade always includes the little princesses and queen (as in the past) and now also the little princes and king. Every elementary school in the parish chooses a little princess and prince to compete in the running for each year’s Queen and King. In my day, though, only the little girls got to dress up. And I do mean dress up!

Each elementary school also has a float of some type. I thought the parade seemed shorter than in my childhood — I remember more than one class at Egan Elementary either riding on a float or walking, but today, I think I saw only one float per school. I’m not sure that all the schools were represented, but a lot were. There were also floats and walking groups from church groups and other organizations.

And marching bands, of course. Always. I’m partial, I admit, but I truly think that Iota High School’s marching band was one of the best, if not the best, in both playing ability and marching ability. Some of the bands, I’m sad to say, didn’t seem to coordinate walking and playing too well.

I didn’t stay as long as I used to do. It took me a while to find a parking place — and then I paid $5 for a place. If I’d gone early I might have found a place, but I wasn’t ready to go that early. I parked and walked two blocks to the courthouse, then walked up and down the downtown boulevard. People come prepared here — lots of people bring lawn chairs and foldup chairs, ready to settle in and be comfortable. If they could do that and manage to find shade, they were lucky. Most were in the full sun. And it was not a cool day today at all.

Dress looked pretty normal — jeans and casual clothing. I remember that when I was in high school, if you had a date for the festival, you always wore matching shirts. That fad clearly has faded.

Today was fun. As I walked, I remembered my first Rice Festival in 1957. I have very strong memories of it. Why, you ask? Because that year, I was in first grade and was the Egan Elementary princess. That means that I got to wear a very fancy dress. Very. Fancy. And very big. Big. Some Regan cousins made the dress, which required a wired hoop slip underneath. I remember dressing in the courthouse in some room — and I remember that the room was very hot.

Somewhere in my family’s black and white photos are photographs of me in that dress — and of one moment in particular.

The dress was so wide that I couldn’t walk up the steps to the main stage at the courthouse. A state trooper had to lift me up and carry me up the stairs, holding me above the handrails. My teacher and some other people managed to capture that moment, which would be fine, except that my hoop skirt and underskirt both belled up, revealing my lace-edged panties. Yep. Great moment, folks.

The other major memory: I got to ride in a convertible. My first convertible ride — I was sitting on the back of back seat, my huge skirt spread out. I even made the evening news in some clips of the parade. I was more excited about the convertible than about being all dressed up.

How dressed up, you might ask? Just what did that dress look like? Here’s the formal portrait my mother had made:

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I didn’t win — but had lots of fun.

From the 8th grade through 12th grade, I was in the Pep Squad, and we always marched in the Saturday parade. This meant that I had to bring clothes to change into — and I have no memory of where I changed, either. In senior year, I was in the honor guard, so that meant that I had to wear the leather belt into which a flag (either the Louisiana state flag or the American flag) rested.

The Saturday parade is always much more elaborate. There are lots of bands, lots of big, elaborate floats, and many convertibles. If there are any celebrities or politicians involved, they’ll be in the Saturday parade. This is when all of the visiting queens from other state festivals also participate, in addition to the young women who competed to be the Rice Festival Queen. These queens wear elaborate tiaras and dresses, with banners announcing the festival that each represents.

One of my clearest memories of a politician: when Jack and Jackie Kennedy rode in the parade. Kennedy was running for President, and a local family, the Reggies, were not only family friends of theirs but also central in Kennedy’s organization in Louisiana. The ties between the two families remained tight, and years later one of the Reggie daughters married Teddy Kennedy. On of the Reggie sons, a professional photographer, was the photographer at Caroline Kennedy’s wedding, and maybe others.

I remember thinking that Jackie was one of the most beautiful women I’d ever seen.

The parades and food booths and rides are key to the festival, but there’s always more. Remember that this is the International Rice Festival. There are always cooking competitions in numerous categories and age brackets. All dishes must involve rice, of course. Somewhere in my memorabilia, I think, are the ribbons I won for some of my entries a couple of times. Usually, though, these were for honorable mention, not for the big winners.

There’s always music too — live music at different points of the festival over the two days and three nights.

The choice of October (now set at the third week in October) was because that’s when rice was and is traditionally harvested.

Today was a nice reminder of my years of Rice Festival Fun.

I might go back tomorrow for a while.

Oh, and I still have the dress.

 

 

 

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Losing Things — An Art I’ve Mastered

I can’t blame it on getting older.  I’ve done it all my life.  I mean, I lose things.

You know how it goes.  Just when you need your keys, they’re not where you just know you left them.  Frantic searching ensues. Sometimes you find them immediately; other times you look on and off for a while, almost (and maybe sometimes actually) resorting to using the backup set of keys (if you can find them).

I promise myself I’ll always put the keys in a bowl on the bookcase just by the door, if I don’t leave them in the door itself and lock the deadbolt from the inside.  Of course, at times I come inside with a full armload of things, bump the door closed, and set the keys down somewhere else and forget about it until I need them and . . . they’re gone!  Lost!

Sometimes it’s my cell phone.  More times than I can count, I’ve had to use my landline to call the cell phone so that I can locate it.  I’ll even take the landline outside to the car, hoping to hear the cell phone ring.  That usually works.  If I’m out somewhere, though, that won’t work and I have to find a friend to call it.  Week before last this happened when I was out shopping at Hobby Lobby.  I went to the car, put my things in, and got in the car.  I drove off, and at a stop sign looked for my phone — not in the purse.  Not in the passenger’s seat.  Nowhere that I could see.  I drove back to the store, went inside, and no one had found it.  I went back to the car and looked again.  No luck.  Back into the store, where a kind stranger tried to call it.  No luck.  Only then did I realize that I could use the Find My Phone feature on my iPad mini — and a few minutes later found my phone.  It was, in fact, in the car after all.  Just hiding in a weird place, where I guess I’d tipped it when I was putting my shopping bag into the seat.

The most troubling thing that I’m missing now, though, is my Social Security card, which is in (I think) a white leather zip-around wallet.  That is, needless to say, also missing.  I realized this loss after the government shutdown.  Can’t get a replacement card until that’s over.  With my luck, I’ll find it as soon as I get a replacement card.  Unless I left it at the Egan house, which I don’t remember doing.  Not that that means anything — it could be there, right on my dresser in my bedroom there.  I’ll check when I head there in a couple of days.

Elizabeth Bishop has a wonderful poem about losing things — “One Art,”  a lovely villanelle.  She says:

“The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster,

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.”

I’ve certainly mastered it, that’s clear.  Though I’ve not yet reached the immediate acceptance stage without fluster, even though I do lose things often enough if not daily.

She continues, advising us:

“Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.”

No, not disaster.  Not yet, anyway.  There was one near-disaster, fortunately avoided the time that I realized I’d forgotten my passport as I was leaving for Greece once (along with the tickets) — but only 10 minutes out of town, so I was able to return home without much time lost, pick up the ticket and passport (sitting right on the table where I’d left them, meaning to put them in my purse), get back on the road, and make my flight in Houston.

Bishop next tells of escalating losses —

“I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.”

Obviously Bishop’s moving into exaggeration here, once she moves beyond the possible (losing her mother’s watch) to the less likely losses — a house, two cities, realms, two rivers, and a continent.  At this point when I read the poem, I always smile as she ratchets up the losses into grander and less likely losses.  Ah, you might think that this is a comic poem, but that’s when Bishop yanks you back to reality and a darker kind of loss:

“- Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.”

The last stanza grounds us in reality, in the darker reality of loss, of a person.  Whether the loss results from a lover’s departure or from a broken friendship or from death of a loved one, these lines quickly remind us how easy it is to master such loss.  Not in the sense of being able to shrug it off — it’s simply “not too hard to master,” in fact rather easy.  No, not hard at all, “though it may look (Write it!) like disaster.”

This past summer in a poetry workshop, we were working on the villanelle form for a couple of days, and Bishop’s fine poem is one of the most common examples of how a villanelle works — and one of the most intimidating, because she makes it look so easy.  That’s really difficult to pull off when you have to figure out the whole form and make it sound so natural.  Elizabeth Bishop’s poem is, with Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” perfect as a model for how the villanelle is meant to work, both technically and poetically.

Villanelles don’t have any set meter or line length, but have 19 lines, in six stanzas –five tercets (three-line stanzas) and a quatrain (four-line stanza).  Villanelles also use two lines and repeats two lines throughout the poem. The first line of the first stanza is repeated as the last line of the second and fourth stanzas; the last line of the first stanza is repeated as the last line of the third and fifth stanzas.  Both lines appear in the last stanza.  Poets.org says this about the rhyme pattern, “Using capitals for the refrains and lowercase letters for the rhymes, the form could be expressed as: A1 b A2 / a b A1 / a b A2 / a b A1 / a b A2 / a b A1 A2. ”

 Because of the repetitions that structure them, villanelles lend themselves to topics that have some kind of repetitive thought or action.  Some writers see the villanelle as having a sort of three-part movement, where the position of the repeated lines (in context of the other, non-repeating lines) can build in intensity, shift meaning, and move the poem into a kind of debate of sorts.  It’s easy to see how the villanelle could become a rather obsessive working through of a topic, an idea, a question.  Villanelle don’t have to be dark and serious; some are more light-hearted.
But Bishop’s “One Art,” for me,  is a perfect blend of light and dark.  It begins with the light-hearted losses we all know immediately — and laugh about.  It even invites a kind of complacency about the light-heartedness when it moves into losing things like cities or continents.   The last stanza, though, takes us unexpectedly into the darker losses.  The power of that last stanza resonates so strongly precisely because it is such an unexpected turn.
And for me right now, it highlights the nature of loss.  Just as I’ve recently lost things like keys and mobile phone (a pretty ordinary, common kind of loss that isn’t a disaster), and my Social Security card (which isn’t a disaster either), I’ve also been reminded of the darker kind of loss, to death, as I was when I attended the family reunion last weekend.
Losses repeat throughout our lives.   A lot are casual and unimportant, though annoying.  Some , though, are profound, and just as the villanelle requires refrains and repetitions, such loss has similar requirements.  The griefs we experience through broken relationships or through the finality of death repeat throughout our lives, coming back at unexpected times and unexpected contexts, reminding us that grief doesn’t work in linear fashion at all.  It will return; it will repeat.  But, if we’re fortunate, we do not obsess over the loss, but learn to anticipate it, and if we can do so, that recognition enables us to work through the refrain and return from it, shortening and perhaps softening the time period and the effect.
We learn to live with loss, each in our different way.
Luckily, right now I can live without my Social Security card.  I’m told (by the Social Security office) that my passport will suffice next Tuesday when I have an appointment to apply for Social Security benefits– I don’t need my card or my birth certificate.
And that’s a good thing.  I haven’t lost my birth certificate.  It’s in the safety deposit box in the Crowley bank that Mother and Dad used, and that I now use.  But just where oh where is the key to the safety deposit box?  I thought I had it only two or three days ago and put it somewhere safe, where I’d find it.
Right.  Here I go again.
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Juggling It All Without Crashing: Retirement Realities

I had this idea that when I retired, suddenly my life would be balanced and I wouldn’t feel as though I were juggling everything and struggling not to drop anything or manage to hit myself on the head with something.

Oh, how wrong I was!  

Certainly, my life is less complicated now.  Certainly I have no more classrooms, no more teaching, no more grading and paperwork.  I do miss teaching — the interaction with students, and being part of their learning to love literature and even writing. I miss seeing my colleagues almost daily, though that happened lots less once Kaufman Hall closed for renovations (it houses the departments of English and Foreign Languages, History, and Social Sciences) and we were scattered across campus into any empty office space available.  I do not miss much else about it, though.  I’d become increasingly tired of the constant budget cuts from the state (and the toll those took and continue to take on McNeese and other public universities in Louisiana).  More and more I felt that little I’d spent time on over the years — advising, teaching, committee work, Faculty Senate — counted in the long run; I still feel that in a way.

Once I’d retired, I spent my time with Dad, becoming a full-time caregiver.  I’d really done that for a couple of semesters prior to retirement, and spent a lot of time commuting to Lake Charles from Egan (and hospitals in Jennings, Crowley, and Lafayette).  After Dad died in April 2012, for a few months there was a flurry of paperwork to take care of, legal issues to deal with — since I was the executor of the living trust he’d set up.  And even now there are legal issues that crop up from time to time.

Yes, two very large parts of my life disappeared from May 2011 to April 2012.

Yet I find myself frustrated at times, still, by the feeling that I can’t do everything I a) want to do and b)need to do.  It’s still necessary to have a calendar with so many things.

I have more time to spend at home, and that’s a joy of constant discovery.  I’ve never been a full-time anything at home.  Single — no husband, no children.  My paycheck was the only one, and working for a living was also something I loved.  Now, though, it’s as though I’m learning how to live as a full-time homeowner/dweller.  Plus I do have five pets that require my care and attention.

Finally, I got to start on house projects that were on hold far too long.  But now I’m dependent on the carpenter/handyman who does the work, because he has a full-time job and I am only a part-time job for him.  While I once though that by this December I’d have all the major projects done, that’s clearly not true.  I’m still waiting on the kitchen project to be complete, much less the living room (new sheetrock and painting), the bedroom (sheetrock on ceiling needs a patch replaced) and bathroom (I want beadboard paneling instead of ceiling tiles).  Patience, I’m learning, is something I still need more of.

True, I have time for myself and learning new arts and crafts.  I’ve taken time for jewelry (and had some workshops) and for silk-scarf painting (one workshop recently).  I try to blog most days.  And I’m getting some editing jobs from my writing business.  Finally, last week, I took out a manuscript I’ve worked on for several years but haven’t touched in three — and it’s almost revised again, ready to send to a couple of agents (fingers crossed).

So many things that I’d put off are now in progress.

Yet at times it seems if I work on one, another suffers.  

Unlike teaching, where a regular schedule of classes set my time (MWF 10 a.m-10:50, for example, or TTh 9:25 – 10:05).  No, this doesn’t work anymore.  That, I’m recognizing, is part of my ongoing adjustment process.

And I’ve typically taken on a number of other commitments .  First, I committed to working with Leisure Learning for a trip to Greece in April 2014 (which also entails a 3-meeting series about Greece, separate from but connected to that trip — the three meetings spread over three months).  I’ve got to have a one-meeting program (basically a PowerPoint presentation) ready for next week — it’s a free, open meeting; we hope that this will get people interested.  This commitment means that if I want to travel in the spring, I have to fit trips in around the already set dates for the three meetings.

Another commitment I made is for a three-week program at the public library in Iowa, Louisiana, on Jean Lafitte (using Lyle Saxon’s book Lafitte the Pirate).  This is part of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities RELIC program.  I love this program — I’ve been part of it since it was piloted in the 1980s.  It’s wonderful.  This means any trips in November must be 6 days or less.  

On the second Saturday in November, the local writers’ group will hold its annual conference, and I want to attend — three agents will be there.  This is what motivated me to get back to my own writing, my own manuscript, and focus on that for a change.  I want this, but it’s a time commitment.

In December my friend Myra and I are going to have a jewelry and craft table at a local church fair.  Our first commitment for something of this sort!

Throw in Thanksgiving and Christmas.  And don’t forget about this weekend — the International Rice Festival in Crowley.  My sister and I will spend the weekend in Egan and take time for ourselves.  Or next weekend — Rouge et Blanc on the last Saturday in October (good food and wine, and lots of friends to visit with as we wander from booth to booth).  Or the weekend following that, when I’ll meet cousins at the farm (opening of deer season) — perfect time for more family time.

Just how did I manage to work?  I guess the secret is really not so secret.  When I worked, I didn’t do all of the other “me” stuff.  Or at least not so much of it.  

That’s what I’m realizing now.  Time is the same — but what I do isn’t.  Finding my path through all of the new/expanded interests — that’s what’s leaving me reeling, feeling as though I’m an inept juggler.

Because, of course, I want to meet friends for coffee — or lunch.  I want to sit around my house sometimes and just wander in my nightshirt, doing laundry and reading.  I want to stay up all night sometimes, reading and watching television.

But hey — I’m not complaining.  Not when I think about it.  This is what I worked for — time for me, for my life.  Time for friends.  Time for hobbies that are becoming small businesses.  Time for enjoying everything.  Time for more travel to new places as well as familiar ones.

I just didn’t expect I’d still be juggling!

Oh well.  It’s time to log off.  I need to watch some television — and start a new book.  And find my leftovers from lunch.

 

 

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Grief and Recovery

It’s been just over a week since my last blog entry, and while I hadn’t planned on a break, I needed one.  The week has been a reminder of how grief slips back into our lives, tripping us up at unexpected moments, even happy ones.

I last blogged as I was about to leave for a family reunion, one I looked forward to attending.  It had been two years since I’d attended; I skipped in 2012, the year my dad died — I wasn’t back from Greece at that point.  Maybe I meant to skip it — maybe I just wasn’t ready for it.  Regardless, I missed that year.  

The trip driving up was easy.  I plugged in my iPod and sang as I drove north to Many, turned west, and headed to San Augustine.  The drive was a familiar one, one I’d shared with Dad a number of times after I’d taken over the driving.  It wasn’t the first time I’d driven that route since Dad’s death, yet there was an undercurrent of bittersweetness that grew as I drove.  For a lot of the way, even as I sang along with my iPod, there was a running commentary in my memory of things Dad had often said or pointed out on those drives.  His enjoyment at being able to relax and be a passenger for a change was always obvious on those trips, and I remembered that also.

When I arrived on Friday night, my sister had already arrived, as had our Aunt Jean, Aunt Mildred, and our cousin Mike and his wife Sissy.  Hugs and kisses were immediate; laughter and lots of chatter filled the air as we quickly unpacked and then prepared our dinner.  Even though the next day was going to be a long one, we sat for hours and caught up with each other’s news.

By midnight we’d all gone to bed.  Kay was sleeping in the living room near the air conditioner.  I was sleeping in the fireplace bedroom, the one Dad always used.  I read a bit, turned out the lights, and was sound asleep before too long.

Without an alarm, I woke up about 8 a.m. and headed for my truck to get the diet Coke I’d left there — I needed my wake-up caffeine.  With it, I wandered back to the living room and joined the family.  Soon, though, I was at work in the kitchen, putting my potato salad together for the reunion lunch.  Though Aunt Mildred was also working in the kitchen, there was plenty of room.  When the salad was finished and covered and in the refrigerator, I quickly took a shower and dressed.  By the time my cousin Barbara, her husband Herb, their daughter Larissa and Rissie’s two children arrived, I was just about ready.  They unpacked, put their cases in different rooms, and once more it was hugs and kisses time, with yet more laughter.  Having two little ones with us was a joy — watching a two-year-old and a one-year-old is always fun.  We traded holding Katie, the newest family member, though I admit we usually call her and refer to her as “Baby Girl.”  This was the first time I’d seen Katie, and I thoroughly enjoyed our meeting.  

Aunt Mildred left first, with some of her cousins, wanting to get to the site early and be sure everything was ready.  The rest of us weren’t much longer.  Aunt Jean and Kay and I went in Aunt Jean’s car; I drove us, along with our various contributions to lunch.  Barbara and her family went in their truck.

We drove up to the empty building that once housed a kindergarten, owned by friends but not yet sold.  Other cars and trucks were already there, and once we walked in the door, it was truly old-home week.  Some cousins I’d seen more recently, but some I hadn’t seen since Dad’s funeral.  Others I hadn’t seen in years.  

Food filled the entire kitchen counter/island; desserts filled another separate table.  Iced tea waited near ice-filled plastic cups.  

Aunt Mildred welcomed everybody, reminding us of just how long such reunions had been going on.  She thought over 50 years, but as she kept talking, one after another realized that actually it had to be over 70 or even 75 years, since she remembered attending it as a young child and she’s now 92.  

As our cousin Mike Richards was ready to give the blessing, Aunt Jean’s son Jim and his wife Dancie arrived from Houston.  We all stood as Mike gave thanks.  Then it was time to chow down.

So much good food always ends up on offer, and we always make our way through much of it.  Lots of photographs got taken — and over and over during the reunion one cousin after another talked to me about Dad, and how much they missed him.

Once you realize that most of the older folks there were his first cousins, and the rest were either their in-laws or children or grandchildren, you might begin to see just how much our gathering means to us.  Though we sometimes had to remind each other who we were, it didn’t take much.

Aunt Mildred wasn’t the oldest Richards grandchild there — her cousin Minnie V., at 97, claimed that.  Minnie V’s sister Blanche, nearly 91 (and my dad’s age, she reminded me), was next.  Their brother Carl wasn’t far behind.  There were younger Richards grandchildren– in their early 70s and mid-to-late 60s.  The next generation– the great-grandchildren– include me and my first cousins and our first cousins once removed (follow that?) — in our 50s and 60s, mostly.  There were a few a bit younger, like Larissa (great-great grandchildren) and then her children (great-great-great grandchildren).  

Lingering after lunch a bit, then cleaning up and re-packing cars, we slowly emptied the building.  Next year, we’ve decided, we’ll use a foam board to chart out the genealogies.

Back at the farm, we sat and visited even more.  After a while, Aunt Mildred, Mike and Sissy left, returning to their homes north of Fort Worth.  The rest of us actually ate.  Again.  

Once more in bed, I drifted off to sleep.  Sunday morning was time to visit a bit, repack our cars, clean up the house, and lock the door, leaving for our respective homes.

That’s when the grief hit, as I drove back the way I’d come.  It didn’t come in waves of tears or sobbing.  Instead, it was just the slow lowering of a darkness, the realization that Dad was truly gone and that this was yet another first without him.  After the first year without him, I guess I’d taken for granted that nothing like that would occur.  Clearly I was wrong.

From time to time I did cry a bit, but nothing more than a few tears.  And all this week, I’ve just hibernated, meeting friends for coffee occasionally, but not managing much else otherwise.  I haven’t written; nothing would really come.  I’d sit in front of the computer, stare at the screen, and get up without typing a word.  Why force it?  

Every day I’d get out, but that was about it.  No jewelry got made.  Nothing written in other projects than the blog.  I had a couple of appointments — the important one being the repairman who got my freezer and washer working correctly again (and only for $318!).  By Friday, I told myself that this was enough.  One more day, and then it was back to working at something.  At anything.  

Reading got me through the week — and a bit of television, though not much.  

Saturday morning, I got up and dressed.  With large diet Coke in hand, I went to a craft workshop and learned how to dye a silk scarf.  By 1, I was at a coffeeshop, waiting for my friend Betsy.  

I had a beautiful scarf to show from that workshop.  And I had the manuscript I’ve not looked at in three years printed out.  That afternoon I read through it in its entirety, pen in hand, making annotations, deciding what to move and where.  

On Sunday, I met my friend Myra, who worked on jewelry while I worked on the manuscript a second time, making additions and even more annotations.  When I left, I went grocery shopping, then drove home and unloaded everything.  While my dinner was cooking, I took out the garbage for today’s garbage pickup.

By seven, I’d eaten and then crawled into bed. I watched PBS for hours, reading a bit afterwards, finally falling asleep.  

This morning, I was up and dressed by 8.  There were phone calls to make, arrangements to be made for the dogs to go to the vet’s for heartworm preventative shots, information to get about insurance for the beach house (due in a few weeks).

By 9, I’d finished and was in my office.  I set up my kiln with the the temperature guide and a pyrometer, testing to see how fast it heated up and to what temperatures.  Once that was in progress, I turned to the computer and worked on the manuscript, transferring changes and additions to a new copy of the manuscript.  By one, I had finished the kiln temperature test, turned the kiln off, and completed sixteen chapters of the manuscript– and was heading to Starbucks for coffee with Betsy.  

Now I’ve written a blog entry.

Grief lingers still, but the darkness doesn’t.  

I’ve learned with experience that everyone deals with grief so differently, and that for myself, it’s sort of like I imagine surfing might be.  I’ll wipe out once and a while, but give me time.  I’ll be back on the board.  (In reality, I’d probably kill myself even attempting to surf, but as a child of the 60s, I like to dream about being able to surf.)

I’m back.  

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Naming, Family Language, and Why I Called My Mother Mother

I’ve been thinking of my dad most of the weekend, since the Richards family reunion was on Thursday and I was surrounded by many relatives.  In the small group, though, I was acutely aware of who was not there — Dad, in particular.  How he would have enjoyed seeing us gather together and talk and laugh.  So many stories were told, and so many people came up to me to let me know how he was missed.

As I enjoyed my cousin Barbara’s two grandchildren all weekend, watching them play and squabble and sleep, I remembered so many times at the farm with Barbara and her brother, Jim, and our cousins Mike and Charlie, and my brother Phil and sister Kay.  Phil and Kay were enough younger that they weren’t around so much at first.  But the five older cousins managed to do a lot of exploring and have a lot of adventures in the many visits to our grandparents and the farm.

Driving up to the farm on Friday and back on Sunday, I heard Dad’s running commentary from the many trips we made during the last couple of years, when I did the driving and he got to enjoy the scenery.  Names of roads, locations, buildings — so many times he had a story about something or someone he knew.  Now, though, I drive it by myself and remember.

This weekend was filled with food, and laughter, and lots of stories.

One of the many things that I thought of this weekend was how families create their own language of sorts, or at least their own phrases and names for things.

Take, for example, the simply pacifier.  For many people, it’s a “passie.”  In our family, it’s had other names.  One was “foolie” — because it was meant to fool the baby.  Another (coined by me, as a toddler) was the term “a-wee.”  I have absolutely no idea why.

I do remember using it, though.  And was old enough to remember sitting in the back of our car, window open, fitting my finger in the ring only to deliberately pop it out of the window.  I would then demand another, and when Mother drove to the store, was able to go and pick out my next one.

In those days, pacifiers were easily lost.  Later, you could find them with strips of elastic or fabric attached, along with a safety pin of sorts — you could pin it onto the baby’s clothes so that you didn’t lose so many of them.

This weekend, though, I got to see one that Barbara’s granddaughter Katie has — it is attached by fabric to a small stuffed animal.  For Katie, this is her “baby.”  I found this out when Barbara asked her “Why’d you spit out your baby?” When I burst out laughing, so did Barbara — and that’s when I started to think about how families use language and how silly and ridiculous that can sound outside the family.  But isn’t that part of the richness and the flexibility of language?

And isn’t that one of the ways that we humans learn the suppleness of words, their meanings and use, and language itself?

Within families, we also use different terms for parents and grandparents.  For Colton and Katie, their grandparents right now are Papa and Gaga.  Thus I began to call Barbara “Lady Gaga” on and off all weekend.  Their great-grandmother, my Aunt Jean, is Gigi (GeeGee)– for Great Grandmother, of course.

For Kay and Phil, Barbara and Jim, Mike and Charlie and me, our Ware grandparents were Grandmother and Granddad (or when we were young, Granddaddy).  Though I didn’t know my Grandmother Ware’s parents, I refer to them as the rest of the family (those who knew them, especially)  refer to them:  Papa Richards and Mama Richards (or Fat Mama or Big Mama, which was ironic because she was so tiny).

That’s pretty straightforward.  But on my mother’s side it becomes a bit trickier.  I called my mother “Mommy” and “Mama” when I was little, but as I got older, I began to call her Mother.  I couldn’t use the term “Mom.”  That was already in use — I apparently chose that as what I called my maternal grandmother, Ella.  My reasoning, it seems, was that I already used Grandmother for Grandmother Ware, and could not use that again.  It was too confusing, I thought.  And if I called her Mom, then everyone else had to follow suit.

Why, then, did I choose “Mom”?  Well, that’s because her parents were known to us as “Old Mom” and “Old Pop.”  I’ve heard some of my mother’s cousins write those as O’Mom and O’Pop because of the Irish ancestry.  But to me and my family, they were Old Mom and Old Pop.  Thus my grandmother Ella became Mom.  And Mother couldn’t be Mom too.  So she became Mother.

Now, though, if I’m with my cousin Carolyn (her mother and my mother were sisters), I switch between Mom and Grandmother, because she called our grandmother Grandmother.

And if family names are common, think about how to distinguish one from another. That’s when nicknames appear.

That happens in Dad’s family.  With the name James, in fact.  Granddad was James Franklin Ware.  He and Grandmother named their first son James Ernest Ware.  Grandmother’s sister MaryLou named her son James Richard.  My dad’s sister named her first son James Michael.  My Uncle James named his son James Lane.  My Aunt Mildred’s second son, Charlie, named his son Michael Joseph. I forget how many other Jameses there are in addition.  Those are just the ones in our immediate group that I’m around or refer to a lot.

To others, then, Granddad might have been Jim, or Uncle Jim.  My Uncle James was sometimes Big Jim or Jim or James.  My cousin James Richard (actually James Richards, it turns out) is generally known as RIchard (though I often call him James Richard as others sometimes do).  My cousin James Michael is Mike.  Charlie’s son is, to his friends, Mike, but within our family is Michael J.  Uncle James’s son is known as Jim, though we often call him Jimbo, which is what we called him when we were growing up.

When my brother Philip was born, Dad resisted using the name James again — yet wanted to name Phil after his own father.  So Phil was Philip Franklin.

My cousin Barbara was named Barbara Jean; her mother is Iris Jean.  Barbara’a daughter is Larissa Jean.  Larissa’s baby is Kathryn Jean.

Me?  There are no other Cheryls in the family.  There is, though, another Lynn.  My dad lived for a while with his maternal Uncle Earl, who had a daughter named Sarah Lynn.  Sarah Lynn was a baby when Dad lived with them in the 40s before WWII.  But she remembers his living with them.  And on Saturday, the two Lynns had their picture taken together.

My sister Kay Darlene?   When Mom (that’s my grandmother Ella, remember?) ran a boarding house, she had a boarder named Kay Darlene, and Mother always loved that name and remembered it.

And of course, because Mother was Catholic and we were brought up in the Catholic Church,  I had to have other names, since there was neither a Saint Cheryl nor a Saint Lynn.  Hence my baptismal name:  Cheryl Lynn Maria.  And add my chosen confirmation name:  Theresa.  I am Cheryl Lynn Maria Theresa Ware, as far as the Church is concerned.  Kay and Phil didn’t have to have extra names — Saint Catherine (Kay) and Saint Philip (Phil) sufficed for them.  I guess I needed all the help I could get.

Dad was Henry Theophilus Ware.  He was named after his two grandfathers:  William Henry Richards and Theophilus Valentine Ware.  He was known has H.T. in the family. When he was growing up, his family and friends called him “T-Bone,” and sometimes I heard that called out to him.  Dad’s best friend called Dad “H-ee”  — as in the letter H, then ee. If someone called him Uncle H, then that’s either Mike or Charlie (his sister’s two sons).  Other nieces/nephews/great-nieces and great-nephews refer to him as Uncle H.T. or even Uncle T. If someone called him Hank, I knew that person knew Dad from work.

Though I call my dad’s sister Aunt Mildred, he often referred to her by her childhood nickname — Rip. One of the things she could do as a kid — and still can do, I suspect– is manage an ear-splitting whistle that I’ve always admired. Maybe that’s the source of her nickname.

Mother was Irene Braxton Steele.  Her middle name was her biological father’s.  Her last name was the name of her stepfather Charles Steele; when she was 18, she had her name changed and had him adopt her.

Which brings me back to names.  I had more grandfathers than many people.  I had Grandad Ware.   I had Grampa Charlie (Mother’s adopted/stepfather).  And I had Poppa (Mother’s stepfather, my grandmother Ella’s fourth husband).

As families have become so complicated in the 20th century, we adapt to fit the needs of naming.  With blended families, the need for flexibility is clear.  My mother’s family — because of my grandmother’s four husbands and my mother’s two stepfathers — was just ahead of the curve, I guess.

At the reunion this weekend, the oldest cousin was there, Minnie V.  She’s 97.  And she’s named for her mother, my great-grandmother Richards, known as Mama Richards, Minnie Vela Pickett Richards.

Names are just one of the many things that tie us together, along with our memories and stories, food, tears, and laughter.

Sometimes I think that one reason I fell in love with William Faulkner (he was the focus of my dissertation) was that I knew those complicated family trees, that convoluted genealogy.  I lived them.

As I sit and think about family, and how we talk, and how we name, I sit and smile.  Just as I sit and listen to my older cousins tell stories, I now sometimes find myself being one of the storytellers, to the younger generations of the family.  That’s just how it goes.

Next year, we’ll try to remember to bring poster foam boards and put them up for creating family trees, one for each Richards child.  That’s on the advice of Sissy, my cousin Mike’s wife.  That’s James Michael, not Michael Jay.

Confused yet?  Got it all straight?  Good luck with that.

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Traveling to the Past: Farm Livin’ on the Ware Farm

Today in a bit I’ll be heading to the Ware family farm.  My grandfather bought the land in parcels, ending up with just over 140 acres of East Texas red dirt.  He managed to keep it through the Depression.

The farmhouse we have today — the one I’ll be staying in tonight — was only built in 1939-40.  Dad moved into it as a high school senior.  Until then, the family had not had a house with electricity, running water, or plumbing.  Neither of the two wood houses they lived in prior to 1940 still exists, but we know where they were.  The first was quite primitive, with a packed dirt floor, as I recall Dad saying.

The house they moved into in 1940 had three regular bedrooms and one small room that held a 3/4 bed; it also had a living room, dining room, kitchen, and a bathroom.  Family stories about the bathroom are quite funny.  Granddad, it seems, wasn’t convinced that it was hygienic to have the toilet so close to the kitchen, but Grandmother (who one of my dad’s first cousins refers to as “a progressive woman,” was determined to have it.  She won.  The bathroom was built, adjacent to the kitchen.  But Granddad built an outhouse and, I understand, used it for a while before he gave in about hygiene.

That house ended with the bathroom and kitchen — both had doors leading to a small porch that stepped down to the backyard.  However, after Granddad sold timber in 1956 or so, he built on an enclosed back porch, a small room for storage, and one more bedroom, large enough to hold two double beds and a crib.  That back porch enclosed the well that we used for water.  Though the well was connected to an electric water pump, there were times when we had to haul water from it by hand.  Only in the 1990s did we get “city” water.  That’s kind of funny, in a way — we are five miles or so out of the “big” town of San Augustine, which has a population of maybe 2500 people.  Only in the 1970s or 80s  did we get connected to the gas main — until then we had a propane tank.

This is the house now:

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The farm is very much in the country.  I tell people it’s in San Augustine, but that’s not quite true.  It’s in San Augustine County, but it’s not in town.  It’s five miles or so out of town, in a tiny community called Bland Lake.  It’s country, clearly:

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There’s a lot of pasture land now, and our barn’s still standing.  Sort of:

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Both my grandparents’ families were from this area.  The Wares came to this area in the 1830s, just before the Texas Revolution.  Some other ancestors on that same side came about the same time.  My grandmother Ware’s family, however, were relative newcomers — they moved to San Augustine in 1900, leaving Barbour County, Alabama, for an area that friends had already moved to, and wrote back about.

San Augustine and Nacogdoches, Texas, have an ongoing disagreement about which is the oldest settlement in Texas.  San Augustine is also known as the point of entry for the border area between it and Louisiana (known as No-Man’s Land).  The town is also known for feuds along the lines of the Hatfields-McCoys.  With a violent past, it had its last shootout in the 1930s, and my aunt and grandmother were in town when that happened.  The problem was considered serious enough that TWOTWO — Texas Rangers were sent in to take care of it.

Granddad farmed with a horse and mules.  Only when he sold the timber in 1956 did he buy a tractor — and a new truck — and build on to the house.  The main crop was cotton, of course.  He also grew corn and potatoes and watermelon.  I can remember helping to pick corn and get potatoes.  I also remember getting in trouble for plugging watermelons with my older boy cousins — until Granddad put a stop to it, sternly.  He sold most of them for cash, another source of income.

Grandmother had her “truck patch.”  Most farm wives did.  Hers was, at its peak, pretty large.  I remember going up and down rows of peas and butter beans and other vegetables, sweating, with my little bonnet on that she’d made.  She always wore her own bonnet, long sleeves, and gloves — ladies didn’t get tanned, even farm wives.  She also milked and gathered eggs.  I loved to help with that — though I couldn’t milk worth anything.  Gathering eggs was much easier, and feeding the chickens was a neat chore.

My grandmother didn’t have a washing machine until the 1950s — and we still have it.  It was a ringer-type washer, and I was always fascinated by it.  We don’t use it, of course — but it still sits in the shed.

Dad and his brother and sister helped out, as farm kids did, and they’d laugh as they told us what it was like to run barefoot on the hot dirt as they picked cotton.  They’d tell us about using a kerosene lamp to read and study by.

By the time I was born,  none of the three kids was on the farm.  Dad worked for Sun Oil Company and lived in Beaumont.  Uncle James worked for Sun Pipe Line and lived in Louisiana, though he ended up in Beaumont as well.  My Aunt Mildred lived in Fort Worth, where she and her husband and two boys lived; she’d moved up there during World War II to work in a war-related plant, as so many did.  None of the grandchildren ever lived there either.

Grandmother died in 1962; Granddad died a couple of years later.  Yet the farm remains in the family.  For Dad and his siblings, this was home.  For us grandkids, it’s not home, but it’s special.  We spent many hours roaming the pastures, playing in the ditches and barn, and wandering where we weren’t always supposed to be.  One of my earliest memories, in fact, is here — when Dad was in the hospital in Beaumont for goiter surgery, I was at the farm with my grandparents, and feeling very lonely.  I can remember lying in bed in the fireplace bedroom, looking out the window at the pasture, and crying.  Granddad came in to hum to me and comfort me.  I was, at the time, probably 3.  This view is close to what I remember, though it’s in daytime, not night:

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Over the years, we’ve worked on making the house safe and comfortable.  We get together several times a year there, working on one project for three days or so each time.  It’s work time, but also family time.  We take turns being responsible for meals, and we sit around at night and talk a lot.  And laugh a lot, too.

Though it isn’t a working farm, we lease out pasture to a cousin’s husband; he runs cattle on it.  Since he’s there every day at least once, we are comfortable knowing that someone has an eye out for us.  If he doesn’t look at things, another cousin (who lives just down the road), drives by and keeps us informed of any activity, especially related to oil or gas-related lease information; he’s the county surveyor, too, as his dad (my dad’s first cousin) was.

It’s a small county, after all.

This weekend is the weekend of the Richards family reunion.  Grandmother Ware was a Richards; her father began the reunion tradition.  Until this year, it was always held on Labor Day weekend.  Now, we’ve moved it to October, when it’s a bit cooler.

There were, I think, 12 Richards children — my dad had something like 35 first cousins just from the Richards side.  Grandmother’s last sister died in 2010– at 104 1/2 — and she wasn’t the youngest.  Now the first cousins are the eldest, and I’m in “the younger generation” in their 60s.  Of course, there are a lot of our age- group’s children and even grandchildren by now.  It’ll be interesting to see how many turn out tomorrow; attendance numbers have fallen over the years.

When I hit the road in a bit, I’ll be driving for three hours or so, with one stop to rest my legs a bit.  I don’t take the same route we always traveled, though — that route takes me on two-land roads, twisting and turning through Louisiana and Texas.  Instead, I head up to North Louisiana to Many on a four-land road, much improved.  At Many, I take my break, then head west over Pendleton Bridge into East Texas, and finally take the two-lane road to San Augustine, out of it, past the small church and cemetery where Mother and Dad and Phil and other family members are buried, and then turn left on a farm-to-market road to the farm.  I’ll unload the food I’m bringing for tonight’s supper and for tomorrow’s reunion.  I’ll unload my small suitcase and put it in the fireplace bedroom that Dad always used.

It’s not that far, in miles, but it’s a long trip in memories and laughter and tears.  I can’t wait.

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