Sunday, February 8, 2015

A Question of Balance

Early on, I knew I could cross one potential career choice off my list. Sadly, I'll never be a tightrope walker. (I can barely even watch tightrope walkers!) It's something of a miracle I never broke any bones in the years I enjoyed ice skating. When I put on roller skates, everyone else in the rink risked injury. Notice a pattern here? When it comes to balance, I make Inspector Clouseau look like a prima ballerina.

No two ways about it: I'm a klutz. It's like walls are a magnetic force, drawing me close so I'll bump into them as I walk through a doorway. I am super cautious while walking on ice, walking up stairs, walking in general. I've fallen flat on my back, fallen down more stairs than you can shake a stick at - and I have the wonky knee and broken blood vessels to show for all the times I sprained and/or broke my ankles and tore ligaments in my knees.

I slipped on wet marble steps while wearing smooth-soled new shoes the time I had the worst break. A cat shot past me while I was carrying a load of laundry downstairs another time. And then there was the time I stepped out of the car smack onto a patch of black ice. My feet flew forward, the rest of me flew back - I think for a second or two I was suspended in air before I hit the ground with a very un-Lipizzaner-like thunk.

My mom blames it on my crawling, or lack of it. I was an early walker - I went from horizontal to vertical at about 8 months and I never looked back. Skipped crawling altogether - even then my knees were probably squealing, "Hell, no!" My mom read someplace that we develop our sense of balance as we learn to crawl, so she blames my general clumsiness on the whole no-crawling thing. Too late - I'm not going to try and rectify that now.

In this clumsy manner, I'm leading up to a related topic - finding balance in other aspects of life. Writing, for instance. I have a love/hate relationship with writing. On the one hand, I get antsy if I go for any length of time without writing SOMETHING. Once I get in the routine, I usually enjoy the process, even if the result rarely turns out the way I hoped/planned/intended. I have a slow learning curve, and I have a lot more experience in writing non-fiction than fiction.

Also, my brain is a little weird. I'm pretty sure all writers have weird brains, some more than others. To the extent that weirdness can lead to unusual story ideas, that's a good thing. Reining in the weirdness to keep an unusual story from sliding into the what-the-heck-was-she-thinking zone requires a fine hand and a sense of balance. I have to wonder - if I had learned to crawl, would I have an easier time keeping my stories on the somewhat straight-and-narrow?

One editor gently mentioned an issue of consistency in one early story, while another story had issues with tone. When reading thrillers - and when watching taut, suspenseful movies - I appreciate a shot of humor to give me a break from the tension, however briefly. The trouble is, when I try to do that in my own stories, the brief flash of humor tends to become a short trip to Bizarro World. I'll start yo-yoing back and forth between dark, sometimes even gruesome scenes and humorous (hopefully) antics that leave the reader going, "Whaaaat the...?"


I'm happy to say I haven't walked into any walls for some time now. Haven't broken or sprained an ankle in thirty years or so. Haven't even fallen on the ice in about five years, despite the many opportunities for that to happen. Maybe I'm more cautious now, or maybe I've developed a sense of balance after lo, these many years.

I hope this means there's hope for my writing. God knows, I have a way to go before I reach the level of proficiency I'm aiming for. (Don't get me started on grammar! Spelling? Nailed it. The rest? I do my best, and pray for a sharp-eyed and patient editor.)

Meanwhile, I'll take it in stride when my two-year-old granddaughter handles those slippery sidewalks better than I do. She did learn to crawl before she walked.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Adaline's Treasures

I have a tote bag that I originally bought to use as a diaper bag for the times I went out with my infant granddaughter. Now she's almost 2 1/2 - and potty-trained - so I use it to carry extra hats, gloves, scarves, an umbrella, and other odds and ends.

When I cleaned the bag out recently, I found a lot more oddities than I'd realized. Somewhere along the line, my tote bag has become Adaline's treasure bag. As we walk along, she picks up little treasures and says, "I'll just put this in your bag, Gwamma, so we don't lose it."

The treasures she's collected include:

*a broken purple balloon

*a fairly large stick (suitable for dragging along iron fence rails in order to make a lot of noise)

*a pine cone

*a couple of crabapples

*a maple leaf (that she picked up and said, "Look, a maple leaf!" Good guess!)

*broken graham crackers (remains of school snacks)

*a variety of barrettes she's removed from her hair

*two packs of Curious George fruit snacks

*a battered box of yogurt raisins

*a vintage Smurf figure

*a small rock

*the remains of a "kitty cat tail" - from a container of ornamental grasses

*a penny she found on the bus

My own kids treasured their blankies above all else. Adaline has a couple of blankies but they never held her interest for long. In addition to the collection described above, Adaline is never without a baby doll - she has some nice dolls, but her favorites cost about five bucks at Walgreens (I'm pretty sure Walgreens and our small local toy store are her favorite stores in the whole world).

As the Biblical saying goes - sort of: "Where your treasure is, there is your heart."  In the eyes of this little girl, there are treasures everywhere. I hope she continues to find joy and magic in the little things.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Tantalizing, Tremendous Far-from-Terrible Twos

In 2012, I became a Grandma for the first time. I swear, I was NOT one of those parents who is constantly after their kids to procreate. I thought I'd be well into my dotage before I became a grandma - if then. (My daughter, whose cousin-slash-best-friend had a horrendous labor, frequently expressed her misgivings about having kids.) In fact, when my son called to tell me his baby news, I flat-out didn't believe him. By the time I saw an ultrasound picture, I was in love.

My husband and I had been thinking of downsizing at some point, so it wasn't a difficult decision to pack up and sell our house in Cincinnati and move to Chicago, where I grew up, so I could help with child care. I started babysitting for Adaline when she was six weeks old and I love every minute I spend with her. My daughter Jessica moved to Chicago from Florida so she could be closer to Adaline, and she takes an active role in Adaline's daily life. In June 2014 Adaline started attending day care, primarily so she could associate with other kids. I had misgivings at first but she's clearly thriving there. She adjusted very quickly to the new routine. Nowadays, she eats lunch and takes her nap at day care and I pick her up (sometimes with Auntie Gecca, sometimes with Grandpa) and she comes back here to play until Mommy and Daddy pick her up.

Two-year-olds suffer the stigma of "Terrible Twos" and I remember my own kids exhibiting some challenging behavior at this age. From the standpoint of a grandma (and my daughter shares my thinking on this), I absolutely love Age Two.

The most fun part, for me, is listening to Adaline discover the power and joy of being able to express her likes and dislikes, and to ask questions - lots of questions. She's changing physically too, of course. Adaline has learned to jump and bounce and do somersaults. She isn't particularly tall, but she's tall enough to reach the kitchen counters now, and she can climb on chairs to see what's on the table, too. She's curious about everything, which means no one has any privacy in the bathroom any more. Potty training has begun in earnest, at her insistence, and she likes company when sitting on her little potty.

I raised two kids - a boy and a girl - so you'd think I'd have this parenting routine down pat. I'm the oldest of five kids and I spent a good chunk of my life babysitting and doing child care at home, so add on that experience. But every child is different, and so much happens when kids are growing, it's easy to forget. I'm something of a worrier - years of reading mystery books has me constantly imagining Worse Case Scenarios - but I try not to get bogged down in what-ifs. I try to use reasonable safety precautions without overdoing it.

Sometimes I learn from my mistakes, and other times I'm reminded how joyful life can be from a toddler's perspective.

1. When little girls want to play with lipstick, they REALLY want to play with lipstick!

2. When a two-year-old colors, he or she is going to end up covered in colors, too. The same goes for food and drink - no matter how careful they are, two-year-olds always end up wearing food and beverages.

3. If there is an opportunity for a two-year-old to get soaking wet, they will do it.

4. Two-year-olds are endlessly fascinated with potties

5. Two-year-olds are disguise artists!

6. Best of all, two-year-olds love to laugh (especially when Auntie Gecca comes to play)!

Saturday, November 1, 2014

In My Life #1 - House Memories

There are places I remember
All my life though some have changed
Some forever not for better
Some have gone and some remain

- "In My Life," Lennon-McCartney

I was reading a book the other day (Susanna Kearsley's THE ROSE GARDEN) that was so evocative, it made me look back on places in my life. The story is set in Cornwall, so my first memories were of my first visit to Cornwall in 1975. But then, since my granddaughter is never far from my thoughts, it got me wondering about her. She's been coming here regularly since she was six weeks old and she's two years and a few months now. As often as she's been here, I wonder how much she'll remember our place when she's older. If we're still living here by the time she's school age, I'm sure she'll have some memories of it, but maybe not. If she does remember it, I wonder what things she will remember.

My grandparents moved to Evanston, Illinois in the 1940s and they lived in the same house there until I was married. When I moved back from England in the early 1980s, my grandparents moved to Adams, Massachusetts, the town where my grandmother grew up. My grandmother was eager to rediscover the town where she had so many memories of her own parents and grandparents, but I was sad that the house I'd known my whole life was no longer going to be in our family. I'm the oldest of five kids, and as our family grew, we moved several times - mostly within the same Chicago suburb - to houses that could fit us all. The new houses were great, but my grandparents' house had always been the constant.

The house itself was a typical red brick bungalow, a style common in the area from about the 1920s-1940s. It had a detached garage backing on to an alley and a miniscule backyard. The basement could be reached from inside the house or by stairs out in back, and we kids were discouraged from playing down there. My grandmother said it was cold and dirty - the attic, reached by a steep staircase at the back of the house, she called "hot and dusty". I loved the attic but was rarely allowed up there unless my uncle Jim invited me up to see his train set. The main thing I remember about it is that it belched smelly, oily smoke. My uncle Dave stored his WAA-MU show treasures up there, too, but I wasn't allowed to touch those. The only other things I remember seeing up there were stacks of National Geographic magazines, a red child's car of some kind and, I think, an old bicycle. (The American Pickers guys would have found some treasures there, for sure!)

The basement was my grandfather's territory. The main part of the room is where he propagated begonias on an old ping-pong table, with GRO-lights hanging from the ceiling. There was a closeted area where he stored hyacinth and narcissus bulbs on shelves, along with packages of Jell-O from the 1940s and canned food from the same era - my grandparents' version of a fall-out shelter, I guess. Under the stairs there were cabinets I wasn't supposed to fool around with. I remember finding some of my Uncle Jim's Big Little books there - chubby little comic books. My grandmother thought they might be valuable one day so we weren't allowed to play with them.

At the back of the basement was my grandfather's work table. I never saw him make anything there, but I was fascinated by the heavy iron vice that was clamped to the table. (How my brother and I managed to make it through childhood without smashing our fingers on that thing, I'll never know.) At some point - before I was born, I think - my Uncle Jim lived in a room walled off at the end of the basement, across from the worktable. It was pretty scary, not the least because of a picture hanging over the bed that showed a train that looked like it was about to chug right off the canvas. 

The upstairs - the main part of the house - was of far less interest to me as a kid. One of my earliest memories is of the curtains that were in my grandparents bedroom (until they remodeled with a more stylish but less memorable fabric). I remember laying in bed, staring at the old roses when I was too little to know what they were.

 My grandfather and I would have big bowls of blueberries for breakfast, with lots of milk and sugar. And then he would show me his collection of silver certificate one dollar bills. I'm afraid those might have vanished during the move to Massachusetts, since I never saw them again after that.

I can't remember where the clock was - in the living room or the dining room - but I remember whenever I spent the night there, I'd fall asleep to the loud ticking of the clock. I've always loved that sound!

My uncle Dave got married when I was four - I was the flower girl in his wedding - so I don't remember his room at my grandparents' house. My uncle Jim, who is about ten years older than I am, slept in the back porch bedroom for awhile, but the middle bedroom, next to the bathroom, is the one I always connect to him. The wallpaper in that room - until it was redone when I was a teenager - had a white background with a gold and green pattern like spokes on wagon wheels. One day I noticed that some spokes had letters penned between them and - what a surprise! - they spelled girls' names! I was into Nancy Drew books at the time and I felt like I'd stumbled across a secret code. My uncle, who didn't want his current girlfriends to know he had a list of former girlfriends hidden in his bedroom wallpaper, bribed me to keep quiet about it. 

The kitchen and dining room were my grandmother's territory, but they weren't much interest to me. I did like the built-in china cabinets, but I'd like those more today than I did when I was a kid. I liked the living room, especially when my grandfather got a big log fire going in the fireplace. He had a habit of laying down on the carpet in front of the fire and taking a nap. He also did that sometimes when there wasn't a fire going, and when the family was visiting. The first time my soon-to-be-husband met my grandparents, he was shocked to see my family calmly stepping over my grandfather's body as he slept on the living room floor. We were used to it, but it looked like a crime scene to him! The living room also housed the grand piano my grandmother played with her arthritic fingers, accompanying my grandfather who, with his amazing tenor, was a regular soloist at their church. I also loved a painting that hung over their sofa - a painting that is in my bedroom now. I don't know anything about it, but I still love it.

My grandfather was treasurer of Northwestern University for more than twenty years - my parents and aunts and uncles went there, but no one from the current generation. I used to love going to the WAA-MU shows every spring, and I'll always think of the Northwestern campus as a sort of extension of my grandparents' house.

My grandfather was an avid gardener but since his own yard was small, he grew a lot of plants at his victory garden. I remember we'd stop at Miss Margaret Reiter's house to get rhubarb from the giant plant in her backyard. Miss Reiter also worked at Northwestern University.

I could go on and on about Dr. Hedge's Annabelle hydrangeas growing next door to my grandparents' house, my friends Linda Smith and Jeanie Hamer, and the other neighbors. I remember going carolling once or twice in their neighborhood, and going to the carillon service at the Presbyterian Church on Christmas Eve. I hope my granddaughter has lots of memories of our place. I know my kids have lots of memories of their grandparents' houses, too!

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Date Me

No, not that kind of date.

I took one of those goofy online quizzes the other day, one that was supposed to guess my age based on my responses. The test guessed I was 24. Hell, my kids are older than that!

It got me thinking - it really is easy to date a person, based on their slang as well as their social literacy.

For instance, say "Wood or wire?" to many of my high school friends and they'll instantly picture Anne Bancroft's Mrs. Robinson throwing Benjamin Braddock into a stammering mass of nerves. From the same movie, "You're missing a great effect!" (I saw The Graduate seven times in a row - I still can recite most of it by heart.)

The movies we watched, the books we read, the music we listened to, the makeup and clothes we wore - these things firmly place my contemporaries and I in the 1960s. I was swept up in the tide of Beatlemania and the British Invasion when I was eleven or twelve, and I'm still loyal to those bands today. At the time, despite the Kennedy assassination - all the assassinations - despite Viet Nam and the Establishment railing against long hair and short skirts, it was still a magical time. There was something in the air, a sense that, as Dylan said, the times they were a-changing. We thought it was the greatest decade ever.

Bell bottoms are laughed at now but I loved my bells and they were very comfortable, too. I craved Yardley's Marty Quant-themed make-up, as modeled by Jean Shrimpton, and whenever I had a little money I'd rush over to Jewel and buy a lipstick or eyeshadow. I can still remember what those Slicker lipsticks tasted like!

My youth was also framed by advertising jingles and songs from TV shows: the Mickey Mouse Club theme song, "It's Howdy Doody Time," "Flintstones, meet the Flintstones, they're a modern stone-age family...", dum-de-de-dum Bon-an-za! (I liked Adam best, how about you?) and right along with that, "See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet...", and then there was the Oscar Meier Weiner Whistle and Charlie Tuna and Trix are for kids, and how many others??

I still have fond memories of the Sixties, but the slang? Did we really say things like feeling groovy, psychedelic, It's a gas (as in "Jumping Jack Flash, it's a gas, gas, gas"), far out, outta site, what a drag, etc? Oh yes, we did. There was a whole vocabulary tied to the suburban weed culture - as in marijuana, not the more hard core drugs: words like head shop, roach, doobie, toke and more. 

We didn't drink beer or wine (unless you count Boone's Farm) - the cocktail du jour was a Harvey Wallbanger. That drink - or the Galliano liqueur used in the recipe - made me gag. I can't stomach cilantro, and, to me, Galliano was like cilantro in alcoholic form. I remember a friend squeezing the remains of her Harvey Wallbanger from a rag-rug back into her glass after spilling it. (I was more of a Southern Comfort girl - I favored Southern Comfort Sours, but I don't think I would have squeezed one from a rug.)

What drives me nuts is my inability to shed the slang I learned as a child - and "drives me nuts" is one of those phrases. Luckily, "neato" and "keeno" bit the dust around the time I started junior high, but "cool" is still with me. And now "awesome," a word from my kids' high school years, has latched onto my vocabulary, too.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. (The more things change, the more they stay the same.)Where we had jocks and greasers, the cliques at my kids' school were geeks, skaters, goths and others I can't recall. When my granddaughter reaches high school age, cliques will still be around, I'm sure, but with different names to define them. 

How about you? What dates you? What slang words have stuck from your childhood, and what jingles can you still sing with the slightest prompting? I've got a Howdy Doody earworm stuck in my head now - please, give me another tune to focus on!

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

House of Cats - Part Four, "Pick Two"

Well, it was fun while it lasted but, if you recall, my parents weren't all that excited about getting ONE cat, much less 17 or so. The day finally came where they said, "That's it - you can pick two cats. No more." It felt like Sophie's Choice, Cat Edition. Anya was my cat - I had to keep him. And Chelsea was mom to so many of the kittens, and she was a total sweetheart. And Dickens was so cuddly, as was Tiffany, and Sammy had always been a favorite of mine.

All-in-all, it seemed like a much better idea to place the cats we couldn't keep in loving homes rather than to take them to a shelter. So my brothers and sisters and I had a crash course in sales and marketing. Did you live in Elk Grove Village in the late 1960s? Did you get a cat during that time? If so, odds are your cat was related to ours.

We made posters, we spread the word to our friends and their families, to every family I babysat for, to everyone we went to school with. There were five of us Villars kids, and we swept through town with our cats like a furry tornado. The white cats were gorgeous so they were our first line of attack. We found homes for most of them. I'm not sure how many cats we found homes for altogether, but in the end we still had to take some to the shelter. (I can't remember for sure, but I really, really hope it was a no-kill shelter.) We kept Anya and Sammy and if I'd had a place of my own, I would have kept Chelsea, Tiffany and Dickens, too. Our only consolation was that Chelsea was so sweet and pretty, and Tiffany and Dickens were so cute and cuddly, we hoped people visiting the shelter wouldn't be able to resist them.

Odessa, from the first litter, went back to Mrs. Petersen, whose Siamese cat was Anya's mother. As I recall, Odessa lived a long life. I'd love to hear from any Elk Grove people who adopted our kittens. I hope they all had good homes and brought happiness to their owners, like Anya and Sammy brought to us.

Since then, I've had two kids, one granddaughter, one dog, two gerbils, one hamster, two rabbits, and many cats: Pudgie, Benjie, Tiffany Annie aka Baby LoLo, Tiger, Stephanie, Casper and Charlie. My brothers and sisters have had many cats and dogs, too. But none of us have ever topped the number of cats we had in 1968 to 1970. We've also provided shelter for a couple of possums and several generations of raccoons, as well as a number of deer. There have been snakes and moles, too, but not by choice.

Speaking for my brothers and sisters as well as for myself, I'm confident that dogs and cats will always be a part of our lives. The more, the merrier!

House of Cats - Part Three, Tiffany and More

So, if you're keeping count, the House of Cats isn't too crazy at this point. We had Anya, the father, Chelsea, the mama, and the four kittens from the first litter, which included Dickens and Sammy. Six cats - no biggie, right?

We had no freaking clue. We didn't rush to get Anya fixed because we didn't think Chelsea could get pregnant again so quickly. Guess what? She could. And this time she got REALLY big - so big, she had to walk downstairs sideways, taking one step at a time. She had seven kittens this time around. We made a bed for Chelsea and her kittens in an old Samsonite suitcase and kept it at the foot of my bed.

A few days later, some jerk tossed a kitten from his car as he drove past an elementary school - the same elementary school my younger brother and sisters attended, as it happens. My sisters smuggled it home and begged me to hide it. "Just put it in with the other kittens," they said. "Mom and Dad will never notice."

Well, um, it's just possible a kitten that's about 7 weeks old might stand out from day old kittens, especially since the New Kid was a tiger cat and the new batch were a mix of white, gray, and dusty gray-and-white cats with vaguely Siamese markings. But, what the heck? Who was going to notice one more kitten? So we kept her. We named the new kitten Tiffany. Because she wasn't quite weaned, Tiffany loved to snuggle up and massage us with her paws while she "nursed" our shirts - she liked the guys' sweaty t-shirts the best! Because she was so cuddly, Tiffany quickly became a favorite.

Tiffany and me and my 18th birthday cake

Tiffany complaining to me about my picture-taking

Dickens trying to open the screen door

Dickens, still trying to open the screen door, and Tiffany

The cat count, as you may have noticed, has gone up significantly. Anya and Chelsea and the original four kittens make six, plus the seven kittens from the second litter, plus Tiffany equals fourteen. But it doesn't end here...because we still hadn't gotten Anya neutered at this point. And, who knew? Kittens can get pregnant as young as six months.

Yep, shortly after Chelsea gave birth to her second litter, the females from her first litter (which turned out to be three of the four) started giving birth to their own kittens. Because they were so young, presumably, none had more than one kitten, and none of their kittens survived for more than a few days. But for those few days, our house was pure cat CHAOS. Chelsea would take her kittens and hide them in the cabinet where we kept bread. Her mama-kittens would steal her kittens, hide them somewhere else, and then put their kittens in with the bread. 

Three things happened around this time. We had Anya fixed, finally. And my brother Thom used some creative carpentry to build a multi-story cat house in our two-car garage. The third thing? I started dating Marty Davis, a dog-owner who had no experience with cats and wasn't all that thrilled by the idea of cats. I'll never forget the first time he came over. First of all, there were my sisters, perfectly comfortable running around the house in bikinis while my youngest brother, Russ, nearly died of embarrassment when Marty saw him in his Jockeys and a Batman cape, running around and singing the Batman theme song at the top of his lungs. Marty had a brother the same age as Russ so he wasn't too surprised by the whole Batman thing. But he turned beet red when my giggling sisters ran past him.

And then someone opened the door from the garage into the house...

As Marty describes it, at that point a wall of cats poured through the door, taking off in every direction. I wish we had a movie camera back then - I would have loved to capture that on film!