Remembering When…

Nostalgia can be a bitch. I’ll just get that out there right now. Memories, especially those from childhood, can play with our minds.

Take Harper’s Ferry in West Virginia for example. Wow, what a segue, right? But it makes sense, trust me.

When I was a kid, my family visited Harper’s Ferry a few times. We liked it so much, we even took extended family members when they visited us.

Harper’s Ferry, for those who don’t know, is where John Brown had his fort and it was a key site in an 1859 abolitionist raid. It’s a historic park and while I haven’t been there recently to know if they still do this or not, back in the day, people could stroll through the town, visit decorated “shops” and businesses and homes that hearkened back to the town’s heyday, and watch reenactments of blacksmiths in historic garb fashioning something awesome, soap-makers/story-tellers creating soap in the same way they would in the 1800’s all while discussing the history of soap and the town, and people roasting peanuts.

My favorite was the freshly roasted peanuts. I remember burning my fingers on them because I had no patience whatsoever and wanted to eat them straight away.  You could have your picture taken in old-fashioned dress, with the picture itself made to look antique. There was even a nifty wax museum about John Brown.

In addition, and this part is spectacular, it’s home to The Point, a place where the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers meet, and while standing in West Virginia, you can see – quite clearly – Maryland and Virginia.

View of Harper’s Ferry (photo credit: Harper’s Ferry National Park) 

When I was a kid, there was a picnic area down by the river that ran through the town. My mother always brought fried chicken (and sandwiches, I think) and snacks and we’d go down there to have our lunch. While wading out into the water one time – I was young, that’s important to know – I walked into an unexpected dip in the riverbed and ended up in water up to my neck. Fun and games. Made my family laugh though as I spent the rest of the afternoon soaking wet.  Nowadays, that part is blocked off. I can’t imagine why. But you can’t get to the river from the public portion of the town anymore, and I found that disappointing.

Too many years ago, I took a trip to Harper’s Ferry with my kids. In my excited state of nostalgia, I reminisced and told them about some of my favorite memories there and all the cool things they were about to experience. I probably built it up more than I should have, but then again, in my mind, it couldn’t be built up enough… if that makes sense.

When we made it to the town proper, I was surprised to find that it wasn’t nearly as “grand” as I had remembered. It seemed “smaller” if that makes sense. Maybe that’s because I was “bigger.” It was certainly not the bustling hub of activity it had once been.  Whether due to budget cuts or lack of volunteers, there were no reenactors dressed in historical garb, there were no blacksmiths or storytellers.  It was too quiet. Too still.  History had come alive in Harper’s Ferry when I was a kid, and when I visited with my own children, it was a ghost town.

All I knew was that the view in my mind’s eye was at odds with my current surroundings. And I realized my mistake almost immediately… I had waited too long to bring my kids. This was confirmed by my children’s reaction – an utter lack of enthusiasm in the place I had talked up so much.

I started to ask myself a few of the more complex questions. Have times really changed that much over the years? Was I only in such awe of Harper’s Ferry as a child because we were simply more easily impressed then?

Oh, it’s easy to blame video games and a generation that favors a computer screen to The Point, but let’s be clear, society helped speed them on that path. Our society panders to the Gods of Technology and then has the audacity to complain when our kids are overly involved with electronics.

I’m not sure where I’m going with all this except to say once again, nostalgia is a bitch. But what do we do about that?

Maybe another visit to Harper’s Ferry is in order. It’s high time I gather my kids back home for a road trip. They can even drive so I can be the one to sit back and enjoy the ride. Maybe now the view in my mind’s eye will win out. Or better yet, maybe there will be a new view altogether.

Poison Ivy

My childhood home was a modest affair … a 3 bedroom, 1 bath rancher, that housed two parents, two kids, and at least three dogs at any given time. What set the house apart was the yard. We had a great yard growing up, large enough for a couple of fruit trees (apple and peach), an above ground pool, and forts. It also housed my mother’s garden.

Although, garden is not really a very appropriate description for it. More like a vegetable and fruit farmette. A field of food, if you will. On roughly a quarter portion of our half-acre homestead, my mother set up shop, growing green beans, potatoes, radishes, cucumbers, squash, tomatoes galore, leaf lettuce, green onions, carrots, strawberries, and at one time, even corn. If it could be canned, this woman grew it.

My mother’s two green thumbs are the stuff of legend. She could probably plant a dish of eggplant parmesan and get a perfect crop. Have a sick plant? Take it to her… in no time it would be flourishing. Kids, pets, and plants. My mother spoiled them all. And, at least where the garden was concerned, the rest of us reaped the rewards. What didn’t end up immediately on our dinner plates was canned, turned into jam or sauce, and saved for later in the year.

Whether it’s the southern Appalachia in her or just pure genius, I truly think this woman could do it all. Gardening, DIY crafts (long before the era of YouTube tutorials), cooking, refinishing furniture, sewing a full wardrobe of clothes … you name it, she was amazing at it.  I guess I always assumed I would take after her in some ways. Cooking? Yeah, that I’ve got figured out. Crafts? Eh, not so much. Sewing clothes? Blech. Patterns confuse me more than Astrophysics. Pets? Now, that’s where I’m definitely following in her footsteps.

But plants? The jury is still out on that one. I’ve raised kids after all. Keeping a plant alive? You’d think I could do this one small thing. I mean, honestly, how hard can it be to take care of something that eats sunlight?

Outside plants – not counting vegetables and fruits (don’t ask!), I can grow those with ease. Columbines, Ditch Lilies (Day Lily to all you northerners), Coreopsis – all thrive under my watchful eye. The fact that these plants look to mother nature for sustenance and moral support is beside the point, I tell you.

It’s the indoor plants I have an issue with. Cacti collapse in on themselves at my loving hand. Apparently, I water them too much. I know they’re a desert plant, but I just can’t help myself!  Succulents soon lose their thick, glossy leaves under my ardent ministrations. Ferns dry up as if their leaves had caught fire … I still don’t know what I’m doing wrong there. African Violets are best left to others as none have survived a stint in my home.

I have one plant that has lived; if not thriving, it’s at least growing, and I’ve had it for quite some time. I hope I’m not jinxing myself by saying that. If it’s doing well, it’s only because it is a hardy plant hellbent on survival. It’s surely nothing I’ve done. So, there is that.

Deciding to dip a toe once more into the realm of flora guardianship, I picked up a plant right before Halloween. She was an impulse buy at the local grocery store, to be honest. Her name is Penelope. Penelope Pumpkin. You see, she resides in a pumpkin, so the name is appropriate.  I’m sure you’ve seen a hundred Penelopes around and never gave them a second thought. But at the time, I said to myself: “now here, here is a plant I can handle!”

What is Penelope, you ask?  Well, you know those air plants? The ones that are supposedly impossible to kill? They don´t need dirt or sunlight or anything really. They don´t even have a root system. I’m actually not entirely sure they’re “alive” in the traditional sense because they are so incredibly low maintenance.  Just spritz them once every equinox with a bit of water and they will thrive. “Oh, my toddler kept one alive in her room” I once heard someone say. There. That’s level zero. Nobody can fail with an air plant. Right?

Spoiler alert: I can.

I – a capable, full-grown adult – killed an air plant. That’s right, person with the gardening toddler, I can do even less than your genius spawn can.

It started out great – the cute little thing just sat there, not bothering anyone, lighting up a tiny corner of my desk with its little life force. Over time, my quiet little Penelope began to shrivel. The ends of her frilly tendrils started to look like burnt cat whiskers. I tried to revive her, but no amount of CPR or motivational quotes could bring her back to vitality. My little immortal plant had met its mortality.

That’s me, folks. The plant murderer. My mother must be so proud.

Penelope in better days. May she rest in peace. 

 

A Good Man

A good man died yesterday. I may write more about this another time, when the wound isn’t still fresh, isn’t still deep. In fact, I’m sure I will. It’s important to acknowledge the passing of a good man. To raise one’s voice to the universe and give thanks for the time one had with him.

The best portion of a good man’s life; his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and love. 

– William Wordsworth

dad in his element

Devolving Toys for Today’s Kids   

Back in the good old days, we had toys that left lasting memories.  Sometimes, these toys left lasting scars, burns, and fractures as well, but mostly just good, warm memories.  One of my fondest memories growing up was playing with the Holly Hobbie Oven.

The Holly Hobbie Oven was a stove that was made to look old-fashioned.  Like, really old-fashioned.  The old black cast iron wood stove your grandmother used when she was young kind of old-fashioned.   Picture Little House on the Prairie old-fashioned.   It came with pots and pans, a rolling-pin, and a few mixing bowls and spoons.  It cooked, like its predecessor the Easy Bake Oven, with the heat of a light bulb.  It was sheer genius in its simplicity.  It was safe to use if you didn’t put your hand in too far (don’t ask me how I know this) and may be the reason some little girls grew up to be fantastic cooks.  I said some, not all (cough cough).

click the pic to learn all about Holly Hobbie!

I got mine for Christmas in 1975, if I remember right.  What I do remember clearly is just how excited I was to play with it and make real food (of a sort).  I played with it all the time too; this may be one of my favorite toys ever from childhood, next to my Curious George stuffed monkey (which I still have, by the way).  I still get warm fuzzies when I think of this toy and the hours spent cooking, creating and imagining.

In today’s world, where is the source of a child’s warm fuzzies?  It seems that kids are growing up too fast to enjoy life’s simplicities.  Adults feed a child’s need for distraction, myself included, but maybe we’re choosing the wrong kinds of distractions.  Where is the imagination and excitement of the simpler toys in life, such as building blocks and good old-fashioned board games?  I wonder if the kids get the same sense of wonder when they unwrap an iPhone for Christmas that we used to get while unwrapping our Barbies and GI Joes.   In a microwave world, maybe I am hopelessly camp-fire addicted, but I believe that we need to allow our kids to have an “innocent stage” for as long as we can. It’s hard to do in today’s world, though.

There are some kids who still enjoy the simpler toys like yo-yo’s and Legos (my son was NUTS about Legos growing up) but in general, it seems society has outgrown these things.  I find that sort of sad.  There is no imagination needed in today’s scripted world of video games and smart phones.  What are we teaching our kids about self-reliance?  Are they learning how to simply slow down and enjoy the fun things in life, like cooking with a light bulb or ripping off Stretch Armstrong’s arms to see what his gel insides looks like?

I am glad that society is moving forward, don’t get me wrong.  I think there is a time and a place for electronics, but I also believe technology needs to be balanced out for our youth with good old-fashioned toys that spark the imagination and employ creativity; toys that evoke a friendly competitive rivalry like Monopoly, Uno and Sorry (umm…well, in my house, to this day, when we play these games, someone usually almost always gets killed before it’s all said and done, but still, they’re fun games…yeah, that’s right, fun games!)

I’m not saying we shouldn’t embrace progress. I’m all for progress. Maybe it’s good that toys have evolved, along with everything else. And maybe it’s sad that things like the Holly Hobbie Oven are tossed to the wayside.

I Know You Are, But What Am I?

Having been witness to a little mudslinging this evening via the omnipresent social media platform Facebook, I got to thinking about different types of insults, both stupid and awe-inspiring, as well as the just plain lame. Hey, it doesn’t take much to amuse me or, apparently, inspire me to have well-thought-out lectures in my head.

The term “chicken” is an oft-used slang word employed against someone when they’re afraid or you’re trying to disparage them (with as little effort as possible); it’s meant to imply they’re cowardly. This derogatory term has been around since forever it seems, showing up in works from the 1600s and even used by Dickens in his writings. I’ve never understood the insult myself.

My grandmother had chickens…she kept loads of the little buggers in a big coop with a yard. Let me tell you, they are anything but cowardly. Just ask any lizard that happens to make its way into their domain. Oh wait, you can’t. Because they never make it back out again. A rooster may not always win a battle with a fox or a weasel, but I don’t think you’d see the feathered flock defender backing down nonetheless. Hens are no less brave…some are meaner than others, but trust me, none have an issue with drawing blood. Chickens, as a general rule, are fierce. Take it from me, and don’t ask how I know this, but those things will hunt you down, and peck your eyes out. Cowards. Yeah, right. We should all be so many chickens.

Meeting Place

When I was growing up, our house was the one where all the kids in the neighborhood would congregate. It was a meeting place, a drop off spot for bikes, a checkpoint for organizing the next set of adventures, and a lounge for just relaxing. If my mother ever had a problem with the steady stream of scraped-kneed kids filing in and out of the front and back doors, she never said anything. Or if she did, it was never loud enough for us to hear at any rate. We just lived in a time and place where you could literally yell out the window for someone to come over and they’d be skipping up to the porch 30 seconds later.

Not quite the case when my kids were growing up. Their friends weren’t always in shouting distance. Sometimes a car was necessary to get them where they needed to go. But they did have a few neighborhood friends in walking distance, and for those few, I kept the same policy as my mother. They were always welcome in the house and could always return there after their daily shenanigans through our unsuspecting neighborhood were done.

It was important to me to let them know their friends were always welcome. I mean, so long as their friends weren’t mini drug-dealers-in-training or something…which they weren’t as far as I know.

I will say that there were ulterior motives to letting my house be a meeting spot. I could eavesdrop on the latest juicy gossip. Not only is gossip just fun to listen to, but it also gave me important insights in to my kids’ lives that they might not be comfortable sharing with me directly. Then, I could use these slivers of information to better my parenting. I could support them in ways where I might otherwise be lacking. There are so many pros here and very few cons. It wasn’t always cost-effective having an extra mouth or two or three to feed, but hey, the local dollar store always had cheap snacks and these were passed around to the crew while they were visiting so that everyone had a little something to keep them from starving.  It’s not like they needed a full buffet or 7-course lunch platter.

Not everyone shares this parenting outlook. I recently found an article written by a mother who is simply tired-tired-tired of having her kid’s friend over every day in the summer. Apparently, she feels taken advantage of for the “free babysitting.” Now I’m assuming this kid is not a toddler, I mean, he shows up at her house on his own in the middle of the day, which means he has to be old enough to navigate the neighborhood on his own – so I’m not really sure how much “drop everything I’m doing and watch the kids like a hawk” kind of babysitting this mom is really forced into doing. Oh sure, the kid may be taking up space in her house, but is he really taking up that much more of her undivided time?

When the doorbell rings, this put-upon mom claims her son looks at her funny because his friend is there yet again. I could be wrong, but I don’t think the deer-in-the-headlights look from her son is because he knows his friend was just there and shouldn’t be there again today – I think it’s because he knows his mother is irritated because it’s likely she doesn’t hide her irritation well.  If you ask me, she’s the one feeding that energy, not the neighbor kid.  Or at least, that’s just my opinion (without knowing any of these people…just a wild guess, mind you).

And as the mother states herself, she wouldn’t even think of sending her kid to his friend’s house. My question is, why the hell not? I mean, flitting around the neighborhood, hitting up friends to see who is home, and hanging out is what summer vacation is all about. Plus, when he’s out of the house she would get a little time for R & R (which she so obviously needs if you ask me). Maybe when the friend comes over, she can say, hey, how about you guys go to YOUR house today? I bet they’d love that (so long as he’s not actually trying to escape his own house for some very real, very sad cause…in which case, all the more reason he should be allowed to hang out).

These kinds of spontaneous friendships are special. Instead of trying to squash them, we should be encouraging them.

 

Under the Big Top…or Not

I don’t think my mother gets nearly enough credit for her superhero powers of persuasion. She’s like Kayla Silverfox (aka Silver Fox) from X-Men (Wolverine – Origins) with a southern accent. I mean, to hear her tell it, she – my mother that is, not Silver Fox — single-handedly kept my father from selling my brother and me to the travelling circus for years…years, people! And apparently my father listened to her (I mean, here I am after all, with no trapeze skills or fire-breathing expertise to speak of, sooo…).  He could’ve made a pretty penny too, or so I was told growing up. A. Pretty. Penny.