All I Know

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Category: Memories

The Black Tulip

The Black Tulip – You know who you are Tom C.!

 Mother’s Day is coming up so I thought I would tell you a story that includes my mom.

Mom loved flowers. With five kids and a husband who insisted on driving his mower fast and straight, never around anything, flowers were something she always fought to save. She didn’t have a lot of time to spend in the yard, so she planted flowers that could fend for themselves; lilies of the valley, crocus, daffodils, tulips, all plants that could bloom, die down and come back the next year.

For a couple of years she favored tulips. Somehow she acquired a bulb for a black tulip, and she babied that plant like a sixth child. It took a couple of years for it to really kick in, but finally one spring day, a bloom bud appeared.

She walked out every day to check the progress, pulled the weeds around it and probably even talked to it. She was so filled with anticipation of the opening of the black tulip. Her red tulips and her yellow tulips were lovely. She had some frilly tulips and some she called parrot tulips, but the black tulip…that was going to be a wonder.

I happened to be in the kitchen with Mom the day Tommy our next door neighbor kid, came to the back door. Mom welcomed him casually as she did all the neighborhood kids and then, a half second later she realized that in his grubby little hands, he was holding up to her the entire plant that was her precious black tulip.

“I brought you a flower,” he said proudly.

The bloom had opened overnight, and young Tommy had picked it just for her, along with leaves, roots and, for good measure, some surrounding soil.

He looked a little like a TV commercial for laundry detergent as he presented his gift. My mother took a brief moment, finally smiled, reached to receive her prize and said, “Why, thank you, Tommy, what a very special tulip this is.”

That doomed black tulip had pride of place in a vase on our dining table for the couple of days that cut flowers can survive, then it was no more.

Mom appeared to be unflappable through five kids and all their neighborhood cohorts, but we couldn’t have been easy. In spite of worn bare base paths in the front yard, jars of tadpoles on the back porch, broken windows, and the sometimes frightening screams of children playing kick the can in the dark, she always liked and welcomed the neighborhood kids and was especially proud of the adults our neighborhood produced.

Eventually she became an excellent gardener with a yard that looked like a city park, but as far as I know, she never again had a black tulip.

Tom grew to be a talented musician and actor and a devoted family man, and he brought his wife and kids to visit her a couple of years before she died. She was thrilled by that visit…to think that when he came such a distance to see his family, he thought to drop in on her.

That was the kind of person she was to her kids and the neighborhood kids and to everyone who knew her…a person to be remembered.

I just miss her.

Happy Mother’s Day to you all…the moms who have been and who will be, and to the daughters and sons and friends who love you.

Christmas, 2018

It was Christmas Eve and it was snowing. Or maybe it wasn’t. Snowing, I mean, but that makes a better story. Maybe it started snowing later. Yes, that’s even better.

Merry Christmas to all.

I was 16 years old and working at my first real job in a ten-cent store. For you youngsters, a ten-cent store is like a dollar store back before inflation. We stocked nearly everything, ash trays, socks, toys,hammers, skillets, toilet paper, and in season, Christmas decorations and school books.

I liked the job, liked the boss, who happened to be the owner which is the way things used to be done in retail…the owner working alongside the employees. I liked my co-workers and strangely, I liked working with customers. I learned a lot about customer service on that job and from that boss, things I’ve never forgotten and have practiced all my life.

Anyway, it was Christmas Eve and Bob (the owner) had sent all the working moms home and it was just Bob, Tony (the other teenager) and I, patiently waiting to close up the store.

Actually, I wasn’t feeling so patient. This was the first year I had earned my own spending money, and bought all my siblings and my mom and dad Christmas presents. Those presents were wrapped and under the tree at home. I wanted to be home on Christmas Eve, but I was in a small store on the main street of a small town waiting for the clock to tick over to 6:00pm, our advertised early closing time for Christmas Eve. As we all stood at the front of the store, we gazed out on an empty street. The phrase “not a creature was stirring” came to mind, but I knew Bob wouldn’t close the store a minute before 6:00. So, we waited.

You know what’s going to happen. You’ve read enough Christmas stories to know that at five minutes to 6:00, a battered and noisy car pulled up in front of the store. A young man in work clothes and only a sweatshirt for a coat jumped out of the car and ran to the door. The look of relief on his face when he pushed through and saw Bob, Tony and I standing there and all the lights still on was almost comic.

He went straight to Bob and breathlessly told his story…out of work, new job, just got his first paycheck, needs to cash it and buy some Christmas for his family. I glanced out the door and saw four faces peering at us through frost covered windows. My heart sank. I would not be going home anytime soon.

Bob put his hand on the young man’s shoulder and said, “Sure, no problem. Give me the check, I’ll cash it. Tell me how much you want to spend, and you and your wife go on back and pick out some things for the kids. Tony will bring them up to me to ring up. I’ll tell you when you’ve spent your limit.”

He looked at me, “Donna, I’ll take the cash register, you wrap the presents.”

I’m the oldest of five kids, all I could think of was the practical aspect… “We’re almost out of paper, I only have one kind left. How will they tell them apart?”

By this time, the young mother had entered the store. “It’s okay, we’ll work it out. The kids are in the car, the presents have to be wrapped.”

She didn’t look much older than me, and only had on an old sweater with baggy elbows for a wrap. On her feet were rundown flats that had seen better days, but the smile on her face mirrored the relief I’d seen on the young man when he felt Bob’s hand on his shoulder.

Everyone went to work. I could hear the young couple making their careful decisions about what to get each child and Tony began carrying their choices to the front of the store. Bob didn’t seem to be working very hard at the cash register, but I was soon busy wrapping what seemed like a lot of toys.

I didn’t miss the fact though, that every time Tony deposited some items by the cash register, Bob gave him a new instruction. I heard him say things like “…dolls” and “puzzles” and “books.”

When he wasn’t busy moving things onto my table, I saw Bob go to the candy counter and weigh up a bag of orange slices and another bag of chocolate stars. Then he picked up a couple of adult sized pairs of gloves and scarves and put them in a bag with a pair of lady’s tennis shoes.

I forgot to watch the clock. I have no idea how long we were there, but I remember Bob saying to the young couple, “Go ahead, pick out some more, you haven’t reached your limit yet.”

When the young couple finally came to the front of the store, they looked a little dazed at the pile of wrapped presents on my table.

In my short time in this job, Bob had started teaching me to work the cash register. I learned to do some running math in my head as I rang up items, so I had a general idea if the total sounded right at the end of each transaction.

My mouth must have dropped open at the total Bob announced, because he looked at me quickly and gave me a look and a slight shake of his head to stop any comment that was going to make.

He counted the rest of the young man’s wages into his hand, his “change,” and everyone began the process of carrying packages out to the trunk of the car while the mom climbed in the front seat and distracted the three children.

That’s when it must have started snowing. Or it didn’t. I don’t remember, but it would really top the story off, wouldn’t it, to stand at the door of that ten-cent store and watch the young family drive off into the snowy dusk of a Christmas Eve that at least one of us would remember for the rest of her life.

Because I do remember that Christmas. It was my first grown-up Christmas, the first year I earned my own money, the first year I shopped for presents for my family, and it was the year I saw a business man with a heart of gold create Christmas for someone who never realized (but must have suspected) they had encountered a Christmas angel.

Yeah, I don’t remember whether it was snowing or not, but every year I remember that Christmas.

Home – The House

Tools of a carpenter

I was about eight years old when Dad started building The House. Mom was expecting their third child and she was tired of moving. In their married life of 9+ years, she’d moved almost that many times, for whatever reason. We’d lived in trailers, tiny houses, rentals. I can remember some of the places.

There was the tiny trailer where I encountered The Big Puddle.

There was the four room concrete block house where I know for a fact there is a suitcase key in the crawl space, because I’m the one who wanted to see if it would fit through the crack in the floor.

There was the larger house with a long lane and a creek down at the bottom of a steep hill. One summer a group of us decided we would “sled” down the hill on an old piece of tin roofing. I went down the hill, but the tin did not. I still have the scar. I had chicken pox in that house and started school from there.

But when Mom got pregnant with our third child, she wanted a real home so Dad, an accomplished carpenter, bought an acre from his Dad’s farm and determined to build a house for us.

First, he built a concrete block, flat roof, one car garage, and we moved into that until he could finish the house. There was barely room to walk around what furniture we had, but I spent most of my time outside, so I didn’t really mind. My brother was two, he didn’t know any better.

The house took shape in an orderly manner, and I took great interest in all the details of the construction. The first walls were just wooden stakes with string stretched between, then there were trenches dug along the strings. The trenches were filled with concrete and Dad told me those were footers. On the footers, he started laying the block foundation.

Under construction

I loved every moment of watching that house grow. I thought I helped. We hammered nails into scraps of lumber, stacked broken concrete blocks and pieces of brick. Balancing on the floor joists, Dad showed me which room would be mine, and I thought it was huge. I loved the metal boxes in the walls that would become the electrical outlets because the round punchouts where the wire ran through became a fortune in play money.

Dad had always worked in construction, so building a house was second nature to him. As a carpenter, he could lay a couple of courses of concrete blocks for a foundation but he was not a bricklayer. When it came time to lay the outside brick walls of our house, he hired a professional for one day to come show him how. He and the bricklayer worked side by side all that day, spending considerable time on the corners which were a little tricky. After that, Dad did the rest.

I’ve always loved that about that house…that I watched it come to life in his hands.

The house was not quite completed when I came home one rainy day from my grandparents’ house to find all our furniture out in the yard between the garage and the house. Mom was on the warpath. You see, the flat tin roof of the garage was an engineering disaster. It leaked like a sieve and some days there weren’t enough pans to catch the water and have supper, too.

My sister was only a couple of weeks old and on this particular rainy day, her basket happened to be directly under one of the leaks. That was it. Mom declared we were moving into the house, finished or not. On that day, the house became home and a constant “work in progress.”

The House – the early years

Two more sisters were born over the next few years and I guess you could say we lived happily ever after in that house…at least, we were as happy as any normal family I’ve ever known. My brother and I saw the house built from the ground up and my sisters never lived anywhere else until they left for their own grownup homes. We grew up in that house, we went out into the world from there.

We called it The House as in: “I’ll meet you at The House…I’ll leave the book for you at The House…I’m here, I’m at The House.”

We sold the house this year. We’ve all been away from it for longer than we lived there, but Mom and Dad lived in it for the rest of their lives. Dad died in 1998 and Mom lived there until she passed in 2016, always insisting she would “never move again.” She never did.

The House – Our Home

There are a lot of memories around that house. I hope the new owner appreciates that a family lived there, grew up there, that the house was built with loving hands. There are places the builder’s hammer may have slipped, where a door might sag or stick and Mom swore it never got finished once we moved into it, but if it wasn’t a perfect house, it was a perfect home.

I hope the new owner appreciates that and I hope that new family makes a happy home and many memories there.

The Big Puddle

I was thinking the other day of childhood and what it was like. Being a kid is probably one of the most overrated, underappreciated conditions of life.

Some 60 years later, this is the actual site of the Big Puddle. Water filled the grassy area, I had only to make it to the block building!

One of the reasons it seems like such a golden time to us is because we conveniently forget how we really felt about things back then.

One of the earliest memories I have, is one of total humiliation and frustration.

Not sure how old I was, but probably around four or five. It had been raining all day. Our family consisted of Mom and Dad and I and we lived in a trailer back before trailers became mobile homes. As an adult, I learned that the trailer, which seemed so big to me as a child, was only 25 ft. long, smaller than most modern RVs.

It had been a long rainy day for Mom, cooped up in a tiny trailer with a four-year-old and no TV (yeah, it really was that long ago!).

When Dad came in from work, I recall some low-pitched adult talk and then Dad asking me in a very casual voice if I thought I could handle going to the store for him.

Some perspective here—it was a tiny trailer in a tiny trailer park and the store was the park office in the middle of the park, in full sight of our front door. But at age four, I had never been allowed to go anyplace “all by myself.” This was my big chance. I was excited. I was also, as I always have been and probably always will be, practical.

I parroted the phrase I’d been hearing from Mom all day: “I can’t go outside. It’s raining.”

A man of few words, Dad said, “Is not.”

I looked outside. Sure enough, as if he’d arranged it himself, late afternoon sunlight was pouring from behind the clouds.

This was it, my big chance. I had new boots, those pull on kind that wrap around your ankle and fasten with a small elastic loop over a button. I sat out on my big adventure wearing shorts, a t-shirt and…those boots.

An intoxicating sense of freedom swept over me…not only because I was going to the store by myself for the very first time, but because those new boots were so empowering. I could walk anywhere I wanted and not worry about getting in trouble for getting my feet wet or muddy.

Money in my fist, fully briefed in what to ask for, I crossed the park drive and there encountered—the BIG PUDDLE. To my four-year-old eyes it looked as large as Lake Michigan. On the other side I could see my goal, the brick building that housed the park office. Behind me I could feel the confidence of the parents who thought I could handle adult responsibility (so I thought at the time, but who I now know stood at the window, chuckling at my shuffling, booted, four-year-old swagger).

I hesitated only for the briefest moment. After all, I had my new boots and a mission. What could go wrong? Without a backward look, I marched fearlessly into the puddle.

It was the boots that did me in. They gave me too much confidence—and they were just enough too big that when they sank into the mud and I tried to take my next step, my foot came out of them. And of course, there’s that silly physics rule that says “For every action there is a reaction.” When my foot came up out of my boot the water rushed in. And when in dismay and shock, I crammed my foot back into the water filled boot, water shot up around my little four-year-old behind like a fountain, which is what I must have looked like, standing there in the middle of the BIG PUDDLE, yelling like a banshee for my daddy.

I have to give him credit. He only stood at the edge of the water for the briefest moment laughing and he even tempered my humiliation by sweeping me high in the air, dripping water like a little fish, for a ride to the store in his arms.

This story doesn’t have a moral. There’s no great human truth that I learned here and took with me through life, but I must admit that I do sometimes stop before I plunge into some big undertaking, full of the sort of confidence that comes with new boots and ask myself, “Is this The Big Puddle all over again?”

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