Gingerbread Man left home for the first time in decades. After overhearing me talk to a colleague about my cosmetic plans for him, he had high hopes of returning a new man – fully restored to his former glory. Things turned out somewhat differently.
At first he was thrilled to finally reach a pillow in a new place, but then one day passed, and then another, and nothing happened. His euphoria waned as he heard all the kids playing and laughing just outside his window. He listened to a bunch of them spending hours and hours doing stupid soapstone carving instead of needlework. He began to doubt his time would ever come.
So on Day Three, still in his sorry, tattered, one-eyed state, he cautiously ventured out into the open air. He chose an empty chair by the campfire and sat there for a while, lonely and friendless.
But then something wonderful happened. A few girls expressed interest in him – wanted to know who he was. They weren’t at all repelled by his appearance, in fact, one of them even called him “cute”! They invited him to sit with them and later he joined them in a ball game.
The spiffying finally began on Day Four, but there was only time for some jacket trim repair and a preliminary procedure to restore his right eye, before it was time for everyone to head down to the pier. In the meantime, he returned to his pillow to recuperate.
On Departure Day, he was thrilled to be asked along on a final walk to the pier. He sat with his new friends and contemplated the beautiful lake. This was quite possibly the greatest day of his life. The water was so enticing – he couldn’t resist:
All too soon, it was time to get back on the bus. Gingerbread Man did so in a physical condition only slightly better than the one he arrived in. Still, he spent the ride home basking in the sunlight of poignant memories and renewed hopes for a brighter future.
My elder daughter broached the subject of when she should start her Driver’s Ed course. Boy, was that a mistake. Not only did it bring back my own memories of Austrian Driving School, but she was really jumping the gun here!
“You know I am going to be 18 next summer,” she said.
“No you’re not.”
“You are NOT! At least not if I have anything to say about it!”
We quickly agreed that this license thing was a topic she should take up with her Papa.
18! My first baby is going to be 18 next year! And the way time has sped up since we’ve had her – this is going to feel like . . . next month!
I suddenly remembered a box of little treasures I kept upstairs in my closet, because I’d had a vague plan of giving it to her on her 18th birthday. I dragged it out and found the blanket she was wrapped in when I first held her, the first baby bottle we used, her baptism presents and dress, her first stuffed animal . . .
And then I found these:
During the adoption process, I was teaching the third of a four year course and had developed a close relationship with a lot of my students. They were aware of my situation and even a little emotionally involved. When we came home with Mitzi, a lot of them visited us with presents in hand. That is how this little stuffed sheep – whom we named Fritz – became Mitzi’s Velveteen Rabbit for a while. Two other students later presented me with the book “Fritz the Sheep”. They had drawn all the pictures and written the text themselves. Some people are so incredibly thoughtful and good at gift-giving! (I’m not one of them.) I adored this book from the start and displayed it prominently in my house. Unfortunately, it suffered a little water damage once when a wild thunderstorm blew open the porch door and caused some minor flooding. And Fritz himself is also looking a bit forlorn. But both still qualify as priceless. So I’ve decided to share them.
Here’s the (translated summary of the) story:
Fritz the Sheep lives in a nice place outside a small village, but for some reason, he is a little sad and a little lonely. He decides to take a walkabout.
He meets Lisa the Cow and tells her about his travels. Lisa doesn’t really understand why he isn’t satisfied.
Fritz meets Pino the Woodpecker. (Let it be known here that “Pino” was the nickname of one of the authors.) Pino tells Fritz that what he is really looking for is happiness and tries to teach him to fly. It doesn’t work out well.
As Fritz wanders away, Pino decides he could still help. He brings Fritz to a birdhouse where they meet Gina the Cat. (Let it be known that our Cat One was named Gina.) Gina is nasty and makes fun of Fritz at first, but after Pino flatters her, she decides to help. And, deep down, she is wise and has a good heart.
Gina leads them to a house, telling Fritz that she spends a lot of time there. (Just like our house at the time, there is a rocking chair on the front porch, a basketball stand and a blue car.) Fritz asks why they are there. Gina tells him to figure it out for himself and takes off.
Fritz is greeted by a barking gray woolly sheepdog named Whitney. (Long-time blog readers will know her as “Dog Two” – and if they look closely down the hallway, they will see “The Nemesis”.) Whitney makes it clear to Fritz that no one can come in here – unless, of course, they have a reason to . . . then it’s okay.
Fritz saunters into the house and then goes out to the terrace where he finds me reading to Mitzi – who doesn’t look at all sleepy. He has an idea.
Fritz starts jumping over the fence again and again until Maria gets tired and falls asleep. This makes Fritz happy and he decides to stay with this family till the end of his days.
So, the plan was to give these things to Mitzi on her 18th birthday – that is what a thoughtful and great gift-giver would do. (Did I mention I am not one of them?) But I suddenly find myself having a little trouble with the thought of letting precious things go. Maybe she will just have to wait a bit longer – like . . . say . . . until she has her own first child (assuming that happens).
Ever since mailing off my daughters’ applications for US citizenship, I have been tracking the package in my mind. On Saturday I thought, “OK, now it is in motion.” On Tuesday I figured it had left European soil. Friday was the first time I thought, “It must be there by now.” Meanwhile, my mind has shifted to what comes next. I’ve been (uncharacteristically) checking my mailbox and email inbox more frequently. I’ve started answering the landline when it rings.
Experience should have taught me by now to be prepared for more obstacles and bureaucratic hassles coming my way – maybe even a big disappointment. Instead, I find myself thinking positively, wondering what preparations we should make for their interviews in summer. Will they be asked questions about the US government and history? Should I make them memorize the Pledge of Allegiance? What qualifications and experience are necessary for applying to be American?
In a way I have been preparing them their entire lives.
We have been incredibly lucky to be able to travel to the States every other year and to spend basically the whole summer there – thanks to my generous sister, her equally gracious husband, and their roomy house. That means my younger daughter, Lily, has spent over 6 months there all together and the elder, Mitzi, about 9. In all of those trips, it was important to me that they have some of the same quintessentially American childhood experiences that I had growing up. Little stuff like running through sprinklers and drinking from bubblers. Wandering the Streets of old Milwaukee and pushing the rattlesnake button at the museum. Going to festivals and watching airshows. Bike rides through the park and trips to the mall. The taste of custard, the clickety-clack of the Zoo train, the song of the Ice Cream Truck, the smell of brewery yeast, the flash and bang of fireworks.
One summer, my sister discovered that they had never heard of lemonade stands. She was appalled. Such a gap in their cultural education had to be addressed! Brother-in-law put up the starting capital for cookie dough and lemonade concentrate and Sister helped them with the signs and the baking – right down to the fork prints on the peanut butter cookies. Brother helped in setting up the stand at the edge of the park across the street from the house. Sister took on the photo-documentation of the enterprise.
Business got off to a booming start. Within a half hour they were already running back to the house to replenish their stock. Later, though, things slowed a bit. Sister suggested they offer “free Cheetos with every purchase” and made them a new sign. Later, Mitzi started a delivery service. She walked up to people on benches and blankets in the park and made her pitch. Meanwhile, Lily held down the fort.
The girls’ supplies of both lemonade and patience were almost depleted, but not quite gone, when some nice neighbors came (to the rescue) with their bulk orders, bringing about an abrupt and successful close of the business day. The girls came rushing back to the house with wads of cash in their box. The next step was working out how much they needed to reimburse their start-up investors. Once all debts were repaid, their eyes shone with excitement about their 500% ROI and Mitzi proclaimed that she had a new favorite English phrase: “Keep the change.”
They were officially American kids now, fully initiated into the wondrous rewards of free market capitalism. The way to have cookies and sugary drinks while still making easy money! I confess little bubbles of my own skepticism of this system rose to the surface.
“Can we do this again?” one of the girls asked excitedly.
“Sure,” I answered.
And when that time comes, I thought, maybe I should throw in a few new elements. For instance, sales tax, advertising costs, rental fees for equipment and furniture, trading license, health inspectors, insurance, maybe even arrange for a policeman to come by and fine them for selling in the park. And if any money is left over, I can confiscate half of it for the IRS. We can call it “Capitalism – Lesson 2”. It will be good for them.
It all started back in the 5th Grade with Secret Valentines. Two weeks after the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, I started finding little Sweetheart candies on my school desk. Then on February 14th, the big reveal came. MC had drawn my name out of the hat and he handed my present off to me in an embarrassed walk-by. It was a 45 – “The Joker” by the Steve Miller Band. That record set off a month-long unrequited crush and an awakening to music’s power to incite and amplify emotions. I played that single to death while somewhere in the background, the troops were withdrawn from Vietnam, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were finished – making them briefly the world’s tallest buildings – and the Watergate hearings began. Only that third one really registered with me because it upset Grandpa so much. It also vindicated me after losing the class debate on the ’72 Presidential Election earlier in the fall. My attention was much more attuned to “Maurice” ‘cause he spoke “of the pompitous of love” (whatever that meant). That was the first record in what would become a fairly large collection of vinyl.
If memory serves, I played my 45 on a portable record player in my own room. I don’t remember exactly how it looked, but while googling, this picture seemed most familiar to me, closest to my fuzzy recollections – especially those two white knobs on the front. Meanwhile, an exploration of our house had added two LP’s to my collection – the only two I found that weren’t classical music: “The Best of the Monkees” and the soundtrack to “Jesus Christ Superstar”. I played them to death. Secretariat won the Triple Crown and the Lakota people gave up their occupation of Wounded Knee with the government promising to investigate broken treaties, but I barely noticed. I wanted more. I wanted the stuff I was hearing on WKTI FM – the “non-stop stereo rock” station.
I had started the 6th Grade and the Vice-President had resigned, when I saw an ad on TV for “24 Golden Hits of 1973” and it was perfect. It had “Monster Mash” and “Superfly” and “Crocodile Rock” on it!! Amazingly my mother let me order it. (Possibly she was tired of hearing “The Joker” and Davey Jones?) When it arrived in the mail, I was so excited and then immediately deeply, deeply disappointed. Somehow I had missed the fact in the commercial that these weren’t the original songs. They were all covers done by a group called “The Sound Effects”. (To use my non-PC 1973 vocabulary): “What a gyp!”
I played that record to death.
And I began “appropriating” records from my brothers to grow my collection. Goodbye Pop Top 40, hello Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull.
By the time I was 13 or 14, Nixon was long gone, the world population had passed the 4 billion mark and Lucy’s discovery in Ethiopia had set its starting date back about 3 million years. I started to have a little mad money from babysitting, raking leaves, shoveling snow, etc. I had also stopped spending all of my allowance on Wacky Packages stickers and Bazooka bubble gum. One day, I finally did it. I entered a record store with the intention of actually buying something. The decision was excruciating, but I finally went for Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and the brand new Queen album – “A Night at the Opera”. (“Hhmmm. Pretty good choices!” my later self would think 40 years in the future.)
From then on, music was a constant and continually changing companion. It helped me feel the world and helps me now to remember it. Every relationship got its theme song. Styx’s “Come Sail Away” will always evoke the basement of my high school house and the first boyfriend who lasted more than a few weeks, (now shrouded with an extra layer of sadness since the news of his suicide a few years ago.) Toto’s “Hold the Line” still throws me back to my first real date – as in boy picks up girl in his dad’s car and gets grilled by the girl’s stepfather (who only looks mean) before driving her to a family restaurant with popcorn on the floor. Journey, Kansas, Genesis, Foreigner, The Cars, Kinks, Kings and Doors were some of my guides through the wild but romantically lean college years during which I scared away a succession of potential suitors by pointing out how their love of Bruce Springsteen contradicted their support for President Trickledown. Later, a certain nameless artist’s now unmentionable song about violet precipitation remains the soundtrack to my one and only broken heart and still, 30 years later, makes me change the radio station went it comes on.
But it is not only romances I remember. Country music conjures the smell of the pine trees up in northern Wisconsin. Neue Deutsche Welle tastes like German wheat beer and pungent French filter-less cigarettes. Punk makes my shoes stick to the floor in an illegally occupied tenement turned even more illegal dancing bar. The sound of the accordion has me sitting in a cozy warm mountain lodge on a cold night sipping tea with schnapps. R.E.M. puts my first baby back in my arms. The fiddle wakes up ancestral memories stored in my DNA. Fusion Jazz tells me that my childhood is officially over. But never fear – a Davey Jones song can bring it back for a while if I ever need it to.
As I wrote a while back, my birthday present this year was the resurrection of long lost feelings and memories, raised from near-oblivion by the power of music – “the records of my past” in both meanings of the phrase. Something tells me this going-back-to-vinyl thing will be more than just a passing fancy. Last week I was in Graz and had some time on my hands before I had to catch my train. I googled record stores and actually found one. Here’s what my smile and I came home with:
Listening to these sometimes scratchy sounds takes me out of the present for a while, but while helping me with a dose of nostalgia, I also sense a faint and haunting echo.As the disc spins, it seems to me, here in 2017, that the world of 1973 has circled back on me – only now with its population doubled and its history slightly warped. There are big holes in the ground where the twin towers used to be, and yet, we are still living under their shadows. There’s another space cowboy/joker in the White House planning new onslaughts on Roe and the Lakota. There’s an old conflict in Southeast Asia ramping up just as the hearings on Watergate 2.0 begin. There is pompitous galore and the same old song being played to death.
Occasional accusations of being cool-headed in a crisis have been directed at me over the years. I guess it is the one small advantage that comes with not really feeling my life experiences in the moment, but rather in dribs and drabs sometime after the fact.
This aspect of my mental make-up came in handy the time I started blacking out while barreling down the Autobahn at about 90 mph. With only two tiny pinholes of sight left, I instinctively pinched myself in the leg so hard and painfully that it brought me back and I could make it to the next exit. I parked the car and immediately my whole body started shaking.
Cool-headedness also helped in an English class once when a young student of mine tripped and hit his head on the edge of a low table. The kids started yelling and I ran over to him. He was lying face down. A pool of blood was spreading out from under his head.
“Tommy! Can you hear me??” There was a low, mumbled groan in reply.
The other kids were all standing around staring at us. I started barking orders. “Lea! Go get Sandra! (my fellow teacher). She zipped out of the room just as I had an afterthought. “Amy! Follow Lea! Tell Sandra to bring her cell phone.” (I was pretty sure we would have to call for an ambulance.) Amy ran off and I turned back to Tommy.
“Does your neck hurt? Or anything besides your head?” He groaned out a “no”.
“Do you think you could roll over on your back? Carefully! I’ll help you.”
As he rolled over, I saw a fairly deep gash in his forehead with blood spilling out of it. A lot of blood. I looked around for something, anything I could use to press against it. I looked at my own clothes and was about to take off my sweater to use, when I spotted a crumpled up napkin on one of the desks. “Niles! Give me that napkin!” He handed it to me and I said “Now go down to the kitchen and get some clean towels – make one of them wet!” He and another boy ran off.
“Tommy? Can you talk to me? It’s important,” I said as used the napkin to put pressure on his wound. “Tell me where you live.” He answered. “Do you know where you are?” He did. “What is your mother’s name?” For some reason that made him smile a little and he answered again. Sandra rushed in and then went out again to make the phone call. The towels arrived and while replacing the napkin, I could see that the bleeding was slowing. I thought it would be good to get his head elevated.
“Tommy, do you think you can sit up? Do it slowly. I’ll help.”
We got him into a seated position and then I just kept talking to him. I got him to slowly turn his head to the left and right. Eventually he could stand up and we started our slow walk to the kitchen. The bleeding had stopped, so we cleaned him up a bit, sprayed some disinfectant of his gash and held a moist cloth on it. We talked till the ambulance arrived. They took over and asked basically all the same questions and then carted him off to the hospital for stitches.
As soon as they had left, I sat down and, once again, got those full body trembles.
So what made me remember these events?
Because yesterday, while blogging, I heard a loud scream coming from the basement, then a crash, and then the sound of my daughter tearing up the stairs.
“THERE’S A SNAKE DOWN THERE!!” she shrieked.
“Really?” I asked in a mildly interested tone. “Let’s go see.”
She cowered behind me on our way back down the stairs. I was already 99% sure we wouldn’t find a snake, but a harmless blindworm – which is actually a type of lizard and really common around here. An “anguis fragilis,” as Wikipedia tells me. And sure enough, that’s what I found.
I took the nearest object and used it to poke the worm. It slid an inch, keeping its form. It was not only dead, but dried stiff.
“It’s dead,” I said as I picked it up and waved it in the air. My daughter wasn’t convinced. “Look!” I said as I hit the floor with it a few times. It made a little knocking sound. I confess I found it sort of neat. “Here – do you want to look at it?” I asked. I held it out toward her and she backed away and signaled her disgust. Alas, my enthusiasm was not contagious.
Her anguish over the anguis fragilis was not fragile. She has since declared herself officially ophidiophobic.
And she’s not buying the “it’s a lizard, not a snake” line either.
I don’t know why we keep our landline telephone. It hardly ever rings, and nine times out of ten when it does, somebody aggressively tries to sell me something, or tries to trick me into subscribing to something, or asks me to participate in a marketing survey. In that last case, they begin by lying about how long it will take.
Back when I was teaching Business English, I used to say yes to these survey takers and even found it sort of fun. But then, one day, the Grocery Store Jingle Guy called. He said he would either play snippets or say slogans, and I should tell him what chain it was for. Why not? I thought. I don’t watch Austrian TV, but I do go shopping occasionally . . .
“I’m going to be really bad at this,” I warned Survey Guy nevertheless.
After answering “Not sure” to the first three questions, I interrupted him. “Would it be better if I just guessed when I’m not sure?” He said yes.
For the rest of the questions I just said whatever popped into my mind and then immediately thought “No. Wait . . . that wasn’t right.” Survey Guy’s pauses after each of my answers got a tiny bit longer . . .
Near the end, he asked if I lived in a village or town, and then if my village had a store, and then which one.
“Adeg,” I answered, and then thought “No. Wait . . . that’s not right.”
As always, the survey ended with a few questions about me – sex, age range, income range, education level . . .
I told him I had two university degrees.
“OH!” he said, unable to hide the surprise in his voice.
Despite this embarrassing performance, marketers kept calling regularly. I was clearly on some kind of list that gets passed around. It got annoying – all the more because I had only myself to blame for getting on such a list.
I should have known better.
Back in my college days, I once got on a very different sort of list – or at least my telephone number did – but that time it wasn’t my fault. Out of the blue, the phone in my apartment started ringing off the hook – I mean 10 or more times an hour – all men asking to speak to my roommate. A few of the dejected or confused callers mentioned the words “Hot Lips” (or something close to that – it was a long time ago). It turned out that one of my roommate’s friends pranked her by placing an ad offering telephone sex in the classified section (“Hot Lips”) of a men’s magazine, using her real first name and our shared telephone number. Nice. We had to put up with these calls for a month, until the next issue of the magazine came out. In the meantime, the phone stayed off the hook overnight and for long periods during the day.
I confess we did have some fun with the situation. Sometimes when the phone rang, we would ask unsuspecting visitors “Could you get that please?” Some of our friends . . . “engaged” with this or that caller for a while. Sometimes we passed the phone on to the Gingerbread Man and let him deal with it. (For more on this little guy’s escapades, see “My Velveteen Rabbit”.) And my roommate’s prankster friend? When she came over, she always had to answer the phone as a condition of her forgiveness and continued visiting privileges. (By the way, in case you read the post linked to above, Prankster Friend and Lampshade Lady are one and the same.) Despite some fun, the constantly ringing phone and subsequent – short! – conversations got very, very annoying, just like the marketing calls now.
This morning our landline phone rang and I just stood there listening to the sound for a while. Experience has taught me to blow it off, but there was that little fleeting thought that it might be important. I started to slowly climb the stairs. The ringing stopped when I was halfway up.
We really should lose that device.
And it is not the only communication port around here that has lost its usefulness. I used to love checking the mailbox. There were times when I even waited impatiently for the mailman to come. But now that I have cancelled my last subscription and no one writes letters anymore, the mailbox has become nothing more than a depository for bills, advertisements and donation requests. Here is yesterday’s dump:
That’s all from just one day!
For a while, 99% of the contents of our mailbox never made it into the house. (Our paper recycling can is conveniently located halfway between.) But then my husband protested – he likes looking at this stuff. So now there are little piles of it all over the house requiring constant removal.
“Dealing with mail” and “answering the telephone” became two new additions to our household chores list. The first one has slowly shifted over to my husband’s column and the second to my daughter’s. She is getting really good at filtering. Now, when the phone rings, nine times out of ten I hear this:
(the sound of my daughter walking)
“Um. I’m sorry, but my mom and dad aren’t here right now . . .”
My husband knows a gazillion people. It has been hard for me at times to keep up with them all.
Take the day, let’s say, 25 years ago when I came home from work to find three light blond, virtually interchangeable little boys tearing around my house. I was then introduced to their father – a white-haired man who was there to discuss starting up a basketball program/team in our neighboring city. The first three players were currently exploring all the nooks and crannies of other rooms. There were occasional loud crashing noises.
Many friendships were born that evening. My husband became a basketball coach. I embarked on a 15 year odyssey of learning to tell those three little boys apart. It would be too embarrassing to admit how many times I called one of them by the wrong name, even after their father – that white-haired man – became the godfather of my first daughter. He then got so much support from his partner in his godparenting “duties” that she, too, became a part of my life. Through her, I met her sister who became a second co-godparent – my daughters called her their “Schokolade Tante” (“Auntie Chocolate”).
She had the most unusual gravelly voice which she didn’t use much. Unlike her more loquacious sister, Auntie Chocolate was a listener. She was a peaceful island in turbulent waters – whether at celebrations or during trying periods in her own family life. She was constant. I didn’t see her all that often – and then, mostly at big parties, but I always liked sitting next to her and not feeling obligated to make small talk.
She died this week. Totally unexpectedly. Complications from a seemingly normal operation ended her life. She was 62 years old.
Today was her funeral and there were hundreds of people there. Among them were her nephews – those three little blond boys who are now young men. I can tell them apart now and use the right names.
I watched them literally propping up their wailing grandmother at graveside and supporting all the other family members so stricken by their sudden and shocking loss of a grandma, a wife, a sister, a sister-in-law, a daughter . . . They will take on their lost aunt’s role and become the dependable constants. They will gather the shattered pieces of their family and glue them back together.