Category: Memoir

Shall we dance?

Photo credit: Wikipedia
Photo credit: Wikipedia

It was a winter evening, when nightfall comes too early and the landscape is bleak and brown. Our commuter train was cancelled due to an earlier automobile accident that was still blocking a railroad crossing, so we climbed aboard substitute busses for the ride home.

Inside the bus, the lights were on and most passengers pulled out a computer or Kindle to pass the time. I chose to look out the window and study the streets and homes I could never look at when I drove.

We traveled through a once-thriving mill town that had never fully recovered from the closing of the factories and mills decades earlier. Most of the businesses in the town were closed for the day, except for a barber shop and a few small markets selling groceries, cigarettes, and lottery tickets.

The bus stopped for a red light and my eyes were drawn to the light coming from a large, second story window above an insurance agency. I watched as a man and woman walked confidently towards each other. He opened his arms and she stepped toward him, taking his left hand. Their eyes locked on each other as they began to move. No, not simply move. Framed in that window on the second floor, they began to dance. Slow, slow, quick, quick, slow.

The Tango! So elegant, so sexy, so…fleeting.

The light turned green and the bus pulled away, returning my attention to the crowded bus and the tired commuters. But the image of the dancers remained, partly because of the juxtaposition of elegance in a seedy town, but mostly because of the memories it triggered: confidence, rejection, romance, rejection.

What is it about dancing?

I grew up watching American Bandstand after school each day. We followed the lives and loves of those Philadelphia teenagers as if it were a soap opera, which I guess it was.

Dancing styles started out being simply either Fast or Slow, but then evolved into a new dance each week. Each of these dances had a name, and specific steps. The Twist. The Stroll. The Mashed Potatoes. They came and went out of fashion faster than hemlines.

I tried to keep up, following what Kenny and Arlene did on American Bandstand. But the slow dance? Nothing. Nada.You need a partner to learn to slow dance and I didn’t have one.

My first high school dance was approaching and I was starting to panic. If my father knew how to dance, he didn’t volunteer to teach me, so I went next door to the Gartners. They were younger than my parents and excellent dancers. Mr. Gartner taught me to dance in their kitchen as Mrs. Gartner gave me pointers about how to stand and move. Dancing is easy when you are in the hands of experts.

My mother made me a new outfit for the dance, my father drove me to the school, and I entered the gymnasium with high hopes. I found four of my friends and we stood and chatted for a bit, hoping the boys would soon be over to ask us to dance. Four boys did come over, but I was apparently the fifth wheel, for I realized that I was standing by myself as the rest of them went off to dance.

I never did get to dance that night, or any other at that high school. No dates, no proms, no Homecoming dances, Whatever confidence I had going in the door for that first dance was left to die in the gymnasium.

That is not to say that I never got to go a formal dance in high school. I did, but not at my school, where the boys — no longer boys anymore — are probably still sitting on the edge of that stage.

When I was in the 10th grade, a young man from another high school asked me to the Military Ball. It was a formal dance for all the high school band members in the county. Only a band member could invite a date, which meant I could pull a Sadie Hawkins if I wanted to (and I did, the next year).

The original idea was that the young men would wear their band uniforms but this turned out to be a bad idea because the individual schools had colors like red, black green, royal blue, gold, and purple. The girls gave up trying to match their dresses to the uniforms and instead insisted that they boys just wear suits. I think everyone was pleased with that decision.

The evening was great fun. My mother got to make a formal dress for me, which pleased her to no end. My date turned out to be a wonderful dancer. It didn’t matter to me that he was four inches shorter than I was. We spent the night on the dance floor. The humiliation of all my other school dances melted away.

I don’t think much about high school or college. Those were pleasant years in my past. And until I saw the dancers in the window last winter, I had forgotten how good it feels to dance like that. I confess that, without a skilled partner, I still can’t dance very well. Maybe some lessons are in order?

Maybe I could be the confident woman in the window, following my partner’s lead, and being admired by a tired rider on a bus.

So long, friends. How can I honor you?

iStock_000004357616Small

I said goodbye to two friends this week. Both official services took place in old New England churches and involved beautiful music and good memories. One friend is very much living; the other, sadly, has passed on.

Last Tuesday I attended an organ recital performed by a friend who is moving out of state. It was his way of saying goodbye (temporarily, we hope) and Thank You to all the friends he had made while he lived here. I had known him a long time before I knew about his musical background. He was working in an unrelated business and spoke only briefly about it. And so it was a delightful discovery to finally hear him make the music and talk about it. If you were listening carefully, you understood that you were in the presence of a Master, and the discovery was all the sweeter because of his humility.

Then, on Friday,  I went to a memorial service for a friend who died suddenly. I’d met him and his wife through a mutual friend almost 20 years ago. We’d shared meals together and evenings of lively conversation. He was amazing man who delighted in everything from the universe, to the angle of the winter sun, to the intricacies of a Mozart piano concerto.

It’s difficult to live near Boston and not encounter the “30-second rule.” I use this term to describe anyone who has a degree from an Ivy League college. If, when you first meet them, they can go longer than 30 seconds before referring to their Ivy League degree, I give them bonus points. Many of them fail this test.

Joe, however, was different. I never knew he had a PhD in Chemistry from MIT.

I currently work with a man who cannot stop himself from talking about his perceived accomplishments. No one is asking; he is just supplying the trivial elements of his life. We all agree that he is just too insecure and for no reason that we can identify: he’s friendly, he’s good at his job, he’s talented. Yet, he can’t let his work speak for itself.

In my own life, I have not accomplished anything to brag about. Instead, I am struggling with what I perceive as a lack of accomplishment.

Then I remind myself that I came of age when a woman in America had few rights that weren’t connected to her husband. I read old newspaper articles and am reminded that women did not even have first names as far as the newspapers were concerned. You were “Mrs. John Smith,” not “Catherine Hughes Smith.” Your credit cards were in your husband’s name and you signed the charge slips as “Mrs. John Smith.” And when Mr. Smith died, the department stores canceled your credit cards with no thought to simply transferring them in your name. Mrs. Smith didn’t matter much without Mr. Smith.

I tell you this not to brag about my respectable credit rating. No, I tell you this because I have seen prejudice first-hand; because I understand the code that people use to hold other people back, be it a young woman applying for her first job, an elderly voter suddenly turned away at the polls because of the new version of a poll tax on the poor, or a young black man simply walking down the street.

I have found my purpose in this teachable moment. Age does have some benefits. I would be remiss if I didn’t try to address this, not in this venue, necessarily, but in others.

Stay tuned.

5 things I learned about business from Junior Achievement

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I’m not a practical business person by nature. My mind tends to follow a more creative track, or it would if I didn’t have to spend so much time working. But I do like to sit back and observe while I work, so I appreciate businesses who do things right.

My first business experience (not counting  the dreaded door-to-door Girl Scout cookie sales) was through Junior Achievement (JA) in high school. This is the non-profit organization that brings volunteers from the local business community to mentor students in leadership, financial, and business skills.

Our town had a very active organization, where volunteers helped us set up businesses and learn about manufacturing and sales. I joined not because I was interested in business but because it seemed like a good way to meet boys. Plus, I actually got to leave the house on a school night.

When we arrived for our first meeting, we were each assigned to one of six fledgling businesses. I noticed that both the local utility companies had brought in appliances and set up working kitchens. One company made chocolate fudge and the other made salad dressing, which they created and bottled right on site. Oh, how I wanted to switch to that company! Then I looked around my company’s area. Our little manufacturing site consisted of band saws, sanders, glue pots, and wood varnish. This might be interesting, I thought.

JA

1. Find investors

It’s important for any start-up company to have some cash on hand from the first day. This money  keeps the lights on and covers a company’s overhead until it can generate revenue on its own. I had no idea what stocks were until we started selling them. I was too shy for sales. I had the lowest sales of Girl Scout cookies in my troop and I did not step enthusiastically into my role as a wooer of investors.

It was easier than I thought, however.  Even my uncle Gerry, who rarely parted with a dollar, handed me five of them for five shares of our stock. I was warming to the concept of capitalism.

2. Keep the quality high and the production cost low

Our town still had a company called Fisher Body that produced auto bodies and interior parts for automobile manufacturers, largely General Motors. If you or your father owned a General Motors car in the 1950s or 60s, there was probably a medallion on the door sill plate that said “Body by Fisher.”  Our JA volunteer worked at the local Fisher Body plant. He arrived with a car trunk packed with scrap foam rubber from car seats and brushed aluminum “punch outs” that were left over from dashboards. An opening would be punched out for the radio and our industrious volunteer gathered up all the scraps so that we had the (free) component parts for our business.

3. Find a need and fill it

Our product would be lint brushes! Who couldn’t use one or two lint brushes? It was a brilliant idea, especially because our manufacturing costs would be ZERO. Even I, as right-brained a person as they come, could see the potential for this business. I was giddy with greed.

We made our lint brushes in two sizes: a 1 x 3-inch piece of foam glued to one of the aluminum pieces and a 2 x 3-inch brush with a varnished wood handle. They turned out to be very good products. I occasionally still find one, forgotten, in the back of a drawer. The foam is dried out, but that glue really holds!

4. Pay your sales staff well but spread out their territories

Once we built our inventory, we were set loose to go out and sell our product. My parents, of course, bought several but my eternal gratitude goes to those kind and patient families who lived within a three-block radius of our Junior Achievement building.  Theirs were the first door bells we rang and they bought it all: the salad dressing, the pegged coat racks, the chocolate fudge…whatever we were selling, they were happy to buy.

Our confidence buoyed, we fanned out to new sections of town. We sold so many lint brushes that we received some paychecks. This was way better than babysitting.

5. Learn from your mistakes

After a few weeks, however, our sales volume started to decline. We had saturated the market with our trusty brushes and we began to see the flaw in our business plan. These brushes were too well made. Unlike the companies that sold salad dressing and fudge, we would not find any repeat customers, which meant that we needed a new product.

We looked to our volunteer for new ideas, but he was tapped out. The foam and brushed aluminum scraps were perfect for lint brushes, but what else could we do with them? Were there other scraps from the Fisher Body plant that we could recycle into a new product? (I believe we may have coined the term “recycle”! Too bad we didn’t patent it.)

We brainstormed (another patent opportunity missed). We talked. We briefly tried making bean bag ashtrays because nearly everyone smoked in those days, but there were too many of them on the market already.

ashtray

It seemed nothing could top our lint brushes. We met one week, then two trying to decide what to do. The paychecks stopped.

Soon I learned a new word: Bankruptcy. We had managed the dubious achievement of being the first company in our local JA organization to ever file for bankruptcy.  But we were not mocked by the students in the other companies. That’s because they never noticed. They were all too busy making their fudge and bottling that damn salad dressing.

On writing: From marrow bones to lint brushes (Part 2)

Photo credit: Hammacher Schlemmer
Photo credit: Hammacher Schlemmer

So, where were we?

Ah, we were talking about finding inspiration for your writing by just paying attention to what is going on around you. I was telling you about the Kickball Ice Cream Maker in an earlier post. This is a rubberized ball that you can fill with ingredients, then hand the ball over to someone more energetic than myself to toss and kick it around for at least 20 minutes. Then you open it up and enjoy the ice cream.

The ad for it reminded me of my family’s hand-crank ice cream freezer and how it took all of us to make the ice cream. My mother would mix the ingredients into a custard, then my father would fold an old, brown wool Army blanket and place it on top of the freezer so that I could sit on it to hold the freezer steady while he turned the crank — a perfect division of labor.  I cannot see a wooden ice cream freezer without thinking about how it felt to sit on that scratchy wool blanket.

I read about the Kickball Ice Cream Maker in an e-mail from retailer Hammacher Schlemmer. The page also displayed thumbnail images of “Related Items”, which is where I spotted The Genuine Good Humor Ice Cream Cart, which you may remember from your childhood. One or two ice cream trucks or carts used to come through our neighborhood every summer evening, causing a swarm of children clutching coins and running to buy the frozen treats. (I think orange Dreamsicles were my favorites, followed by cherry or grape Popsicles or the occasional Drumstick.)

Since they seemed to arrive just as my mother was making dinner, she used to come into the living room and turn up the volume on the TV so that I couldn’t hear the jingling bells. She confessed this years later and I don’t seem to be psychologically scarred from the experience.

These carts are still in production and can be purchased for a mere $2500.00. I have to wonder who would purchase such an item? I have a friend who owns an ice cream parlor in a coastal New England town. I can see her buying one for advertising, having one of her young employees pedal through the narrow streets to reach new customers.

They would be great just as a food cart to be pedaled about or taken from summer festivals to concert venues. Two words of caution for any of you thinking about buying The Genuine Good Humor Ice Cream Cart: “Assembly required.” Don’t say you weren’t warned.

I also see some Serious Businessman buying a cart to set up his young children in a summer business. The attorneys could take care of incorporation papers and bribing the local health inspector. His children could print their names next to the X on the loan agreements that the attorneys drew up. All would agree that it’s too early to incorporate. First, let’s drive that cute little lemonade stand on the corner out of business. Then we can think about the IPO.

Hey, it’s just business, right? All’s fair in business.

I admit I don’t have any good experiences with the business world because I never had any fun. But I would have loved to had my very own Genuine Good Humor Ice Cream Cart when I was young.  That would have been nothing but fun.

Instead, my first experience with business was joining Junior Achievement (JA) in high school. Given the title of this post, you should not be surprised to hear that we manufactured and sold lint brushes in our little company.

Not to disappoint you, but it’s not as exciting as it might sound.

 

Our Charlie

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By the time my niece graduated from high school, I had perhaps 30 photographs of her — each slipped inside a Christmas card by her mother over an 18-year span–each one capturing a 1/60th of a second on her timeline: from infant to smiling schoolgirl with a missing front tooth to young woman. They are photos that I treasure.

Years later when she married and had her son, she began posting no fewer than a dozen photographs of him daily on Facebook. He is a cute little guy but by the time he was six months old, I’d lost interest, the way one tunes out a television commercial that has run a hundred times.

Less is more. Truly.

I think about this as I walk my dog in the cemetery near my house. It is a quiet place with old growth trees and a rolling terrain. There are benches along the paths to just sit and observe. We are not given much information here, so we must think.

The graves date from the early 1800s to the present. The names on some of the headstones are familiar to me because the streets and schools in our city bear their names. This is one more museum of the city–the history across centuries, now gathered together in areas across the grounds.

The war veterans are buried on a slight hill near the old stone chapel. Then, around a curving path, tall oak trees shade a group of identically shaped headstones. These are the graves  of the former residents of the Old Women’s Home. I read each name and nod an acknowledgement, wondering if they, like I, am offended by this final designation of an entire life. Were they not young girls once? Did they not once play games and laugh? Work samplers? Bake cakes? Get lost in a novel? Fall in love?

They were born at a time when the value of a woman’s life was determined by the wealth of her father or husband. The poor, the unmarried, were consigned to the Old Women’s Home.

I shake off the thought and move on, towards the front gate and the oldest graves. We steer towards a small lane in search of shade and approach a solitary headstone in an unusually empty area of the cemetery. The 8-word inscription is elegant in its simplicity:

Our Charlie
May 23, 1873
Oct. 3, 1873

There are no other headstones to indicate the presence of nearby graves. Perhaps his parents or siblings are buried nearby but I do not know that. I do not even know his last name.

All I know is that there is a solitary headstone for a 4-month-old infant who was loved, whose death was mourned. And here in this quiet place, over 140 years later, I tell him that his short life was not lived in vain. His life mattered.

And he is still remembered.

Come to our Carnival

plastic bowling pins

It was the 1950s and school was out for the summer. By mid July, we were getting bored, so we decided to have a neighborhood carnival in our back yard.

My father brought home some cardboard boxes from an appliance store. My friends and I painted them and cut out doors and windows to make a ticket booth and a concession stand, to sell cups of lemonade and buttered popcorn in brown lunch bags. (Thank you, Mom.)

We came up with some games that required a moderate amount of skill, such as Swimming Pool Bowling. This involved setting up plastic bowling pins inside an empty swimming pool. The contestants would roll the bowling ball down the short swimming pool slide and try to bowl a strike.

We’d originally tried to add water to the pool but the bowling pins and ball just bobbed along in the water, so we drained the pool and hyped the fact that there was a slide involved, which made our game not only unique, but kept the ball contained so that Sally Anne Hansen didn’t have to chase it all over our backyard every time someone played the game. She wasn’t very happy about re-setting the pins as it was.

Games and food were fine, but we decided to add a Fun House and a Talent Show to bring in kids from two or three blocks away. We got out or crayons and made fliers that we posted on trees and telephone poles–“Come to the Sycamore Street Carnival!!” Then for the next few days, we got to work creating the carnival.

The Fun House Committee set up a maze in our garage. Since our carnival was held during the day, it was easier to blindfold the victims customers than it was to cover the garage windows with cardboard. Besides, we’d used all the cardboard on the ticket booth and concession stand.

Since most of the members on the Fun House Committee were also performing in the Talent Show, I have to be honest and say that they didn’t  exactly throw themselves into planning the Fun House. There was a bowl of cold spaghetti that was supposed to be a bowl of worms, but it’s a little difficult to steer a blindfolded person’s hand into a bowl of cold spaghetti when they are using it to feel their way along a rope line.

Someone would brush a dry rag mop across a customer’s face and say “Oh-h-h spider webs!” in a scary Fun House voice. This worked fine until they accidentally hit Marguerite Jenkins on the chin with the mop handle. Marguerite saw the blood and started crying.  My mother ran out with a clean towel and some ice. She  shot us a “what-were-you-thinking?” look over her shoulder as she walked Marguerite back home.

The episode had all of us feeling bad and not in the mood for carnivals until Marguerite returned a few minutes later sporting a bandage and carrying a baton. I’d forgotten that she had signed up for the Talent Show. What a trouper!

The show must go on and so it did.

I think most of the members of the audience were part of the Talent Show as well and they would just come up to the stage when their act was announced. They sang, performed card tricks, played their flutes, or danced. Marguerite received especially enthusiastic applause for her baton twirling.

I was so enjoying the show I didn’t have time to be nervous about my talent contribution: it was an original play I wrote entitled  “The Bunny and the Duck.”

Dianne Stone starred as the Bunny. I don’t remember if she wore bunny ears, but she stayed in character with her hands held up like paws and a very convincing rabbit-like overbite.

The Duck was actually a rocking seat that my father and uncle had made for me when I was a baby. I suppose if they had made the sides of the rocker look like a puppy, the play would have been called The Bunny and the Puppy, but no matter.

You may be wondering: How much writing is involved in a play about a bunny and a piece of baby furniture? Quite a bit, actually because the Duck had a speaking part.

This was a challenge to our little theater group. At first we thought we could hide Phyllis Whitfield (she being the smallest of us) in the bottom of the rocker so that she could be the voice of the Duck. Alas, even skinny Phyllis was too big to hide inside the rocker, so I stood offstage and spoke the lines. This was convenient because I had to push the Duck onstage with the handle to the very same rag mop that had bloodied poor Marguerite just an hour earlier.

The play opened with a very forlorn Bunny rubbing her eyes with her paws and crying “Nobody likes me!”

Enter the Duck, stage left, to ask Bunny what was the matter? Bunny says everyone chases her away from their gardens, the birds make fun of her long front teeth, and the cats try to catch her.

Duck gives wise counsel, telling Bunny that they are all jealous of how soft her fur is and how fast she can run. Soon Bunny is feeling much better about herself and happy to have a new friend.

The play ended with a duet sung by Bunny and Duck and accompanied by Joey Dettorre on the trumpet. We all came out to take our bows and, if we had had a curtain, it would have closed on a successful Sycamore Street Carnival.

Weekly Writing Challenge: Memoir Madness