My memory lane is a train track. You might say it’s more of a Memory Line than a Memory Lane. The tracks ran less than a block from my house. I can still remember the mournful cries of the whistles announcing their approach in and out of Minneapolis.
We spent hot summer days under trees on a piece of land we called we called the ditch. The ditch was as long as our neighborhood, 100 to 200 feet wide. It ran alongside the tracks, and despite how fearsome it sounds, was the perfect playground for my mates and me. We climbed trees, both upright and felled and made moguls for bicycles. And the trains rumbled by. Sometimes we’d race toward the tracks to see the engineer at his place in front. We’d pump our arms to see if he’d toot the whistle and jump for joy if he did.
Holly Shopping Center is still less than a mile from where I grew up, but several other of our hangouts are gone. We biked or walked, and always crossed the tracks to get anywhere. We played a game to see who could stare at the top of the cars the longest. As they flew by, the wind swooshed against our bodies, and the train seemed to be falling down on top of us. Our screams of delight rivaled the roar of the cars. And always at the end, there was the red caboose.
As a toddler, clean from the bath and dressed in flannel, I’d sit on my mother’s lap looking out at the moon from our big living room window. We snuggled and she bounced me on her lap. Sometimes she’d read The Little Engine That Could. One of the songs she sang was Little Red Caboose. We’d get to the end and I’d join in. “Little red caboose behind the train . . . toot, toot!”
On nights when sleep defied me, I’d wait in the darkness and listen. At night you could hear the trains from miles away, blowing their whistle at each crossing.
I still like to hear the reassuring rumble of a train from my bed. As the cars drift away . . . clickety, clickety, clickety . . . they pull me back to my childhood home, and deep into dreamland.
When I was a kid, no one used backpacks. We just carried our books in our arms. So it wasn’t unusual to lose stuff on the way to or from school, or for parental forms to come home with wet dog-eared corners. On one such day, I handed a piece of white mimeographed paper to my mom, the top of the kitchen chair reaching just under my chin as I stood looking up at her hopefully.
She read the form and looked down at me. While shaking her head from side to side, she said, “Girl Scouts. You don’t want to do this, do you?”
That was my first experience with extracurricular activities.
The next was orchestra. Like I said, we didn’t have backpacks, so if you didn’t want your parents to find something, you couldn’t crumple it up and hide it in the bottom. My mom discovered the notice as I was doing my homework at the dining room table. Her face turned dreamy as she said, “Oh, Orchestra! Wouldn’t you like to play the cello?”
Indeed, I had never given a passing thought to the cello. Suddenly, I was getting the vibe that this would make my mother happy, and so I nodded yes.
The cello made my life a living hell. Firstly, unlike the Girl Scout form that I handed to her the minute I arrived through the door, this one had been in my math book for a while and, as such, was the last in my class to be turned in. The orchestra director was a little disappointed at the late submission, but when my mother assured him I could already read music, he accepted my form.
The school was able to find one last cello, presumably from the thrift store, riddled with scratches and graffiti from previous orchestra drop-outs. I wish I had a nickel for every kid who asked me in horror, “What did you do to your cello?”
My social life needed all the help it could get. Sitting on the bus next to a 4-foot instrument didn’t do me any favors. I envied the girls with the cute little flute cases, their hair impeccably braided. Not only did I suffer the slings and arrows of mean-hearted boys, and the sidewise glances from flute-cased girls, no room remained for my closest defenders to sit next to me. Alone in my seat, arm draped grudgingly around the awkward luggage, I intently engaged the changing landscape out the frosted window.
Practice was torture. I knew my parents were out in the living room laughing. I could see their stifled grins when they stopped in to my bedroom to tell me how good I sounded. Even as a kid I recognized a snow job. Twinkle Twinkle Little Star never screeched so bad. Forced to form new unwanted callouses, my fingers burned.
Rehearsals were embarrassing. Anyone knows that the better one likes a thing, the easier it is to learn. Mom was right — I did know how to read music. But reading it and applying it to an instrument takes devotion. I was more determined to find a way out of it than to learn it. It didn’t take long for me to realize I couldn’t blend in. The director had a keen ear for the kids who played the wrong notes. Lucky for him, I learned how to fake it.
After our first concert, Mom said, “You sounded so great!” I replied, “You couldn’t hear me.” “Yes I could,” she encouraged. Another snow job.
“No, you couldn’t,” I explained, “because I wasn’t playing.” As it turns out, it was easier for me to learn how to move my bow left and right at the same time as everyone else than it was to play the thing. I’d hold my bow just above the strings, so as not to make that awful screeching sound. And being able to read music, I knew when to turn the page, further corroborating my own personal performance. I may have failed at the cello, but my acting performance was remarkable.
The next week she asked if there was something I’d rather play than the cello. I wanted to be in band. I wanted a clarinet, or maybe a flute. “Really?” Mom asked in disbelief. I nodded emphatically and my mother went to the school office and asked for the appropriate paperwork.
She dropped me off early the next morning with the completed form and signed check in hand. The band door was open, the teacher rustling through papers with his back to me. I handed him the envelope buoyantly. I still remember my excitement.
But it was too late. The other kids were a year ahead of me. There was no way he’d let me join unless I was able to take private lessons and catch up to the rest of the band. Even then I held out hope. I had taken private music lessons before. It was hard work, but I thought I could do it.
Unfortunately, it just never came to fruition. Whether my parents were too busy, or I found other interests, or they distracted me by signing me up for bowling and golf and more organ lessons, it just never happened.
Some memories make your heart warm. Some make it weep. We live them and then learn from them and then go on to choose what today will be. We do our best as parents and hope the love we spent was enough to balance the times we broke their hearts. Fortunately for me, the abundance of love I received more than made up for any misdirected parental form.
Every year as I dug through the gifts and candy in the red felt sock that hung from my bedroom doorknob, I hoped against hope that the last gift I hauled out of that thing was not going to be an orange. I could see the orb-shaped something filling out the toe of the sock. Pulling out the little cellophane-wrapped sweets that had dropped to the bottom, my nails must have scraped the bumpy texture of the peel. The fresh citrusy smell must have wafted past my nostrils. But I held out hope that it was a ball, or a pair of really pretty mittens, or anything . . . but an orange. Yet, every year it was an orange. Either Santa had a messed-up sense of humor, or he was just a big dick dressed in red.
Santa left my other gifts unwrapped under the tree. That worked, because my next oldest sibling was ten years older than me, and by that time, was most likely helping to perpetuate the storyline. So any unwrapped gifts under the tree were From: Santa; To: me.
Like any kid, sometimes Santa brought exactly what I wanted, and some years he hadn’t a clue. The year I got my pixie haircut, he brought me a long, blonde wig. It was exactly what I wanted, and I tossed my head like the girls in the Prell commercials swinging it sensuously in slow motion.
The year he brought me a fire engine pedal-car, he lost some of his magic status. The box featured pictures of all the models, and my parents asked me which one I wanted to be in the box. I imagined it was a magical box that would change whatever was inside to be exactly the model you wished for. I wished hard and pointed to the Tee Bird, but what they pulled out of the box was a fire engine, complete with a bell on the front for announcing emergencies. The toy was my first encounter with independence because back then little kids just pedaled around blocks unchaperoned for hours at a time. So that was cool, but I knew somewhere there was a little kid who pointed at the fire engine and got the blue Tee Bird. That was my second clue that Santa wasn’t all he was cracked up to be.
Eventually I learned the harsh truth that my parents were just filling in while Santa sat at the North Pole consuming dubious amounts of cookies and Amaretto. I couldn’t believe it was them putting that damned orange in the bottom of my sock all along. And while it might have been forgivable for Santa to make that mistake — after all, he had millions of socks to fill — I could not say the same for my parents. They had only one job that night, to place a few unwrapped gifts around the tree and fill my sock with toys and candy, saving the obvious best gift for the bottom of the sock.
I don’t mean to say that I harbored ill feelings over the faux pas of my parents. Christmas was and is still something I hold dear and find magical. I wish joy and peace to all in the new year, and in the grand scheme of things, I think I’ve turned out alright.
But for the life of me, every time I see a big, round, juicy orange at this time of year, I remember the disappointment of finding one in the toe of my sock on Christmas morn.
And I am reminded of what a sick jerk Santa really can be.
The organist and vocalist were late. I hated my dress. I had little say in the flowers. Yet, there was a smile on my face. I was following in the footsteps of those young women who had gone down the aisle before me. No, not my bridesmaids — the women who followed in the footsteps of their mothers and their mother’s mothers before them.
The person who walked down the aisle that day so many years ago seems like a completely different person from the one who writes here today. I had different beliefs, even though my values have remained the same. We base our beliefs on myths and facts that updated as new information becomes available.
Values are the things we find important, and although the priorities of our values may shift with time or age, they typically remain unchanged. I value love, but I no longer believe marriage is the only way to secure it. Does that help explain it? Life doesn’t grant do-overs, but it does grant start-overs, and we are all encouraged to grow and evolve.
June Cleaver and Mary Scott were my role models. June Cleaver was a fictional character on a black and white television show where men came home from work expecting quiet children and dinner on the table. June was known for her impeccable dresses and tidy pearls.
Mary Scott was my grandmother. She was a non-fictional character who watched me while my mother worked. She was known for her jet-black hair, slight frame, and dainty gestures.
Both June and Mary believed it was the woman’s duty and privilege to run the home while their husbands worked. Their homes were always as tidy as their skirts by the time their spouse returned home, and they knew how to get a steaming dinner on the table at the same time each day. Boy, did I have a rude awakening!
It’s hard to talk about how I might have done things differently if I had a the chance. After all, I might have had different children, or no children at all. I’d have waited. I’d have learned more about myself. I’d have considered the impact my choices make on the world, and my life. But life doesn’t give us do-overs. Fortunately, it does give us start-overs.
Is it time to update your beliefs? What myths might you hold as truth? What facts must be updated with new information? What are your values? Do you need to reprioritize them based on a change in your life, age, job, or family?
My children are waiting for marriage and children. I’m proud of the choices they’re making. If they do decide to do either, they’ll have so much more to offer their spouse and/or children. They’ll have a better idea of how to live with other people. They’ll have a better grasp of their own values and beliefs, and not rely on ones borrowed from their parents, grandparents, or fictional t.v. characters.
It’s okay to change your beliefs. It’s okay to realign your values. It doesn’t mean you’re a whole different person. It means you’re evolving.
Sometimes I get frustrated with a piece of me, either physical, emotional, or intellectual, and I wonder, “Where did that come from?” I’ve long known that I have a tendency toward guilt. Had I been raised Catholic, I might have blamed my religion. I get asked all the time, “What are you, Catholic?” Personally, I think the Catholics have been over-blamed for this, but maybe they’re just an easy target, what with all they probably should feel guilty about.
This morning, after Bubba’s nap, we watched an episode of Vikings — the drama one, not the History Channel one. Afterward, he popped up off the couch declaring he had things to do.
Me: What? What do you need to do?
Bubba: Stuff! I have things to do!
Me: Are you going to clean?
Bubba: Well, for starters, I have to do some laundry.
Me: So nothing I have to feel guilty about not helping with.
Bubba: No. You sit here on the couch a little longer
We do our own laundry. I hate that he eyeball-measures the soap, and uses way to much bleach. I wash my clothes in cold water and sometimes wash cleaning rags in with my towels. That freaks my bubble-boy out. So we avoid an argument and each do our own.
But what is my problem with the guilt? As I sat pondering this, I had a flashback.
I’m playing with my Barbies, making furniture out of towels and empty boxes, because kids back then actually had to use their imagination. My mom pops up off her chair where she’s been reading the newspaper all morning. I hear shuffling and banging and running water. After about (what I can only estimate after all these years) has been about 15 minutes, I go off in search of her.
Me: Mom? Do you want me to do anything?
Mom: No . . . no . . .
After another bit of time, I follow the huffing, puffing, and sighing until I find my mom again.
Me: Are we having company?
Mom: No. Uh-uh.
Me: Why are you cleaning?
Mom: Because it needs to get done.
Me: Do you want help?
Mom: Do you see anything that needs to be clean?
Mom: Well, then, I guess not.
No longer feeling comfortable playing with my toys, I begin to pick them up. When I get everything put away, I go back and tell my mom I cleaned up my toys and ask if there is anything else she wants done.
Mom: Well, you sure know when to ask. I’m all done now.
This is a story we would laugh about in later years, but the residue may not have worn away even yet. I know she was teaching me how to take initiative, and it probably worked for the most part. But to this day I am a person who needs structure and straightforwardness. I’m not sure if the chicken or egg came first there, but for the most part I’d say children need structure.
As a teen, I asked to apply for work, but was not allowed to do so. Their reasoning was that I had everything I needed. I should leave the jobs for kids who actually had to pay for their own clothes, cars, or school lunch. I had a wonderful childhood, and indeed had everything a kid could dream of. This is the space where most people insert the label “spoiled.”
I’ve gone out of my way in my writings not to speak ill of those I love. And I don’t mean to do so here. However, I will say that the single best thing they could have done for me is to let me get a job when I asked about it. I think it might have changed the course of my life. But then I feel guilty about wishing things might have turned out differently. Of course I do.
I grew up in a home that spoke of business around the kitchen table. It was well-known that my parents valued honest hard work. Their identities were very wrapped up in their business and the reward it gave them. Yet, they were blind to the fact that they were denying me the same reward. It wasn’t until I had children of my own that I felt truly needed. It’s no wonder I went on to have three more after the first. I thrived on the responsibility. I became very involved in my children’s school, and in Scouting. In effect, they were the job I never had. I’m not sure if they would say that was a good thing or a bad thing. Most likely some of both.
By the time I was old enough to get a job — and by that I mean my kids were becoming more independent — I sampled several different environments. I was a cashier, a teacher’s assistant, and a server for a caterer. I quickly learned what I had missed. With the support of my family, I started a full-time career, and learned I am every bit the workaholic that my dad was. I get my identity from good honest work. I value people with a good work ethic. I am passionate about service to others.
So maybe I learned guilt at my mother’s knee. Maybe I’m naturally a person who feels guilty sitting while others are actively employed. Or perhaps I should just repent and join the Catholics. Maybe what makes us US is something we will never truly figure out.
As I keep telling my kids, you can’t blame everything on your parents.
One of my earliest memories is that of sitting at story time in nursery school. I was a young 4-year old with hair so long I often found myself sitting on it. To free it, I leaned forward, bowing my head until it came loose, then rolled back to listen to the rest of the story. Men called me Blondie. Women cooed over my golden locks.
We had an old black and silver hair dryer that could either sit on the counter or be held like blow-dryers of today. We used that until it started to emit electrical shocks, then finally updated to an orange plastic model in the seventies. Mom would sit me down in front of it, working the boar’s-bristle brush through the long maze of snarled nests. If her patience wavered, I never knew it. Although years later I learned how much she hated that task.
The Powder Pouf Beauty Salon was a cornerstone of the *Moon Plaza for many years, along with Buzz’s Barber shop, Dave’s Sport Shop, the Marine recruitment office, a dance school, and the Alcohol Anonymous meeting room in Fridley, Minnesota. Every Saturday morning, for several years, I packed coloring books and crayons in a small bag, and scrambled into the back of my mother’s white Chevy with red interior. No seat belt. No video games. I remember the smell of hairspray, the hum of the dryers, and looked forward to the attention from all the ladies in curlers and lipstick. It was a very pink place, as you can imagine.
If business was slow, sometimes Sandi, my mother’s beautician (they weren’t stylists back then), turned a dryer on a low setting and let me feel the tiny jets of air tickle my scalp. The warmth gave me goosebumps. The white noise lulled me into a trance. Sometimes I got a bottle of pop, pulled out of a coin-operated machine, that clinked and clunked as the money fell, the mechanism unlocked, and the bottles rolled into place. It was a magical place where my mom transformed from Saturday morning bed-head into a ravishing washed, curled, teased, and sprayed helmet-clad angel.
Then one day it was my turn. Mom turned up the hype. This was my rite of passage. I would be beautiful.
Upon arrival, my woman-friend, Sandi, sat me in a booster seat and wrapped me in a cape. In her hands she held scissors, a rubber band, and my faith. She bound my hair in a pony tail, and in one snip her scissors removed from my head the very essence of my being. Sandi held the bound hair up like a dead rabbit at the end of a day’s hunt, then curled it into a plastic bag that my mother tucked into her perfume-scented purse.
I was Sampson. Stunned. Powerless. My mother sat in the chair next to me, chatting and smiling with Delilah, seemingly oblivious to my loss. Several snips and one Saf-T-Pop later, I was on my way home in the back of the Chev. Mom chatted about the usual things, none of which were important to me in my grief.
At home, I sat on the kitchen floor playing with dolls, or coloring, or something. I have a lot of memories of playing on the kitchen floor for some reason. Gramma and Grampa came through the back door to say hello. Gramma’s eyes shifted from me to my mother and back again. I felt like a specimen. Mom explained that this was a Pixie Cut. It was very popular in those days. Feeling their stares like hot fire on the top of my head, I looked up at Gramma’s speechless face. Never being one to say anything if she couldn’t say something nice, she finally announced, “Well, she’s so homely she’s cute!”
“Well she is, isn’t she?”
I didn’t know what homely meant back then, but I knew from my mom’s reaction it wasn’t good. I filed that word into a special place in my memory called, “Things I don’t want to ask about, but want to know someday.” And when I looked back at my school photo many, many years later, it all came back to me. Mainly, because I thought to myself, “My God. I’m so homely, I’m cute.” Like a frog or a bug.
The following Christmas I got a play wig. It was a long blonde play wig, and it was as if someone had reattached a lost limb. I wore it all the time, glamorously flipping it back with my hands, or whisking it off my shoulder with a toss of my head. Eventually, when I had more voice in the matter, I grew my hair out. Mom chiding, “As long as I don’t have to brush out the knots, you can do whatever you want with it.” Later I cut it again, and permed it. Later yet I grew it out and now still wear it long.
The one thing I have never done is color it. I have few vanities with this old body of mine, so let me have this one. Oh, there is some grey in there, but it’s harder to see against the blonde. Men still call me Blondie and more often Sunshine. Women still ogle, although I suspect they’re looking for roots. And someday I’ll be too old to pull off this long, straight Thirty-something style. But I’m going to rock it as long as I’m able, and maybe a little after that.
In my golden years
I imagine I’ll it cut short again. Maybe if I’m lucky they’ll say I’m so homely I’m cute.
Peace . . .
*Moon Plaza still stands. Although updated, it is much the same.
Buzz the barber celebrated his 50th year in business in 2015, although he quit racing motorcycles at the age of 67.
I’m sad to say that Sandi the beautician died in 2008 at the age of 60. She was eventually the owner of The Powder Pouf and another location in the northeast suburbs of the Twin Cities.
First and foremost, I blog for therapy. Unlike a diary, it forces me to choose my words wisely. Where a diary will take any abuse you want to give, my public blog requires I treat my thoughts with respect. And in doing so, I find an appreciation for “life and all things peaceful, balanced, whole and precious.”
I blog for posterity. It’s something to leave behind. I don’t believe in a supernatural afterlife. Even if I could, I wouldn’t want to hang around watching over my loved ones eternally. In a recent mishap, I accidentally and unavoidably caught a glimpse of all the pictures on the Rebel’s phone. Trust me when I say I don’t want to watch over them from above.
I blog to pass along a wisdom. Ancient cultures sat around the fire listening to lore from their elders. While I do have plenty of advice to share around the fire, most of it involves the perfect toasted marshmallow or the dangers of wielding hot pokers. Besides, who has time to sit around a fire listening to their elders anymore? Anything like that gets shared here as “Lore” for those who find it valuable enough to read.
I’m not sure at what age one becomes an elder, but I think I’m growing into it as gracefully as possible. That is, kicking and screaming, my brittle nails shredding on the door frame of old age. My daughter, the Romantic, reminded me that I once announced I was going to age naturally and embrace it — gray hair, wrinkles, and all. Yeah . . . I was thirty-something and knew nothing of disappearing collagen or finding coarse, white eyebrows reaching out like odd antennae over the tops of my bifocals. And so this thing of wisdom that comes with age is less of a gift than a purchase, dearly paid for with my declining condition.
Perhaps there is a responsibility to share what has been so expensive to attain. Maybe I want to spare my children and readers the pain I’ve born. After all, the suffering of my children is two-fold; once for their pain and another for the remembrance of my own mistakes. Or maybe I just want to give you a shortcut, a life hack, so you can surpass where I have been and finish farther ahead. Whatever the reason, sharing lore is clearly a primal need, present since men acquired the ability to speak.
The elders of my youth have all passed away. They, too, shared the experience of their years. Some of it I remember, most of it has probably been forgotten. The truth is, I gained less of my wisdom in listening than I found in living. The toddler learns more from touching a hot oven than from being told it is hot. Riding a bicycle can only be mastered after falling. We learn to guard our heart once we know how deeply it can hurt.
I’m told there is occasionally wisdom in my words. If you find it here, it is yours. If you want to keep it, however, it’s going to cost you a couple of wrinkles and maybe a white antenna eyebrow. But I guarantee it will be worth it.