Category: Memoir

Why being your own boss is not always the best idea

NOT Barney! Photo credit:
NOT Barney! Photo credit:

I have contractors in the house this morning to add insulation in my attic. The city and state where I live are promoting energy efficiency and I applaud them for that. Much of the cost is paid for by the state, so why wouldn’t you want to change your light bulbs, add insulation, and just try to save money on your bills?

The one thing about construction, plumbing, and home remodeling jobs is that no one has figured out a way to outsource them. Most of the contractors I’ve hired have been very nice people to be around, but also very independent, with the type of personality that one needs to work on their own.

I was reminded of Barney, a neighbor’s brother-in-law who thought that working for himself was the only way to become financially secure. He tried many things over the years: drywall installer, house painter, landscaper, general contractor.

The problem was, Barney wasn’t very good at any of them. He tried installing wood burning stoves for a while until the Fire Marshal threatened to have him arrested. (more…)

Watch this space. I’m about to become rich!

When I was very young, my parents toyed with the idea of selling their car to pay off some bills, especially the bills from my doctor. I wasn’t an especially sickly child, except for tonsillitis. That was a chronic problem until I was old enough to have my tonsils removed.The doctor made house calls and the bills were adding up.

Our town still had good transportation, so it was possible to get where you needed to go on a city bus. There were daily trains to and from Cleveland. My father could walk to work; our church was nearby. Giving up the car (it was maybe a 1937 Ford) for a while did not seem like that much of a sacrifice but they held off on selling it for a bit.

One summer evening, our neighbors suggested that we go to a carnival in a nearby town. It was a fundraiser for the local Fire Department. It seemed like a good way to spend an evening and it was.

There were rides and games and junk food like cotton candy, which my mother hated but I loved. “Cobwebs,” she said. “Sweet and sticky!” I said.

My father would have been a gambler if it hadn’t involved his money. He was strictly a $1- or $2-dollar a bet sort of man, but he always thought of himself as lucky, which he was.

The big prize at the Fireman’s Carnival was a raffle for a new car — a chartreuse, 2-door, 1950 Ford Custom. Only a dollar a ticket! It was for a good cause. How could you not buy one?

My father bought a single ticket and returned to the carnival.

That evening after we were all in bed, the telephone rang, but it was not bad news. He had won the car!

The next morning, we and the rest of the neighborhood awoke to the sound of car horns honking. There was a line of cars outside filled with firemen who were delivering our new car to us.

It was in our driveway. It was our new car: bright, shiny, and chartreuse. We loved it!

My parents were able to sell the old car, pay the bills, and have a new car to drive. Some of the neighbors, especially the family who had just bought their own 1950 Ford, were a little upset, as was understandable.

Emboldened by his luck, my father spent the next 40 years of his life trying to win another car. In the summer, he would go off to church carnivals, looking for his lucky raffle ticket. He did win other prizes (the fully-stocked bar with cases of liquor was a lot of fun) but never another car. My mother claimed that he shelled out enough dollars on raffle tickets that he could have bought a new Cadillac, and I suspect she was right.

My father also sold raffle tickets, almost to the day he died. They were monthly drawings to raise funds for the high school football team or the marching band. He paid for my college tuition one quarter with winnings from some game at the grocery store. (Note: College wasn’t nearly as expensive then, but we did need the money.)

He also bought lottery tickets and entered sweepstakes advertised in Sunday fliers or through the mail, such as the Publishers Clearing House.

He would enter each contest with the confidence of a winner. When the quasi-personalized letters would come, he read them several times and kept them in a drawer. To his credit, he never bought a magazine subscription from them, but still he wondered: Am I close to winning? Should I buy something?

He wasn’t and he didn’t.

I think of my father because, on a whim, I entered the “$7000 a Week for Life” sweepstakes.

My logic went like this:

  1. Someone does have to win the prize, or they can’t keep advertising.
  2. I was curious. Are they still selling magazine subscriptions?
  3. How do they deliver the “Kate Lester: You are so close to winning” notifications?

I thought of it strictly as research and a possibly a chance to quit my day job.

I entered and waited for the e-mails. I lasted a day and a half before I unsubscribed to everything. These people are relentless. I could be entered in a second-chance sweepstakes. All I have to do is scroll through a dozen pages of ads for junk products, like those sold on daytime television.

They just want to verify my Zip code and the local television station that will broadcast the Prize Patrol coming to my front door to award the prize to me. Blah, blah,blah.

“Unsubscribe,” I clicked.

Then I searched for complaints against them. Many, many complaints of this sort: “I’ve been answering their e-mails for years. They tell me I’m about to win but I never do. I think it’s a scam. I’m going to give them one more chance and then I’m done.”

I don’t think it’s a scam as much as very savvy marketing to some vulnerable people. They are offering hope, but what they are really selling are cake pans and car wax. Is that illegal? No. Is that honorable? No again.

The odds are against you, folks, but once in a blue moon on a warm summer night, someone does win the chartreuse Ford.


From the culinary vault: Jell-O Salad

Cubes of Lime jello on a white background

I’ve been browsing through my mother’s old cookbooks and came across this classic.

Please note: I am not recommending it. I offer it only as a piece of American history. Budgets were tight when I grew up (as they are now) and Jell-O was affordable. There seemed to be endless variations on what someone could do with a box of Jell-O and a few other ingredients.

Here, from a community cookbook, is a recipe I am only reproducing in the spirit of history. Please note that the illustration does not represent the finished product. Sadly, we have no record of it, except in our memories.

Jell-O Salad

In top of double boiler, melt 16 large marshmallows in 1 cup milk. Then add 1 large package lime Jell-O and 1 large package cream cheese that has been softened. Cool.

Then, add 1 can crushed pineapple, drained, 1 small carton heavy cream whipped stiffed, and 1/2 cup mayonnaise.

Set until stiff.

(They absolutely lost me at the mayonnaise.)

Listen. Just listen.

Assistance (with clipping path)

The cries came through the closed windows. My neighbor, whom I have only said “Hello” to as I walked past her house, was crying out for her husband.

It depends on where you live and how you encounter him if you think him a good person or bad. They are owners of a successful family business around the corner. They have family living closer to them than I do who work there.

They are both quite elderly and have trouble moving about. Perhaps he is too deaf, I think. Maybe that is why he has never acknowledged me when I tried to say hello.

He yells. Loudly and repeatedly. If they are going somewhere and she cannot get out of the house quickly enough, he sounds the car horn until she arrives. Forever, it seems. Loud, obnoxious horn blasts.

Two blocks away, the mailman is shaking his head and laughing at the sound. I do not laugh. I try to give him the benefit of the doubt, but my first instinct is to not like him very much at all. (more…)

When you are “between contracts,” it’s time to bake.


Yes, I find myself “between contracts” at the moment. That’s an euphemism consultants use when one contract ends before they’ve found the next one. This is the nice thing about consulting, you are never out of work, just between contracts.

While I devote a large chunk of my day towards finding the next source of income, I also can tend to some neglected chores, such as straightening up my disaster of an office, or finally painting some rooms that need a touch-up.

My favorite part of this time is to leave the house and do something fun: extra walks with my dog, a weekday visit to the wonderful museum in town, or maybe finally stop in at the artisan bakery that receives such rave reviews.

I’ll bake some bread myself, of course, because I enjoy doing it. Besides, I have family traditions to keep alive. (more…)

Why is that man mowing the lawn in his underwear?

Antique lawn mower in action

Soon after my parents were married, they made a down payment on a new house. It was a few years after World War II and a developer was building 30 nearly identical houses to be sold to veterans of the war. They were three-bedroom homes with a living room, dining room, and a single bathroom. To my young eyes, it was a fine home.

The Lomax family lived next door.  Five of them:  George and Lucille, their two adult sons, and one daughter-in-law, moved into their new home in 1947.

George and Lucille were retired, or unemployed, or both. Frank, a bachelor and an Army veteran, was the buyer of the house.  For some reason, Frank paid the mortgage and all the household expenses. His married brother Bert was a podiatrist (Frank paid for his education), but Bert and his wife Melanie paid only for their groceries, which they kept separate from the rest of the food in the house.

It was an odd arrangement but it seemed to work for the Lomaxes. Lomax logic, we called it.

When Bert and Melanie began having children (a boy and a girl), they all shared the same bedroom until the daughter got married and, mercifully, moved out. We called that arrangement too creepy to think about.


The Sorority of Strangers


Something has suddenly gone very wrong in your life. You fear it might be your fault and you hope. You hope: Just let things go back to the way they were. If not forever, then just for a little while longer.

She was only 8 or 9 when I met her. I never learned her name.

She was sitting alone in the hospital waiting room when I walked in. She looked up at me with very sad eyes and I knew things were not going well for her. I smiled and said hello and sat across from her.

The television was on, as televisions are on in every waiting room. I was not interested in the talk show, so I picked up a 3-month old magazine and began flipping through it.

I had come to the hospital with my friends Rick and Phyllis. Rick’s sister had just given birth to a baby boy and we stopped by for a short visit. As there was a limit of two visitors at a time, Phyllis and I went in first. Then, I excused myself so that Rick could spend some time with his sister and new nephew. I told them to take their time and that I’d be in the waiting room.


Why I travel alone now: Provence

Marche des Capucins

I was having dinner with four people I met shortly after I moved to a new town. The conversation turned to travel and I mentioned a great trip to France that I took with two other friends a few years earlier. We rented a farmhouse and a car and spent a week château hopping in the Loire Valley. Our evening entertainment was to drive into a village, find a small hotel, and spend the next three hours in their dining room enjoying a 5- or 6- or 7- course meal for maybe $20. Easily the best trip ever.

“We should do that,” one them said. “I’ve always wanted to go to Provence.”

We rented a beautiful home and a car large enough for the five of us: Tom and Phyllis, their neighbor Maggie, and Carolyn, who we would later discover to be a sociopath. Game on.

Carolyn would never commit to getting her airline tickets, so I called her from the travel agency and offered to get her tickets while I was there as long as she reimbursed me for them as soon as possible. (I needed the money.)

Before I got into travel mode, I paid my bills a little early, nearly draining my checking account in the process. I was counting on Carolyn’s check for the tickets to replenish my account.

The day of our flight, I took my dog to the kennel and on the way back home, the travel agent called me to say that Carolyn, who had never picked up her tickets, just called to say that she had an ear infection and couldn’t fly.

And so it began: the worst vacation ever.


The Memory Quilt


When I bought my first home oh-so-many-years-ago, the first people I met were my neighbor Doug’s parents. They didn’t live with Doug but apparently had their own keys. We met in the parking lot of the new townhouses.

Doug’s father seemed like a genuinely nice person, but he didn’t say much. That’s because his wife rarely stopped talking, or more accurately, expressing opinions. And she had many, many opinions–enough opinions to send most possible daughters-in-law running for their lives.

When she discovered that I was single, she said, “Have I got a guy for you,” and began telling me what a wonderful person her son was. On that point, I agree with her. Doug is a very kind and thoughtful man but he always defers to his mother’s demands.

She didn’t like a picture he had hanging in his home and nagged him until he finally took it down. It wasn’t anything racy; just a nice landscape. She didn’t like his new coat or his living room furniture. (Again, all perfectly fine choices.) He didn’t return them, so she just kept complaining about them. Doug just kept saying what a wonderful mother she was.

He has never married; I’m not sure he’s ever dated. I draw no conclusions. Seriously.

Since I moved to another state, Doug and I still exchange Christmas cards and when I’m back in town, we sometimes get together for dinner.

A few years ago, I told Doug I would be in town for a few days and he invited me to his house for dinner. Since he barely cooks, he ordered pizza and left me alone while he went off to pick it up. Before he left, Doug handed me a CD.

“You have to listen to this,” he said. “My family put it together for my mother’s 80th birthday. It’s a Memory Quilt.”

I was not familiar with the term, so Doug explained.

“We had everyone in the family record a tribute to my mother: memories, funny stories, that sort of thing. Then we put all the stories together on this CD. They call it a memory quilt because it’s like a patchwork quilt of memories.”

That seemed like a nice idea, plus I was curious to hear what Doug’s family had to say about his mother.

It started out lukewarm: Doug’s sisters recalled what a good cook their mother is; someone else commented on how she kept her house so clean. Nothing very interesting, to be honest.

Then Doug’s niece began her tribute.

“Hey, Grandma! Happy Birthday! I just wanted to tell you that I love you and I hope you have a great birthday. They asked us to talk about our memories of you and I guess I’d have to say that when I think of you I think of your funny little zingers.

“I remember last year when we all met at the restaurant for Mother’s Day. I was wearing my new dress and when I walked in to give you a kiss you said, ‘Couldn’t you find something better to wear?’ Grandma, I bought that dress just for that day. I’m sorry you didn’t like it.

“Then last month at Wendy’s graduation. We all sat together in the high school auditorium. When you saw me you said, ‘Couldn’t you do something with your hair?’  Grandma, I spent a lot of time trying to make my hair look good, but my hair just never looks good. I do try, though.”

As sad as this girl’s memories were, Doug never heard the pain in her voice. He only heard a CD full of tributes to his mother.

Is it just me or did you hear something else, too? Just asking

Beware of the dog, you spoiled brat.


On the street where I grew up, we knew better than to misbehave because we had 30 sets of parents–60 pairs of eyes–who were keeping a watch on us. Any parent could correct another child’s behavior, followed up with a telephone call to the child’s parents to explain the circumstances. In loco parentis worked quite well on our street.

That is not always the case, however.

Many years ago, I was having lunch with my parents. There was a table nearby where two families and their children were having lunch. The adults were laughing and enjoying the moment and ignoring the children, who were done with their meals and playing a game of tag in the restaurant. We endured the annoyance for 15 minutes as they ran back and forth around the tables. Finally, when a little boy ran into our table, spilling the water from our glasses, my mother quietly looked up from her meal and looked him in the eye.

“My goodness,” she said quietly. “Aren’t you a little brat?”

She went back to her meal. The child stood frozen for a moment, then ran back to his place at the table.

I assumed he would whine to his parents that the mean lady scolded him, but instead he took his seat and sat quietly.

Fast forward to last year.

I was helping a friend move from  Florida to Ohio. She had most of her possessions loaded onto the van, but she needed help driving her dog and two cats, so I volunteered.

We arrived in town late and checked into a motel for the night. There was a restaurant — a burger joint, actually–across the street from the motel, so we walked over without unloading the car. It was winter but the car was warm. The animals would be fine in the car for a few more minutes while we ate.

I opened the restaurant door and we stepped into what looked like a food fight. There were chairs overturned, spilled sodas dripping onto the floor, half-eaten sandwiches strewn across the floor. Children running this way and that, laughing, screaming, throwing ice cubes at each other. One of the boys — a freckled redhead who reminded me of Opie on the old Andy Griffith Show–seemed to be the ringleader.

Four tables were pushed together.  At one end was the flotsam and jetsam of these maniacal childrens’ meals. At the other end sat a half-dozen adults engaged in lively banter. Laughing, sharing photos on their cell phones. Having a lovely time. What they were not doing was paying any attention to the children.

We thought about leaving but decided to wait them out. Mercifully, they did leave. When we went to pay the bill, we commiserated with the staff.

“They are here for a wrestling tournament. This is their second night here and we have two more to go,” the young man behind the cash register said. “The manager said we can’t refuse to serve them.”

He had to have been a high school student. I admired his maturity and restraint. As we spoke, the rest of the staff attacked the mess with mops and disinfectant. It seemed like an extraordinary amount of dedication to a minimum-wage job.

We went back to the rooms: she with the cats and I with the dog. Our rooms were on the first floor.

When you travel with animals, they usually reserve the first floor rooms for pets. It makes it easier to get he dog outside to do his business, but it also segregates the animals into one area of the hotel.

Apparently, unchaperoned children fall into that same category.

We were only a few feet down the hallway when we heard the familiar screams and laughter. Children in footed pajamas ran past us in the hallway. I spotted Opie and his friends.

We passed a room where the adult chaperones had congregated. They were half-in/half out of the room. The music was blaring; they were again  paying no attention to the children in their charge.

I went into my room and set my things down. The dog was going to need a walk before I could convince him that it was time to go to bed.

As we walked down the hallway towards a door, the children were still running about. I headed toward the exit door and came face-to-face with my old pal Opie, who was frozen in place. He was focused on the dog. He was, I realized, afraid of dogs.

I shortened the leash so that the dog could not possibly jump on the boy. (Not that this sweet dog would ever do anything other than lick someone.)

We walked towards the door and Opie remained frozen. As we walked past him in the hallway I said,” “Don’t worry. The dog only bites children who are very loud or obnoxious.”

Opie let out a gasp.

I took the dog out do to do his business and I cleaned up after him.

When we walked back into the motel, the hallways were clear and quiet and we enjoyed and good night’s sleep.

I have had meals, trans-continental flights, and theater performances ruined by children allowed to run wild while their parents ignored them. I certainly understand  the stress of raising children and having to get away from them a bit.

But I must ask: If you don’t want to discipline your children while you go out to eat, wouldn’t it be better to just hire a babysitter?

I, for one, would appreciate it.