Grandfather’s Easter Surprise

Slice of Life2My grandfather tried hard to please my grandma in every way possible. He never made a major decision without consulting her first. He loved everything she cooked for him, and he shared in the clean-up responsibility, either washing or drying the dishes. He even would get a towel, some lotion, and let Grandma stretch out on the couch and proceed to massage her feet, something she really enjoyed. In all the years I watched my grandfather massage my grandma’s feet, I never saw her return the favor. My grandfather treated my grandmother as if she was royalty!

There was, however, this one occasion that my grandfather brought my grandma to anger – and that was because he dearly loved his three granddaughters and wanted to make them happy. Such was the case this one Easter that my grandfather brought home three chicks that had been dyed blue, red, and pink (But don’t ask me why anyone would do that!). When he opened the box and lifted out the three beauties, we all oooohed and aaaahed! 

Everyone, that is, except for my grandmother.  Her face turned crimson and she swirled around, dramatically marching to the kitchen where she began to clean up. Pots and pans clanged and banged, and my grandfather could not get a word out of her. “Now, Dottie, I’m going to build a chicken coop out back,” he began in a hushed tone. But that just led to more banging of pots and pans. Yup. My grandfather was getting the silent treatment.

He left us to tend to the chicks while he hurried to the basement to gather tools and building supplies: a saw, a level, bolts and nuts, screwdrivers, and stray pieces of wood.  From the trunk of his car he lifted a roll of chicken wire. His plan was to use the doghouse as the henhouse and build a little run around it. Pixie, our faithful dog, really never used the doghouse anyway. She slept on the kitchen floor or curled up at the base of my bed when I was up for the weekend or the summer.

We named our chicks Bluey, Reddy, and Pinky (very original) and taught them how to follow us around like dogs. They even would hop up a small stepladder and flutter to the ground when we clapped our hands. My grandmother never grew any fonder of them, but she didn’t have the heart to tell us we had to give them up.  She didn’t have to. As they grew older, they started fighting with each other almost constantly. And it was then that we realized our three little chicks had grown up to be three quite aggressive and spirited roosters.  

My grandfather came home one day and called us into the living room. He solemnly told us we were going to have to give up our prize chickens to a farmer up the road who had told my grandfather that he would take them. So we rode, silent and teary-eyed, to Clarence’s farm in the Lehigh Valley. I wasn’t sure, but I thought my grandma was trying to fight back a big smile as she stood in the driveway and waved goodbye to my grandfather, her three grandkids, and the three Banty roosters!

Pictures of the Pocono Mountains: A Goodbye Walk

          When you go on a walk, a special walk to take one last look at everything before you have to leave it, your heart is open to all the memories you will embrace today.  You are ready with sharp eyes and ears, like a young wolf pup trying to learn everything that “Grandfather Wolf” can share.  Your grandfather is dressed in a red-and-black lumber jacket and hiking boots.  His strong hand grasps yours as you walk the mountain paths worn by deer and lake vacationers to spot leafy queens and prickly kings.  Your grandfather knows the way up and down the mountain as well as anybody.  You are safe with him.

         He knows the names of all the trees.  He knows the songs of the birds, too, and calls back to them.  You laugh.  Your grandfather would not make a good bird – he would never get off the ground!  He pretends to look stern, but you see the corners of his mouth crinkle because he likes the joke you have made.  You listen, smell, and taste everything – even pausing to touch the rough barks of the giants that sweep the clouds from the skies or the soft carpet of pine needles that muffle your footsteps.  You look up, up, up.  When you are small, the trees are so high – touching the blue edge of the world.

            Standing tall on the ridge, a row of firs with trunks, bare and brown, line up uniformly and erect – soldiers against September’s sky.  Green shadows lengthen over the path as you walk among the conifers, grassy steeples in this natural cathedral.  Soon they will be the only thing that remains green – an emerald constancy throughout the seasons. No two trees are exactly alike, and you look at each one, trying to memorize each face.  You turn to walk down the path towards the lake, but you feel eyes upon you, and you pivot on one heel, twisting your body to look back.  The trees are all bending to the side, leaning out to get one last look at you.   “Come along, Pocono Princess,” your Grandfather says with smiling eyes as green as the pines.  Goodbye, Trees!  Goodbye!

Continue reading

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!

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!

First Memory: Atlantic City, 1957

I am standing on the beach and curling my toes into the warm, grainy sand, trying to breathe it all in.  My grandparents stand on each side of me like sturdy bookends; each hold a hand tightly.  They know I want to break free and run toward the water. 

I gaze out onto the blue-meets-blue horizon and catch a glimpse of a gull floating high above me.  I think to myself, “I wish I could be that gull and never leave here.”  I think I have never seen something so magical, a feast for eyes and soul. It is strange how the ocean pulls on my heart like a strong magnet. I feel like I have always known this watery world so full of life, the known and the unknown. I lick my salty lips and tug at my grandparents, leaning forward and leaving small footprints in the sand stained a coffee-color from the frothy waves that lick at the shoreline.

The lacy-fingered waves roll in and out, in and out, a pulsating rhythm that beats like my heart.  It reminds me of life…that all life came from here.  I cry out, “It’s so beautiful…it’s so very beautiful!”  And even today as I stand on the warm, summer’s beach, curling my toes into the grainy sand, I whisper in my mind, “It’s so beautiful.  It’s so very beautiful!”  I catch my breath as the wonder of it all wraps around me like a warm blanket.



Family Secrets

I cautiously approach the living room where Grandma and Mom are sitting and talking in hushed tones.  I look over at the empty chair – his chair – the armrests worn a deep burgundy. It seems so wrong – the emptiness. I stare at it, and suddenly hot tears blur the image, and when I refocus my eyes I am not here anymore. 

I am in Emmaus, when the roses are all in bloom, twisting and turning their way through the arched trellis – the entrance to my grandparents’ backyard. Suddenly I am  inside, looking at the little girl with the pixie haircut, freckled nose, and tanned arms, dressed in a yellow blouse and purple pedal-pushers from Artie’s Thrift Shop.  She’s curled up next to her grandfather who smells of Lifebuoy soap and Listerine. He is telling her about the time he had to work at the store on Sundays, selling supplies to the miners of Freeland, Pennsylvania.  She’s heard this story before and many others. “Tell me another story!” she sings out when he is finished with this long-ago tale. She rests her head on his chest.  She can feel the thu-thump of his heart.  She puts her other hand over her own heart.  Yes, the thu-thump, thu-thump is exactly the same, two hearts beating as one…

My mother interrupts my thoughts, pulling me back to the present.  Suddenly I am twenty-one again, more grown up than I want to be.  I was the last to leave the viewing, pulling up the coverlet around my grandfather.  “Kiss him goodbye,” my mother had whispered to me.  But when I leaned down to touch the cold cheek with my lips, it didn’t feel like my grandfather…didn’t smell like my grandfather.  Where was the smell of Lifebuoy soap and Listerine I knew so well? 

  “I finally told her, Lynne,” my mother says in a weary tone. 

I look at their swollen, puffy eyes and blotchy cheeks.  I know that I am looking into a mirror of my own face.  My heart is broken. I am broken.  “Told her what?” I ask, truly puzzled.

“I told her that you’ve known that your grandfather wasn’t really your grandfather.”

My grandmother locks her watery blue eyes with mine.  “I’m so glad he never knew that,” she whispers.  “He never wanted you to know.”

I never understood that.  I still didn’t.  And why did my mother feel compelled to tell her today of all days?  All those emotions erupting into confessions – as if a thousand Hail Mary’s could change things now.  And the only Catholic in our family was left behind in the cemetery on Hamilton Street, across from the apartment that my grandparents had shared when I was four years old. 

I look again at my poor Grandma.  She was his entire life.  He had worshipped the ground she walked on – truly.   “Grandma, how could you think that I would have loved him less?  When I found out, I loved him even more for taking care of Mom and you and loving us all so much.  I couldn’t have had a better grandfather if I had been allowed to choose one from all the grandfathers in the entire world!”  I practically explode as my words ran off like a stampede of scared horses.

“He still wouldn’t have wanted…”

I cannot understand my family.  Everyone says you are always supposed to tell the truth – that “Honesty is the best policy!” – and yet, there are always these deep, dark secrets that we are never ever to find out. As I stand looking at my mom and my grandmom, I remember the time I had been playing in my grandma’s bedroom and had opened one of her dresser drawers to find some dainty little handkerchiefs with letters embroidered on them. I carried them out to the kitchen to ask my grandma if I could keep one and who was B.M. T. anyway?  Later, I understood why she had grabbed them from me and angrily told me they belonged to my mother. “But shouldn’t the initials say B. M. S.?” I had asked her.  She never replied and stormed off to the bedroom to hide the secret they held away from my sisters and me forever. Nothing left to do but shrug my shoulders and wipe away tears of confusion and righteous indignation. They were just handkerchiefs…

I found out the truth quite accidentally.  My best friend in junior high, Michael Amsterdam, had a father who worked as a surgeon at Einstein.  My mom said she knew him and that he’d remember her.  She had been head nurse of three floors at Einstein before she married my dad.  But Michael’s dad had no recollection of Betty Mae Sulima.  I was angry with my mom for embarrassing me (You know how hormones rage in junior high, and I sort of liked Michael and wanted to have this connection with his family!). My mom decided she had to tell me that Michael’s dad wouldn’t know her as Betty Sulima – that her real name was Betty Teele.  I wasn’t angry with my mother then, but I sure was hurt and disappointed.  I didn’t see the need for this family secret.  Look at all the trouble it had caused between Michael and me.  And if I’d had known, maybe I wouldn’t have announced over and over again that I had inherited my grandfather’s hazel eyes (We were the only ones in the entire family with eyes that looked blue if you were wearing blue, or green if you were wearing green).

My grandfather and I had had a special bond – our love of nature, dogs, horses, swimming, picnic, and even cold baked beans!  It was my grandfather who drove around the Lehigh Valley looking for horse farms where we could stop to watch the horses grazing in the pastures.  It was my grandfather who hiked up the Pocono Mountains with me, teaching me the names of the trees and the birds.  It was my grandfather who taught me how to float or how to synchronize my breaths, strokes, and kicks so that I could swim.  It was my grandfather who brought home Easter chicks and built a coop, my grandfather who brought home my first dog, and my grandfather who watered the lawn in the middle of January so that we would have a skating rink in his front yard the next morning.

As I look at my mom and grandma, I realized that I should have told him that I knew, and that it didn’t matter…it never would have mattered.  But my grandmother is saying something. I tune in to catch the end of her explanation…“…glad he never knew.  So glad.”

I wait until darkness comes and  kneel down beside my bed to say the childhood prayer that my grandfather had taught me…Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep.  If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. When I finish, I call out to my grandfather, “Can you hear me now?  I loved you even more when I found out the truth – if that’s possible.  I love you!  You will always be with me, here in my heart…always. No secrets between us.”  I put both hands over my heart  before I close my eyes.  Thu-thump, thu-thump, thu-thump…two hearts still beating as one.


Breaking the Rules: Caught!

 First year driving Mom’s Rambler –

midnight blue and new and shiny.

Best friend, Billy with long brown bangs

that fall over his chocolate eyes.

An upturned Irish nose,

a wide smile flashing large, white teeth.

A set, determined chin let everyone know

he is stubborn and would not give up easily.

Often a loner; smart, attractive, sullen.

Missing something, but he never really said what.


A friend, not a boyfriend,

but everyone thinks differently –

my riding instructor and my mom.

They have a conversation about us.

His mom had passed away,

his older brother often in trouble,

He was a high school dropout,

smoked cigarettes, on his own:

no control there.


Forbidden to see him

 for no particular reason;

Mom would not listen to protests.

 We didn’t do anything wrong,

but it isn’t right… THEY SAID.

Defiant and stubborn myself,

 nothing to do but lie,

and Mom always knew when I wasn’t telling the truth,

she has this sixth sense.


I take the car and drive to Billy’s house.

 Get inside – hug him hello.

Doorbell rings almost immediately…

My youngest sister standing there.

Whispers while her face reddens,

Mom says to come home now.

Staring past her shoulders,

I see the Chevy Impala,

Dad’s car with Mom inside.

Her fury is drifting in waves

out the car window to my nostrils.

My fury is bubbling over –

she had followed me!


Total embarrassment.

How could she do this to me?

But he smiles and says gently,

You better go.

Don’t worry.

We’ll fix it.

Foolish, young, brave.


The Pact

When I was fourteen, I remember my love affair with horses bloomed. I dearly wanted one and had attended summer riding camp since I had turned nine, but my parents could not even begin to afford it. Horseback riding is an expensive sport with the cost of riding gear, boarding bills each month, blacksmith and vet bills, and horse show transportation and entry fees.

I was old enough to understand, but I did not want to give up my passion. The solution: I started working at the stables on weekends. My mom got up extra early to drive me to the barn on Sheaff Lane, up the gravel driveway, long and bumpy, in our faithful Rambler.  She handed me a paperbag lunch – a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on white bread with the crusts cut off.  I’d see her again at precisely five – Mom was always on time.

My parents and I had a deal: I would keep up my grades (by that they meant that I would receive an “A” in every subject – or no less than an occasional “B”), and I would be rewarded with stable time. It seemed fair to me, and I knew I could hold up my end of the bargain. I made every minute in school count, paying attention and doing all the assignments on time and sometimes ahead of time. In high school, I studied until wee morning hours for exams to maintain my “A” average each year, but it was always more than a grade.  I needed horses like I needed air.  

Each Saturday and Sunday I mucked stalls, groomed horses, cleaned tack, and led ponies around and around the ring on a lead shank to teach young children how to post to the trot. My favorite ponies were Oswald and Jungle Juice – they were the best teachers ever!  By summer of my fourteenth year, my riding instructor made me a junior counselor at summer camp, and I helped to give lessons. My expertise was getting new riders started. Throughout the seasons, I taught students from the age of four to the age of sixty-four!

Sometimes, I got a free riding lesson for my efforts. Sometimes, I took people on the trails through Whitemarsh. Each time, I got to be with horses and breathe it all in.  I loved every moment of it. The weekends were something to look forward to – my sisters were inside playing with paper dolls or watching television – but I was outside with magnificent beauties.  I was learning how to be a riding instructor, learning how to work hard, learning about the kind of person I wanted to become.

My Great Uncle Earl

My Great Uncle Earl was a tall, handsome man with snow-white hair, a tickly moustache, and brilliant blue eyes that twinkled with mischief. He loved to laugh, and when he did, we laughed with him – it was contagious, that laughter of his!  And we all knew he was about ten years younger than our little Great Aunt Elda, but that was supposed to be a deep, dark secret, so we kept our secret that we knew “the secret.”

Uncle Earl had a passion for taking photographs and movies – the kind that had a reel to thread in a projector.  We viewed countless movies in the basement of my nana’s home on Lehigh Street in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Some movies just showed us racing around the enormous pine tree in the middle of the big backyard or trying to eat our ice-cream off the sugar cone before it melted.  My uncle loved to take movies of the family, and he was always shooting movies, but never in them.

My aunt and uncle lived with my great grandmother, and it was a blessing. Nana lived to be ninety, and she was able to stay at home and enjoy her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. Nana’s house was large, with three bedrooms on the second floor and a “secret” staircase that led to a huge attic. My Great Aunt Elda’s nephew Henry had lived there until he moved away to California.  My aunt and uncle also had a parakeet named Peety. Sometimes, he was allowed to fly around the house. My mother and father always shook their heads disapprovingly. Then Uncle Earl would whistle, and Peety would fly to his long index finger to perch.

Uncle Earl loved to buy gifts of jewelry for his great nieces, so my sisters and I always received beautiful bracelets, necklaces, and pins on our birthdays and for Christmas.  We loved his taste in jewelry and the fact that he did not follow my parents’ and grandparents’ advice to buy us clothing: socks, blouses, jeans, or sweaters. We had enough of those practical items from the rest of our family members.

Whenever there were family gatherings, you’d see Uncle Earl duck outside to disappear from the disapproving eyes of my great aunt, my grandmother, and my nana in order to smoke a Chesterfield.  He knew everyone wanted him to quit, but he just didn’t want to give it up.  “When I’m eighty-five,” he’d say, and cross his heart solemnly. But he did not live long enough to keep his promise, and we all knew it was the cigarette smoke that buried him. My Great Aunt Elda was heartbroken. The shiniest star of all had been extinguished from her universe, and we knew we had lost a true family treasure.