Of siblings and schools

Holy Ghost Catholic Parish School in Dubuque, Iowa

Image via Wikipedia

As a first grader at St John’s Elementary School, I remember clearly  how impressed I was by the speed and sound of hundreds of kids as they came thundering down the stairs at the end of the day. The metal edging on the steps clanged as students’ shoes met the stairs, drowning out Sr. Mary Davidica’s warning of “NO Running!” Scores of bodies whizzed by me in a blur, and before you could say “saddle shoes”, the school was empty and quiet.

It was my older sister Margie I was waiting for outside my first grade classroom; she was going to pick me up and walk home with me. Our school didn’t  have buses to transport kids – we all had to walk, whether our homes were near or far; ours was far. There were 10 city blocks between home and St John’s, with a very large intersection across a busy  highway at about the halfway point. At 5 years old I had not yet been granted permission to cross 4 lanes of busy city traffic, even with a light, by myself. Margie, at 7 years old, was my guide and protector, at least at the beginning of the first grade year.

Margie was my hero all of my life in Seattle. She had red hair and freckles, was very smart, could play the piano and sang beautifully. We shared a bedroom, a small doll collection, and short tempers. As sisters we fought constantly, and drove my Mom crazy. But as friends, we were shirt-and-pants, doing virtually everything together until Margie left St John’s for highschool.

Still, there were plenty of years before she went on to highschool for sibling rivalry to reign supreme. But that is another blog post.

Coloring Easter eggs the hard way

On Holy Saturday when the kids were young, it was our custom to clear off the kitchen table,  then cover it with newspapers. I  would find six  old coffee cups, six large tablespoons and some vinegar and set them on top of the  newspapers. Climbing up on a kitchen chair, I  would rummage through the storage shelf above the pantry and find the package I was looking for: PAAS Classic Easter Egg Decorating Kit. OK! Now we were going to have fun! Each year I looked forward to this event;  dipping white eggs into the bright jewel toned dyes mixed with vinegar,  trying to be patient as we wait for the colors to deepen — oh, it’s as close to magic as it can get, this tradition of dyeing Easter eggs, and I loved it! 

One year I had felt I could be extravagant, so bought three dozen eggs, two dozen of which I  hard-cooked so that we could really make a full afternoon of dyeing Easter eggs. Everything had gone well; no fights, no spills, and plenty of eggs for everyone to write on with crayons, dip into multiple dyes, and get creative with drawing stripes and dots and adding stickers. After the kids had gone to bed, John and I hid the eggs, some jellybean treats and the kids’ baskets. The kids got up early Easter morning and found everything in less than a half hour. So much for us parents thinking we had found clever hiding places! We went to church to celebrate the Resurrection, and came home for a traditional ham dinner.  As I was doing the dishes Kristin called out to me,  “Hey Mom! One of my Easter eggs is leaking!”  “Not possible,” I said, “It must be one of the jellybeans, or another piece of candy. “No, Mom, it’s my colored Easter egg!” “Bring it here and let me check.” Sure enough, I looked at the colored Easter egg and it was leaking. I cracked the shell over the sink; out came a raw egg. What could this mean? Oh oh. I went to the refrigerator and pulled out the only egg carton that was there. I took an egg out and tried to crack it open.  It was a hard-boiled egg! I had grabbed the wrong carton of eggs when we were coloring them the day before, so half of the 24 eggs we had dyed had been uncooked! That means we had colored, hidden, found and hauled 12 raw eggs around in Easter baskets for half a day ! And it took until after Easter dinner for one of them to crack and ‘leak’ – amazing! Quite a surprise,  and how funny! We got a laugh out of it then, and we still do.  Guess you could say the yolk was on us. True story! Happy Easter!

Life in the 1960’s

A Plinky prompt from today asked “What are the 3 most significant historic events that have occurred in your lifetime?” I grew up in the 1960’s, which was a decade of unparalleled change in our country, so picking the three most significant events was difficult.  Below are the three events  that I came up with today, but on another day I might choose  three completely different occurrences.

The first was Vatican II, and all the change that happened in the Catholic Church due to what was called the Ecumenical Council. One Vatican II change that affected my family quite personally was that many religious orders of sisters were given the freedom to go visit their families at their homes. I had three aunts and two sisters in the convent at this time. Growing up, we were able to go visit them, but they could not come to our home until this change in the 1960’s, when they were given papal permission to leave their residence. It was a very exciting and happy day to have the Aunties come visit, even if Mom was almost driven crazy by us kids making a mess of the house after she had spent so much time making it look especially inviting.

The second was the Viet Nam War, which was escalating as far as participation by the US in the 1960’s. One of my older brothers, Paul, a Marine, made three tours of Viet Nam. He was in an outfit of misfits, called the Baa Baa Blacksheep. During his third tour, the helicopter he was in was shot down, and crashed in the jungle. He was badly injured, but was brought out successfully and sent to hospital for surgery on his jaw, which needed to be wired shut. He also was placed in a full length cast for a fractured leg. He did his final convalescence at our house, which made life interesting, and a little scary, for us younger kids at home. You can imagine how monster-like Paul seemed to us with his crutches and plaster casted leg, and his inability to speak because of all the wires in and around  his mouth. Plus, we had seen his outbursts of anger and frustration, and didn’t want to get caught in the maelstrom if he got mad. We learned  to observe him at a distance, this man who seemed to bring some part of the Viet Nam War with him everywhere he went. When he finally left our house, he came back only for brief, uneasy visits.

The third 1960’s historical event that I recall was racial integration, which was a time of rioting, danger, courage and hope. It seemed that every night the papers and the  news showed neighborhoods being destroyed, blacks being sprayed with fire hoses and demonstrations being held somewhere by some group or another. I recall thinking, “Won’t there ever be a night when the news will be free of all this hate between races?” It was continuous turmoil in those years; not in Yemen or Libya, but right here in the USA.

 I was between the ages of 8 years old and 18 years old during this period of time. I considered it a great relief to be out  of the 1960’s.

Dear Mrs. Wagoner

Dear Mrs. Rosemary Wagoner,

 I had heard of your reputation as a strict and unforgiving teacher from my older sister and my classmates. They feared you, and knew you were tough, a hard grader, and had high expectations of all those who were in any of your classes.  I had you for English in my junior year, and the rumors were all true; you deserved your reputation. One warning had been: “She won’t accept any excuses for unfinished work. No crying or protestations of illness or fatigue will make her cut you any slack on assignments.”

 As an underclassman, when I was listening to the scuttlebutt in the lunchroom about all the teachers at Holy Angels High School, one thing I didn’t remember hearing about you, probably because fear had stuffed cotton balls in my ears, was what a fascinating teacher you were. I only learned this when I was finally seated in your classroom – second row, last seat on the right. You knew your subject, Shakespeare, backward and forward. Shakespeare, his time and work, seemed to occupy the present tense when you taught. You told us all kinds of  little  stories and experiences regarding his poetry, his plays and his characters. King Lear and Macbeth came to be with us in your classroom, as well as King Henry, Falstaff, Shylock, Portia – on and on.

One day at the end of class you told us to get out a piece of paper and write Macbeth’s soliloquy which starts “Tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow”.  After we had finished, we could leave the room, which meant getting out early. I had completely forgotten about the memorization assignment, and there is no way to fake Shakespeare, so after the shock wore off, I stood up and placed a blank piece of paper with my name on it on your big, brown desk, and turned to go. You picked up the paper, and then called me back to the desk. “There’s nothing on here.” you said, your ice-blue eyes looking straight through me. “I know,” I said. “I forgot to do the assignment.” “That means a ‘zero’ for your paper, you realize.” I said, yes, I knew that. You looked at me for a few seconds, then threw the paper in the waste basket, and said, “I let every student have one ‘freebie’. This is yours.” I stared at you in disbelief! You smiled at me and said, “Get going.” Was this a reality?  Did you give every student a ‘by’ during the year? I had never heard this about you, and yet, I was experiencing that very thing. If it was true of you, than no one had dared to speak of it, and I wasn’t going to be the first. I went on my way, a very happy, and surprised,  student.

Thanks, Mrs. Wagoner, for the wonderful way that you taught us Shakespeare. And thank you for your act of grace toward me that day. You set high standards in your classroom, and you expected compliance from your students, but I think you showed me the embodiment of mercy on that occasion, as in Portia’s speech from “The Merchant of Venice”:

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

Yours sincerely,





Erin go Bragh!, or, Ireland forever!
My great-grandmother’s family was from County Cork, Ireland, and although my heritage includes German, Norwegian, Scottish and Native American ancestors, I always thought of our family as Irish. Perhaps this was because we lived in a predominately Irish parish in Seattle, our parish priest being Fr Eagan. Also, the women who taught us at St John’s Elementary School were Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or BVM’s, whose order originated in Ireland. Plenty of Irish brogues to bless one’s hearing : )
St Patrick’s Day was always fun. At school, one had to wear something green, whether it was clothing, jewelry or hair barettes – to avoid being pinched. There we learned the reason for the day of celebration – of St Patrick, who was originally from Scotland and was taken to Ireland as a slave. He escaped, became a priest, and later returned to Ireland to share Christianity with the people there. What I recall most about his teaching was the way he used a three-leafed shamrock to explain the mystery of the Trinity.We also sang plenty of Irish songs, a favorite being McNamara’s Band. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9mPtOsvm7j8

Often on that day when we got home from school, Mom would have a traditional corned beef and cabbage dinner cooking for supper, and some elegant Irish tenor’s recording of  a sad balad blaring away on the hi-fi. Mom herself was not one bit Irish, but she joined in the fun and initiated many  Irish observances that we took part in every year in honor of the saint’s feast.
These days, since I have  married into a Finnish household, I have to make a point of celebrating St. Patrick’s Day: wearing green, putting a shamrock plant on the dining room table, tuning-in to a radio station that will play some Irish music and dancing a jig in the kitchen. I also send St Patrick’s Day greetings to many people – which now includes you!
Happy St Patrick’s Day!

Do they give trophies for that?

Caution: Heavy when full!

Today on the Trail Baboon blog, Dale Connelly asked this question: “When has an unlikely personal experiment succeeded?”

Thirty years ago our family was forced to personally experiment with ways to get enough water into our home to use for our daily living. We had built a new house, but the township in Michigan where we lived had not come through on their promise to have sewer and water lines in place by the time we moved in. Because of various on-going delays, we lived for one year without running water in that house. We tried driving a wellpoint http://weather.nmsu.edu/hydrology/wellpoint.htm in our basement in order to bring a water source into our house, but our home was positioned above a rock ledge,  and we could not get the point through the ledge, so we had to resort to hauling water home to use. We ended up using three 10 gallon stainless steel milk cans, kept in a shining row next to our front door, to store water for drinking, preparing food and washing dishes. This supply lasted us about 5 days. My husband filled the cans at a public park adjacent to a cemetery which was about 2 miles from our home. We also kept a very large plastic garbage can with rainwater (in season)in it in the bathroom for flushing the toilet. We taught our kids this rhyme: “If it’s yellow, let it mellow; If it’s brown, flush it down.” Friends offered us their saunas for personal bathing twice a week. The kids were 4 and 5 years old at the time, so out of diapers, thankfully. Ironically, my husband, John, is a plumber. (What do they say about the shoemaker’s family?) Fortunately his employer had locker rooms for the staff, so he was able to shower daily at work.

Several families wanted to build homes in the township, but knew of our dilemma, and would not begin construction because there seemed to be no definite start date for the water and sewer lines. Eventually, pressure had to be put on the township: we suggested that we would to go to the local news station with our story, speaking about the long delays on the part of the township to fulfill their promise of providing water and sewer service. Whether this was the ultimate deciding factor for the township board or not, we soon saw earth moving equipment on our road, and the  lines were in place almost exactly a year after the date we moved into our new home.

A year was a long time to try to run a household for a family of four without running water  – I hope we NEVER have to do it again – but our unlikely family experiment did ultimately prove successful. Wish we had kept one of those milk cans; we could have painted it gold and kept it in a corner of our house as a trophy ; )


It’s been a long, long time

Childhood Friends

Plinky’s question for the day was, ” What broken relationship do you wish you could restore?”. This made me think of friendships from childhood days. I have not, since I moved from Seattle in August of 1970, had any contact with friends from school. The person I wish I could meet again is one who went with me through Catholic elementary years at St John’s in the Greenwood neighborhood in Seattle – grades 1 through 8, and Catholic highschool, Holy Angels in the Ballard neighborhood – grades 9 through 12. Her name is Mary Elizabeth Johnson, born June 2nd, 1952, oldest daughter to Florence and Edwin Johnson, older sister to Ellen.

It’s been a long, long time since I have seen Mary; May of 1970, to be exact, the month and year of our highschool graduation. Our long relationship was broken then,  by time and distance and growing up. Broken by choices which seemed noble at the time. Broken because that’s what happens when people finish school, move away from home and get a life.
Mary and I had been friends since second grade, and we did all the goofy things kids do growing up, including writing our names, in crayon, on the wall in my bedroom. We knew we would get in trouble if they were found, but no one did find them until I was a junior in highschool and Mom said I could paint my bedroom if I would pull the wallpaper down. I cut our signatures out of the wallpaper that I removed, and kept them in a book for many years.
In highschool Mary christened herself “Nag” because I insisted on shortening her name to “Mare”. She also thought that if she signed the notes she sent me in class with her pseudonym, no one would guess she was the author – how funny! Who else would be writing me a note??? No one!
Mary, I wonder where you are. I have looked for you on facebook, but the name Mary Elizabeth Johnson is extremely common, and not one of the scores of profiles that I have read  has been a  match to yours – to ours. I am not one who looks wistfully at the past, full of regrets and ‘do-over’ desires, but in this one area of my life, in this particular relationship, I wish that I had not been so determined to leave my past behind and strike out into a completely new world. I wish I could have had the wisdom that my younger sister, Claudia, has. She has remains in contact with several of her elementary school chums to this day.
Maybe you have heard this song by Kristin Andresssen? http://youtu.be/EELEjeYzfjM You come to mind whenever I hear it.

I hope we meet again some day, Mare. I would provide the crayons, and we could sign our names on the wall in my bedroom one more time.