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Memoir

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“I’m going to Nancy’s,” I yelled over my shoulder on my way out the door.

Nancy lived across the street. Edge Hill Road, a two lane highway with a posted speed limit of 35 that was routinely ignored, separated us.

Her address was 1801 Acorn Lane, although the front of her two story colonial faced Edge Hill Road. My address was 1802 Edge Hill Road, although our split level faced Silver Avenue and Overlook Elementary.

“Wait up!” Dad called after me. “You’re only 10. I’m coming with you, to be sure you know how to cross that busy street.”

Dad pushed his chair away from his lunch and followed me. He held my hand as we stood in the gravelly grass next to the asphalt. A car whizzed past.

I could see the safety of Nancy’s driveway, just 20 feet across the road.

“Now, look both ways,” Dad instructed. He turned his head, looking left. Then he turned his head right. Another car drove past.

“Okay-“ he looked left. The road was empty.

“Go!” his hand pushed me into the street.

“Wait!” I jumped back. I had seen a car approaching from the right. Dad’s arm yanked me onto the grass, just in time. We watched it zoom away.

“I guess you don’t need me,” Dad laughed, shook his head and went home.

I climbed up Nancy’s driveway. The crabapple tree in the front yard was awash in pink and white blooms. Rhododendron bushes flanked the front door. I knocked. Nancy had two older sisters; Shirley was away at college. Jeannie, in high school, opened the door.

“How’s tricks?” she asked, knowing I would not know what to say. “Nancy! your little friend is here.”

I loved the Otis’ house. Nancy and I both loved history. My house was boringly modern with wall to wall carpeting. Her house was a perfect setting for colonial living: hardwood floors, braided rugs and fireplace. But the Otises were anything but old fashioned. In the dining room they had a color television. Her father worked for Philco, and had helped invent the color television. We only had black and white.

“What do you wanna do?” Nancy appeared from the dining room. We had already walked to Sears that morning to choose fabric for the long skirts Mrs. Otis was going to help us sew. It was almost a mile there, and then we had to walk back. We were tired.

I followed Nancy into the kitchen.

“Hi, Jill,” Mrs. Otis greeted me, looking up from the newspaper spread out on the kitchen table. Mrs. Otis was wearing a flowered blouse with a Peter Pan collar, and fitted skirt. She had sewn her clothes but you wouldn’t know it; the test of a real seamstress. My mother didn’t sew, not even loose buttons. My father did that.

Classical music played from the radio on the counter.

“What are you girls up to today?” Mrs. Otis asked cheerfully.

“Do you feel like making cookies?” Nancy asked me.

“Sure.”

One thing our Mothers had in common: neither liked to bake. They made dinner every night, and did the food shopping, but if we wanted cookies, we made them.

Both our mothers had three girls, until Pam was born. Both were college graduates, my mother from Temple University. Nancy’s mother graduated Magna Cum Laude from Radcliffe, a member of Phi Beta Kappa. Both were leaders in their churches: Nancy’s mother was on the altar guild at St. Peter’s Episcopal church. My mother taught a Young Married class at our church.

“That’s a great idea,” Mrs. Otis stood up from the table and put her newspaper away.

She left the kitchen to us.

The window over the kitchen sink, edged with ruffled curtains, poured light onto our baking. I knew where the sifter was; Nancy opened the cupboards and pulled out the flour and sugar.

Nancy’s dad walked through the kitchen.

“Are you girls making cookies?” he asked. “Let me know when they’re ready. I’m going out to cut the grass. Then I’m going to set up the tent to get it aired out for our trip.”

Nancy’s family camped. My parents’ idea of a vacation was the beach.

“Could we sleep out there tonight?” Nancy asked her dad as he went out the kitchen door. We had done that last summer. During the day it’s a fun idea. At night, the tent is dark. Animals make creepy noises in the trees. I was terrified.

“Ask your mother-” he was gone.

We started mixing. Nancy turned the gas stove to 375. Their recipe called for “a heaping” 1/2 cup of Crisco. We knew what that meant, and dumped it into the three eggs, brown and white sugar.

Other than baking, Nancy’s family used margarine, and my family used butter. When we made cookies at my house, we used butter and the recipe on the back of the Nestle Toll House chips bag. There was only one kind of chips: semi-sweet, not milk chocolate.

In less than a half an hour from getting out the mixing bowl and combining ingredients, we pulled the first rack of fragrant cookies from the oven.

“They’re perfect!” we both agreed. The edges were golden, and cracks criss crossed the centers. Chocolate pieces poked up through the warm dough. We let them sit on the tray for a minute; then I got the spatula and transferred them to the metal rack to cool. Nancy slid the next tray into the oven.

We each reached for a warm cookie.

“These are so good!” We smiled as we bit into them. Descriptions of food enjoyment can turn graphic, almost pornographic, so I won’t go there. If you’ve had a good cookie, you know it.

Sometimes friends are surprised when they see me eating other chocolate chip cookies than my own homebaked: even packaged chocolate chip cookies.

“Your cookies are so good, why would you eat any others?”

The world is a big place full of different things to love.

 

“Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!” We sang as loud as we could to the neighbors gathered on Cooks’ freshly cut lawn for our production of ‘Mary Poppins.’ In 1965, there may or may not have been parents in the audience.

The Cooks’ house was the number one place to go whenever anyone on our block was bored. With five kids: Mary Ellen, 16; Cathy, 14; Joannie, my age, 10; Lorie, 8, Jennifer’s age; and Paul, the baby, there was usually something going on.

“Let’s put on a show to raise money for the S.S. Hope!” Cathy, proposed one summer afternoon, as we sprawled on their screened porch. We decided on “Mary Poppins.” We all loved the movie, had the record, and knew all the words to the songs.

“Nancy, you’re a good singer, but you’re the tallest, so you’ll have to be Bert,” Mary Ellen pointed out. Nancy, the smartest girl in Overlook Elementary sixth grade, and my best friend, grimaced but was a good sport. She knew her height sealed her fate, and our neighborhood was predominantly girls.

“Jill, you’ll be Mary Poppins.” They knew I loved singing, and I was the right height beside Nancy. Jennifer had to play ‘Michael,’ a boy part, too, but at least it was a smaller part and her hair was very short. Lorie was ‘Jane.’

For weeks we practiced the script that Mary Ellen and Cathy wrote, argued over and revised. We scavenged our closets and attics for costumes. The hoop skirt for my chalk garden dress came from my mother’s wedding dress.

The afternoon arrived; tickets were one dollar. Kathy, another neighbor kid, sat at Cook’s white wooden gate taking tickets. Friends brought lawn chairs or sat in the grass in front of our stage, edges defined by hanging blankets from ropes. The back wall of the stage was the garage. The garage door led to our dressing room and backstage.

“Thank you for coming to our show!” Cathy, now the sole director after having creative differences with Mary Ellen, greeted everyone. Nancy, Jennifer, Lorie and I could hear her as we stood by the garage door, costumed and ready. We were excited.

The show began. Each scene went well, until the chalk garden scene. The choreography stopped the show, literally.

“She’s Supercali-“ Nancy, Jennifer, Lorie and I sang and kicked our feet into the air. My shoe caught the bottom of the hoop in my dress. I went down. The record accompanying us kept playing.

Nancy turned, saw me and the next word would not come.

“…fragilistic…” Jennifer and Lorie then realized the disaster and froze.

The audience stared.

“Get up!” Nancy whispered.

I tried. My foot was tangled in the skirt. I couldn’t stand up.

Cathy dashed out of the stage door, and announced to the audience, “We’ll have a five minute intermission.”

She and Nancy carried me back to the dressing room.

I wanted to cry, while Nancy and Cathy pushed and pulled the fabric to free my foot.

“Did you get hurt when you fell?” Cathy asked, .

“No,” I sniffed. “It’s just so embarrassing. I can’t go back out there.”

“Sure you can!” Nancy insisted. “We’ll have your foot free in a minute.”

“The show is wrecked!” I was shaking. “I looked so stupid!”

“Hey, if I can play Bert, you can get yourself up and go on with the song,” Nancy reminded me.

She and Cathy agreed. The show must go on.

“There!” Cathy grabbed the hem of the dress and ripped it off. I could now stand.

“The dress is ruined!” I protested.

“Back to the show!” Cathy prodded me, while Nancy grabbed my arm. We entered back through the garage door to the patient audience.

Everyone clapped and clapped as we started singing, and dancing, again.

“She’s Supercalifragilistic—“

We raised $35 for our charity.

family

 

“I don’t believe in God,” I announced to my fellow four year old friends and Sunday School teacher, Miss Watson, as we sat around the formica table at Berachah Church one Sunday morning.

Miss Watson, young and pretty, jumped.  She stopped passing around the lollipops she brought each week, to keep us quiet while she taught the Bible lesson.

“You can’t see him,”  I continued. This the obvious reason he did not exist.

When class was over, she hurried to warn my father, the Sunday School Superintendent.

He listened sincerely, then later he and my mother had a good laugh about it.  I was four.  This became a classic family story.  In my Christian Ed classes at Wheaton, I learned that Piaget’s theory of children’s cognitive development would support their lack of concern.

I am here

Now 62, I still struggle with the invisible.  A few years ago, I painted the words “I AM here,” from John 6:24, in various spots around my house, as a visible reminder of God’s presence and reality in the day.  I used a shiny translucent white, so that the truth is only seen when the light catches it at a certain angle.  Most of the time it is hidden from view.

My father died in 2014, and my mother in 2015.  Now they are invisible, too.  But still very real.

Explain something from nothing.

Annemarie, the teacher, stops talking mid sentence.  She glances at the clock on the wall: 12:30.   Rising from her chair, she heads to the whiteboard, picks up the marker, and scribbles, “Blue.”

Was the ink blue?   I should know.   The second week of class she had taught, “notice everything.”

I’m one of a dozen in her Memoir Writing class.  For eight weeks we gather in chairs around the formica table in a study room at Countryside Library.  Each session ends with a ‘prompt’: our writing assignment.

First I think: “oh, no, everyone’s going to write about being depressed.”   Second:  “that’s my favorite color…wait, white is actually my favorite color, being the presence of all colors.”  Then, “think harder… Dad’s eyes were the most beautiful blue.”

I signed up for the class to be accountable to write about my Mother and Father, and the house where we lived on Abbott Avenue.  I try to tie each week’s prompt to that.

I hear singing: “I’d rather be blue, thinking of you, I’d rather be blue over you, than be happy with somebody else….”

My little sister Pam, only 4, and I, fifteen, belt the tune into the mirror, our arms around each other, in the 5 x 8 foot bathroom.

“…Blue over you, I’d rather be blue over you, than be hap hap happy with somebody else else else else else!”

I fell in love with Barbra and “Funny Girl” in high school.  Every afternoon after school I’d lay on the living room floor listening to her albums, singing every word by heart.

Born for the stage, Pam practiced the song from the “Funny Girl” album with me.  Even at one year of age, she had been a star: the Christmas angel in the annual church pageant.  Dad, spiffy in navy suit, carried her in her taffeta dress, shiny black Mary Janes and gold tinsel halo, up the steps for the finale.  She smiled and glowed, capturing the congregation’s hearts.  Dad was so proud.   His delight deflated, after the show, when someone remarked, “Your granddaughter looked so cute!”

Annemarie asked a few weeks ago in class, “Does anyone sing in the shower?”  She was probing us on how we express ourselves.  I did not raise my hand.  I sing.  But the shower has poor acoustics.

The bathroom where Pam and I sang duets had excellent sound quality.  The mirror was our audience; our television camera.   The sound of our voices blending and bouncing around the room energized us.

We loved us.

But nothing else was lovely about that bathroom.  Four sisters squeezed into it every day for daily routines.  Small does not necessarily eliminate beauty.  My mother spent time and love decorating her house.  But Dad had chosen the wallpaper for the bathroom, when we were out of town visiting family.

A color blind person in an unlit factory created the turquoise with brown daisy patterned mess.  I can’t understand why Dad, a fairly artistic person, thought anyone would like that wallpaper.  Was it low price? To him, choosing the paper and getting it glued to the walls was a gift of his love to Mother.  He was so proud of his work.  So eager to show her.

Mother was not a crier.  But she could have.

On that ugly floral wallpaper opposite the toilet, she hung a small wooden plaque with the quote:

“Why were the Saints saints?

Because they were cheerful when it was difficult to be cheerful, patient when it was difficult to be patient; and because they pushed on when they wanted to stand still, and kept silent when they wanted to talk, and were agreeable when they wanted to be disagreeable. That was all. It was quite simple and always will be.”

Mother, always a teacher, had placed that plaque in a spot we would see every day.  So the wallpaper stayed.

Where do these stories come from?

From the prompt…

What has come from the stories we write and hear each week in the five minute timed readings we share?

Delight and awe.  We’re revealing ourselves to each other.  I, we, want to be known.  Each story is a surprise.  For me, to only look at a person doesn’t help at all.   As I write, I think I know myself.  Think I have a plan.  But writing takes me where I did not expect to go.

From a “blue” prompt  on a whiteboard, jump to the idea of ugly wallpaper.  Then jump to love, which is the story I always want to tell.

Thank you, Annemarie.  Thank you, Countryside Library, for providing this magical learning space, with the giant window framing the tree that reaches into the azure sky.

 

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