Nana, the Checker Champion of Lehigh Street

My white-haired nana was the head of family.  Her given name was Mabel, an offbeat, old-fashioned name popular in the 1890s. Like her name, Nana was a little bit old-fashioned, a rule follower, and a strict disciplinarian. My great aunt Elda and my great uncle Earl lived with her in the big home on Lehigh Street in Allentown. Nana loved to teach her great granddaughters all kinds of games including Parchesi, Monopoly, Clue and Crazy Eights, and Old Maid.  Her favorite, however, was checkers. My nana was the checker champion, and no one ever beat her!

We always played in the kitchen. There was a built-in booth with chrome legs and trim to the table.  The red seats were hard to take in the summer if you were wearing shorts and had to slide into the far end. You always felt like you were sticking to the seat!  This is where the checker competitions would take place.

Nana would query, “What color?” and I would always answer “Black!”  Nana knew what I would say, but she asked anyway. Once we started, there was no small talk. “Eyes on the board. Concentrate!” Nana would command.  As hard as I tried, Nana always ended up getting “kinged” several times before I could make one lone player reach the final row of the board.

When I knew I was losing, I would always get up to greet anyone who walked into the kitchen. I skipped across the large white and black checkerboard floor in a way I could not make my checker skip across the gameboard. But Nana would say, “Sit down. The game is not finished yet.”  Reluctantly, I would obey. I knew when I was whipped. Nana would say to me, “The next time it will be your turn to win.”  But that never happened. Nana maintained her record. She would not ever play to just let her great granddaughter win, even if she was the first great granddaughter and born in the month of May like she was. 

As I look back on it all, I think she did the right thing. Today kids get trophies and awards just for showing up. Nana taught me to keep trying, even when I lost each match.  I improved, too, making it harder for her to win the game. She had to take longer pauses before moves, and I think that even she thought more than once that I was going to beat her.  I think I learned how to stay with something and see it through. That has helped me have a thirty-eight year career in the classroom and write four books. Now, I am working on a fifth book and revising the first with the help of my co-authors. Maybe, in some way, I owe it all to my white-haired nana, the checker champion of Lehigh Street.

 

Bat in a Shoebox

For me, one of the most bizarre things that happened at All Around Farm was the day Sue called to me and asked me to come up to the apartment when we finished throwing hay to the horses and filling their water buckets.  It was a sunny spring afternoon, and I climbed the steps thinking about all the things that had to be done to get ready for tomorrow’s horse show competition. Some horses still needed a bath, tack had to be cleaned, and a few grooming boxes packed. Braiding and bandaging wouldn’t happen until the wee hours of the next day.

The apartment above the stables was very spacious: a kitchen, office, bathroom, two bedrooms, long hallway, large livingroom, and a room beyond with a bar area. Sue Scales lived there as the business manager. Richard Fennelly also loved there. He was the stable manager.   All Around Farm had been at one time, one of the most prestigious show barns on the East Coast; in fact, it had international acclaim.  Once the barn for a large summer estate, during World War II, it had been used to store fancy cars. In 1957 Milton Kulp, Jr. (Junie) established All Around Farm. The 19th century barn had a wash stall, six large box stalls in the garage, a main aisle with a brick walkway and about nine big stalls, a section four with four stalls, and an outside stall facing the driveway circle. A large tack room, sitting area where trunks were also stored, and a bathroom with a shower were also part of the garage area.

On this day when I got to the top of the steps and opened the door, Sue motioned to follow her into the livingroom. There, hanging from a sheer wall, was a sleeping bat. I went back downstairs to get Mr. Joe Beily, the father of one of my riding pupils.  Joe came upstairs and asked for a shoebox. He cut the corners of the lid in a way to flatten it.  I took off my shoes and climber onto the ledge of the couch.  Mr. Beily handed me the shoebox. I was close enough to touch the bat. It was amazing how she could hang on that wall, and also amazing that she hadn’t awakened. Next, he handed me the lid which I slowly slid under the box. I heard a faint rustling, and then the bat was trapped inside the box!

Joe helped me down, and we walked to the back room where a porch and stairs led to the outside. Joe opened the door for me and we walked to the porch railing. I sat the box on the ledge, dramatically opened the lid, and nothing happened. We waited and waited some more. I was beginning to think, “Is the bat really inside this box?”   So, rather foolishly, I started to lean over the railing to look inside. Just then, the bat made its move. I would have fallen over the railing to the driveway below if Joe Beily had not grabbed me and pulled me back!  The bat flew off into some trees, unhurt but probably somewhat confused. 

So it was Joe Beily who really saved the day, but I got to be within inches of a bat!  That is my “Bat in a Shoebox” story.  It really happened!  Since then, I have often thought about putting up a bat box in the backyard. Bats are wonderful for the environment, and they eat lots of insects including mosquitoes. I think these days, everybody needs a bat or two!  Maybe this summer I will do some research and actually put up a bat home with my husband’s help!

Horses! Horses! Horses!

Horses! Magnificent, strong-withered beauties

that playfully rear and paw at the passing clouds

or arch their backs to buck and buck

until they send their rider shooting like a cannonball

over their head and into the soft sand of the riding ring.

 

Horses! Eyes wide-set on a long face

sometimes decorated with a star or flashy blaze

and ends in a velvety-soft muzzle that loves to nibble

carrots and apples offered as a reward or treat

from an upturned palm of a human friend.

 

Horses! So frustrating that these powerful creatures

are so fragile subject to all kinds of ailments and injuries

– thrush, colic, sidebone, ringbone, bowed tendons,

cracked heels, founder, West Nile Virus, navicular disease.

Proper diet, plenty of fresh water, exercise, and a good blacksmith helps!

 

Horses! They are easily frightened –

the wind blows up a leaf, a car or motorcycle backfires, a bird flies from a tree.

Or sometimes, there is no rhyme or reason to their spookiness! 

What just happened? The horse leaps to the side or whirls around

and the rider may find himself on the ground (again!).

 

 Horses! A great teammate!

When you ride the course of fences,

 you feel that you and your horse are one – sheer poetry in motion!

Majestic, beautiful, intelligent, puzzling.

Residents of my head and heart.AAF

Woof! Woof! What Does It All Mean?

Slice of Life2

My Corgi dogs have at least five different barks. There’s the squirrel bark, the kitty-cat bark, the welcome guests and family bark and goodbye-to-guests bark, the Lost in Space, “Danger, Will Robinson!” bark, and the let’s-go-out bark. The squirrel bark is also reserved for smaller creatures including bunnies, chipmunks, and birds. The Corgis, Merri and Rhonda, are recreational barkers. They really bark at anything that moves. That includes large vehicles and bicycles and sounds much like the squirrel bark. But when guests come, they are excited, and it is their happy bark.  Basically, it doesn’t stop until guests or family members are seated. Then the dogs know that their people friends are planning to stay for at least a little while.

Although the girls bark to say goodbye when friends or family get ready to leave (They learned this from Memphis, who only barked when people were going), they do not bark when it is either Ralph or me. They give us very sad looks and find their designated spots in the hall to await our return, Merri curled in the very corner between the wall and the front door and Rhonda right in front of the door. When I go out, Ralph says she spends most of her time wedged up against the front door, only leaving her post for her dinner or to go out for a walk.

Now Mimi almost never made a sound. But it was the skunk bark that was most plaintive – mournful – recognizing an enemy who leaves his mark and is gone. The indignity of it all when her beloved human refused her entrance into the house! No – it is not true that tomato juice will lessen the stench. That skunk perfume just has to wear off.  It takes days – even weeks!  This event happened on the day I was leaving for a conference. After giving Mimi two baths, I called Ralph to come over and try to give her a couple more baths.  It was before we were married and living in one house.  Ralph dropped everything to drive over and start scrubbing.

 I am still amazed that my wonderful husband actually said the words, “I do.”  I am not sure he knew what he was getting into, but all the dogs instantly fell in love with him, too.   He’s learned to listen to their communications.  A couple months ago, the girls were out in the backyard and Ralph was bringing out the garden hoses. He noticed that the barks had suddenly changed from the ones that give warning but are all in fun to barks of a very serious tone. He started calling them and found they had cornered a young groundhog that was standing on his hind legs and growling. Ralph sprinted over, grabbed Merri by the collar, and dragged her away. Rhonda followed. The game was not any fun without Merri.

Another time, Ralph opened the door to a man who said he was selling siding. It was eight o’clock at night, dark outside, and why Ralph opened the door to a complete stranger – I will never know!  He noticed that Merri was growling in a deep, threatening way, making noises like he had never heard before. He quickly said he wasn’t interested in siding (it was evident that our siding had already been replaced!) shutting the door and locking it.

I am glad we have the dogs for many reasons, but most of all glad for their smiles and joyful greetings and glad for their protective nature. I just cannot imagine life without the Corgis!

 

 

On Poetry

Poetry is the language of visual images – the creation of moving pictures with specific details and examples. Poetry is folk art. It is a way to pass on stories and thoughts. Poetry is entertainment. It’s fun!

Writing poetry is a reasonable, doable goal for students. For many years, I teamed with fourth grade teacher and friend Kathy Randolph. Her students created a gallery of water color paintings. Then they wrote a poem to pair with their artwork.

There are many ways to build a poem. For example, we can use a seesaw structure such as fortunately – unfortunately or once I – now I. We could take a verb and offer a definition (see the work of Sara Holbrook).

Float is a way to stay

relaxed and still,

a quiet motion

in the ocean,

lake or swimming pool.

A great way to stay cool

without the splashes

or meter dashes.

No competition in mind,

and you will find

sheer delight!

Perhaps a  craft

such as a raft

to float serenely

among sunbeams

and dream and dream!

Poems about world views, a take on an issue, summarizing an event, telling a story, creating an imagined perspective from a biome’s point of view, or simply acting out a word with words – there is no limit to poetry. Of course, reading the work of myriad poets – both rhymed free verse poems – may spark a topic, a format, or style.  Anything is possible. Just take up your pen and write!

 

 

 

 

Friendships

My dear friend Nancy McElwee has many friends scattered across the globe. These friends date back to high school and college, friends she grew up with in elementary school or in her neighborhood. Nancy works hard to maintain friendships. One of our mutual friends is Jim MacCall. We can’t wait to see him at the Memorial Day picnic. Jim is an incredible guy – always upbeat and looking for the next adventure!

Recently, I reconnected with a childhood friend, Katie Sullivan. I cannot wait to see her and catch up. Kate was a fun, generous person who gave me so many wonderful memories. I remember our ride to the deli on ponies and the night Sue Kennedy and I stayed at Kate’s house – the night of the bat encounter!

This wonderful weekend I spent catching up with Dr. Elizabeth G. Davis. Beth is family. She really is like the daughter I never had. Now a full professor at Kansas State University, Beth runs the equine clinic. She is truly amazing! Ralph and I visited Beth and Kay in Manhattan, Kansas last July. Now we are all here in Chicago, and it is so wonderful to be able to make some new memories together. Dinner at the Signature Room last night with a spectacular view of Lake Michigan and a promise to celebrate all our birthdays, including Beth’s mom’s birthday, next April in Manhattan, Kansas.

Friendships are worth working to maintain. That reminds me I must call Dave VanEss – it has been too long since we have talked. I need to see Jessica and her boys. I would love to see Alex, Brooke, and Cait every week, but my goddaughters have very busy lives – as they should! I am thrilled every time I get to spend some time with them! And speaking of goddaughters,  where are you, Jennifer and Kevin?  You should be coming to Ireland with us!

I will see Nancy on Memorial Day. I need to find out what her secret is – how she invests so much time at Pearl S. Buck International, makes new friends all the time, and keeps up with all the friends she has made along the way. It’s truly a gift…but so is each true friend we have. A most precious gift we must nurture as well as treasure.

Chicago Memories

As I walked into the lobby of the Palmer House Hilton, I thought about another trip here to celebrate Alex’s and Brooke’s graduation from WCU and PSU. Cait was along, too, as well as their dad Kevin, and of course, my husband Ralph. We were also celebrating my 60th birthday. When the waiter asked me what birthday I was celebrating, I told him my 39th. Kevin added, “39 plus 21.” So that is what they wrote in chocolate on my dessert plate!

We did everything including the Field Muesum and the Shedd Aquarium. We took the boat tour on the lake and river. A special dinner at the Signature Room at the top of the John Hancock Building. We decided to walk to the Willis Tower from the hotel based on Cait’s calculations with her cell phone. But what a nineteen year old considers walkable is different from a 60 year old’s perspective. After a million, “Are we almost there, Cait?” we finally arrived. Needless to say, we took the taxi back to the hotel.

Another trip to Chicago my sister Diane wanted to walk to the Navy Pier from our already long stroll on Michigan Avenue. We did not quite make it, and thankfully flagged a taxi to return to the hotel. On that weekend, we also traveled to Wrigley Field for a Cubs game. They lost, but we had a wonderful time. What a beautiful ball park!

Now we are waking up after a great night at Second City Comedy Club and looking forward to a stroll in Millenium Park. I hope to write a photo walk on Monday when I can transfer photos from the camera to my laptop. If you have never spent time here, it is a wonderful city with so much to do! A great place for families, friends, or couples. Chicago is filled with wonderful museums, restaurants, and  festivals. We want to check out the Shakespeare theater on Navy Pier and the gangster tour. Maybe we’ll just have to come back again next year!

 

More Haiku

Long-sleeved willow tree

drops her arms into the lake

In June to cool off!

 

Lady Moon rises

high among the brittle stars

to bathe them in light.

 

Bees buzz busily

in yellow and black jackets –

Work in uniforms.

 

 

My Everyday Hero

             Long, slender fingers with perfectly manicured ruby-red nails rest on the ivory keys.  They press down gently and the beautiful music, “Lara’s Theme” from Dr. Zhivago, spills out into the air.  I smile at her, and her blue eyes twinkle as she tosses her golden brown hair from her face.  I snuggle next to her on the bench, trying to understand the language of the black notes on the page.  She smells squeaky clean like Ivory soap.  She sighs and stands up, her red-checkered apron still wrapped around her middle.  “Play ‘Clair de Lune’,” my sister Diane requests, another of Mom’s favorites. I nod in agreement.  Mom squeezes me, and I squeeze back. She’s perfectly perfect.  She’s my mom – guide, friend, and hero.

            My mom devoured books like a stegosaurus devours plants!  My dad always said he just couldn’t keep Mom in books… she read so fast!  Every Saturday I walked with my two sisters and Mom to the public library on Wadsworth Avenue.  She helped me choose mysteries and animal stories before she made her own choices. We strolled home weighted down with armfuls of goodies! Mom read every Nancy Drew book with me.  When she finished her books, she read Reader’s Digest or Life magazine.  Then she was on to her crossword puzzles in the newspaper or reading a book to one of us.  When mom was reading, she pushed her glasses on the top of her head and practically buried her nose in the book.  I often wondered how she managed to finish a new book almost every day.  I still wish I could do that!  My mom was a READER, and that is probably why I am a reader, too!

            I consider myself to be a lucky person.  After all, I had a special mom.  She loved her daughters so much.  Every night she would listen to us say our prayers.  She tucked us in, kissed us on our forehead, and whispered, “Goodnight.  Sleep tight.  Don’t let the bedbugs bite!”  Then we all giggled.  The next day I would get a kiss on the cheek as I scooted out the door for school, and when I opened my schoolbag, there was a note from Mom, telling me that she was thinking of me and waiting for me to get home so we could have lunch and read together (Yes, we actually got to come home for lunch!).  I felt loved every single minute of the day.

            Mom taught me to be responsible and made sure my homework was always completed.  She said she would help us through elementary school (which went through grade 6), but that after that, we were on our own. When that time came, we were all ready to be independent. We had established good homework and study habits, we were readers, and we all loved poetry. Mom had us choose and memorize a poem each week. Then we recited it for the entire family – a performance.  I still know many poems by heart and love to read and write poetry – I owe that to my mom, too!

            Who could have had a better role model?   I loved and respected my mother.  She was smart, loving, and generous with her time.  I wanted to be just like her when I grew up. Although sometimes I wonder if I could do better – Mom was a hard act to follow – I know that I am still trying to be more like my mom. She was something else!

Grandfather’s Chair

Old, old chair

Mustard yellow cowhide,

Sturdy and broad,

Arm rests worn burgundy

Where strong arms and hands

Once rested.

Cracked leather seat cushion and

Gold metal tacks to frame the leather,

Four strong, lion-clawed legs

To hold up its massive frame.

 

Old, old chair

Smelling of leather

Conjuring up faint whiffs of

Life Boy soap, Listerine

And Old Spice After Shave.

Warm, comfortable, and

Large enough to hold

A grandpa and his grandchild.

 

Old, old chair

A place to watch t.v. or read the paper.

Snuggling in to listen to 45 records

Spinning out coal-mining songs

“I owe my soul to the company store…”

Or simple love songs –

“I give to you and you give to me,

True love, true love…”

 

Sometimes a lively polka

And then the chair would sit empty.

Grandpa would whirl/twirl us

Round and round and round

While we balanced on his stocking feet,

Laughing and throwing our heads back…

We didn’t own a care in the world.

 

Old, old chair

A place to catch your breath

After the dancing’s done.

A place to sink down into comfort

Or nestle in a familiar lap.

Seat cushion now cracked and split

Spilling stuffing outward

Great creases running like lifelines

Streaks of summer lightning.