Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Stress of the Strapless Gown

A date for the Senior Prom – how utterly exciting! And especially unheard of, since I was only a lowly high school sophomore in 1963. It was a totally unexpected surprise because I had not started dating yet and had no prospects for a “boyfriend.”

At the end of the school day, all the kids hurried out of the school to their respective yellow buses. Back then, driving a car to school was a rare exception that required a written note from home and a special pass from the Principal, so virtually everyone rode the buses. I was a bit surprised when a boy named Denny paused by my seat and asked, “Is this seat taken?” My natural inclination was to reply with a smart-aleck “Does it look like it’s taken?” but fortunately I replied with a graciously mumbled “Gosh, no.”

So Denny sat down next to me. Being from a small town and attending the same church, we knew each other, of course, but I sensed that this trip was going to be a little out of the ordinary. It was unusual to think of a boy as anything other than a friend, so the concept of “boyfriend” had not been established in my personal vocabulary. My older sisters each had boyfriends, but no one in my circle of friends did.

We had an uninspired conversation about the weather and school events, followed by an awkwardly lengthy silence. I was unaccustomed to talking to boys as boys. As we approached the end of our ride, Denny suddenly blurted out “Wanna go to the Prom with me?” Trying to not take anything for granted, I quickly looked behind me, just to make sure that he wasn’t talking to someone else. Since there was no one else around, I naively replied “Who, me? Well, um, okay, I guess.” As he got up to get off the bus, he let out a sigh of relief and said “Okay. Good.” Such snappy repartee (or lack thereof) underscored our mutual inexperience and discomfort with the opposite sex.

As soon as the bus pulled up to stop at our farm house, I rushed out to find my mother and tell her the exciting news. “Hey, Mom, guess what? Somebody asked me to go to the Senior Prom!” I hollered excitedly. The Prom was only a week away, so we had to figure out in a hurry what to wear.

Mom grew up during the Depression, so she had become very resourceful and thrifty. Hand-me-down clothes were a fact of life in our family of seven children. However, a special occasion would merit something decidedly out of the ordinary. We generally had two options for clothes when money was tight: either sew something new from scratch or alter an existing piece. In the interest of time, we needed to do the latter.

One of my older sisters had been in a cousin’s wedding a few years before. She wore a long yellow gown of chiffon, satin and netting. It had already been remade several times for each of their Proms. By the third reincarnation (this time for me), it became a fashionable strapless vision of loveliness.

At the tender age of fifteen, I had not “blossomed” nearly as much as my well-endowed sisters. How on earth could I wear (and keep up) a strapless gown? Mom took me to one of the nicest dress shops in town, one that we typically did not frequent. She explained the situation to a snooty clerk that I needed to find a strapless bra that was small enough to fit my almost nonexistent bosom. The clerk practically snickered when I timidly stated my size as 30 AA, then she replied, “If she is old enough to go to Prom, then she is old enough to wear a real brassiere.” The smallest strapless bra they had was a 34 B (which of course was much too big), but we splurged and bought it anyway.

Now we had a real dilemma figuring out how to make the dress stay up properly. The answer was to sew the bodice of the dress directly to the strapless “long-line bra” with stiff stays on each side. I felt and probably looked like a real-live “Barbie Doll” with a small waist and hips, topped by a disproportionately larger-than-life-size bosom. I practiced walking and sitting gracefully in my stiff corset, but unfortunately I didn’t do it long enough.

By the time Denny arrived in his Sunday suit and necktie to pick me up, my younger brothers had teased me mercilessly. They undoubtedly were curious about my sudden transformation from tomboy to WOMAN, complete with the requisite enhanced bosom. Off I went to my very first Prom in my very first long gown on my very first date, feeling oh so grown up and sophisticated. In retrospect, I undoubtedly looked quite young and naïve, rather than mature and worldly.

The evening went quite well until we had been dancing for a while. The high school gymnasium had been transformed into a fairy wonderland with the aid of crepe paper streamers, tinsel and reflective balls. Music was supplied by a real, live band as opposed to the typical 45 RPM records. The band started out playing sedate, soothing waltzes for the first few numbers until more and more requests were made for a “fast” song to liven things up.

The 1960’s was the era of “outrageous” dances, such as the Twist, the Watusi and the Mashed Potato, but they were a staple at any social gathering. My date and I joined the festivities out on the dance floor, jumping and jiving to the pulsing beat of the music. Each dance number became progressively more and more frenetic and it was a relief when the band finally announced they were taking a break.

Returning to the sidelines, I looked down to discover that in the course of twisting and turning, my dress and bra were now positioned a full ninety degrees off center, with one breast behind my armpit.

“Oh, no!” I exclaimed softly. All of a sudden, I looked all too much like a Barbie Doll who had been contorted into an impossible position.

My only recourse was to take immediate action. As discretely as possible, I quickly grabbed the top of my dress with the bra attached and twisted it more or less back into place. It was lucky for me that I had inherited Mom’s pragmatic side and just dealt with the situation, instead of becoming mortified with embarrassment.

Fortunately, Denny didn’t seem to notice. Regardless, that first date turned out to be a real classic “three-in-one” event. It was the first, last and only date I ever had with that particular young man. And the only time in my life I ever dared to wear a strapless dress. No more Barbie disasters for me!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Growing in Confidence

Around 8th grade, I started to blossom. No, not physically, although the girls in gym class teased me so much that Mom finally bought me a real bra. In reality, my white t-shirts had probably done just as good of a job.

Where I did blossom was in developing confidence in myself. In school, I got into public speaking and participated in speech contests across the county. That’s when I discovered that being a bit of a ham was both fun for me and entertaining for others. My first entry was the story Yertle the Turtle by Dr. Seuss. To this day, I can still recite most of it from memory, which is really only appreciated by my 5- and 6-year-old grandkids. Unfortunately, they are probably even outgrowing it as well. I guess it’s time to upgrade to Horton Hears a Who, huh?

During the previous year, my two oldest sisters both got married and moved out of the house. That caused a distinct shift in our family dynamics. For one thing, Mom delegated more of the cooking to me, especially fixing dinner and making cookies. Having a large family, my endeavors were always greatly appreciated, which of course made me more self-assured.

There was only one time that a batch of cookies was not completely devoured. As it happened, I was the one (unfortunately) who made them.

I was making gingersnaps, which are made with molasses, formed into a ball and then rolled into sugar before they are baked. The delicious aroma of the baking cookies spread throughout the house and brought several eager young taste testers on the run.

It wasn't until we sampled the warm, freshly baked cookies that we realized something was terribly wrong with them. They were horrible!

Apparently, Mom had been cleaning out the kitchen cupboard that day. In order to wash the salt shaker, she had poured the remaining salt into a bowl.

While she happened to be out of the room, I spied the bowl of salt on the countertop and assumed she had left it for my cookies. I promptly set about rolling the cookies toward their doom.

As I said, that was the only cookie failure I can recall that someone would not eat, sooner or later. In this case, not even the family dog ate them.

Around this same time, my 4-H sewing projects grew more complex. Before long, I was making almost all my own clothes. I’m so grateful my mother taught me how to sew well, in spite of having to patiently rip out seams that were not done quite right. As I went to show Mom my latest completion, I held my breath, hoping she would not say once again, “Do it over.” As frustrating as that was, I knew by the time I finished the garment that I’d have something to be proud of. And so was she.

With my mother as my biggest fan and strongest supporter, I quietly learned that I could do anything I set my mind to. Even though no one in my family had ever gone to college, I always seemed to know that I would go. The choice of direction could be anywhere. For me, that opened up a world of possibilities. Seemingly overnight, I realized that the amazing things I constantly read about in books were (and are now) within my grasp. What an awesome legacy for her to leave me!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Food from the Farm

As I've mentioned before, many of my early memories are associated with food. In retrospect, it seems that was especially the case once we moved to the farm.

Before starting sixth grade, our family moved to a 50-acre farm about 10 miles south of Kankakee near the small town of Chebanse. The name is from the Iroquois Indians for Little Duck. My folks thought a farm was the perfect place to raise our growing family of seven kids. Most of that first year on the farm was spent making improvements to the house and farm buildings.

The next spring, we really got into life on the farm. In addition to a cow for milk and cream, we raised some chickens, pigs, sheep and a horse or two. A De Laval cream separator simplified the process of separating the cream from the milk; when some of the extra cream soured, we hand churned our own butter, using an old square glass churn that had wooden paddles and a crank handle. Before long, we decided the electric Mixmaster worked much better.

Living on the farm, we had the freshest possible fruits and vegetables to savor. I remember what a treat it was to be out in the garden on a beautiful summer day, pick a ripe juicy tomato, wipe off a little dirt and enjoy it while it was still warm from the sun. A favorite for dinner was a salad Mom made with thick slices of tomatoes, cucumbers and onions sliced into rings. It was all blended with a simple and delicious dressing made from Miracle Whip, sweet pickle juice, salt and pepper. The huge bowl was almost always scraped clean during the meal.

We always had several rows of sweet corn growing at the edge of the crop field. In anticipation of our family’s hearty appetites, Mom cooked two dozen huge ears of corn in her largest pot. It is impossible to describe the intense flavor of sweet corn that is gently simmered mere minutes after it was picked from the field. Add some real butter to that fresh corn and you have a meal fit for a king. Although we canned and froze sweet corn to enjoy later in the year, it was never as scrumptious as that fresh-picked corn during the summer.

We had our own strawberry patch that was prolific in early summer. In addition to strawberry shortcake with real cream, my favorite was a delicious but rather unusual concoction for breakfast. It consisted of a thick slice of fresh homemade bread, covered with sweet cream the consistency of warm butter, then covered with fresh strawberries and sprinkled with powdered sugar. It was truly decadent, but delicious.

Each summer my next older sister and I prepared food to compete at the 4-H county fair, which required practicing a particular recipe until we got it just right. One year I gave a demonstration on how to make gingerbread. Fortunately, I did quite well in the competition and moved up to higher levels. Unfortunately, for each exhibition I had to show three stages of gingerbread: how to mix the ingredients, how to start decorating and finally how the finished product looked. That meant that each demonstration required making three large pans of gingerbread. Although my family had previously been quite fond of fresh gingerbread, by the end of that summer the general consensus was that I should not make any more for a very long, long time.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Thanksgiving Fun – 6 Ways to Stimulate Family Stories at Holiday Gatherings

November is National Family Stories Month. Together with Thanksgiving, it is the perfect time to reminisce about our blessings and consider what and who we are thankful for. In addition to recalling our gratitude, it is heartwarming to share those thoughts with our loved ones. They need to know how much we appreciate them.

To encourage everyone to get into the act, take time to plan some fun activities for your next holiday gathering with friends and family. Whether you have a small group or a large one, everyone loves to hear a good story. From the youngest and to the oldest members of the assemblage can participate when you use simple memory prompts to get people thinking – and sharing.

The challenge is to capture all those great family stories before they are lost. One easy way to save them is by using a recorder, whether it is cassette tape, digital audio or video. If the recording device has a USB connector, you can easily transfer the information to a computer and/or create a CD or DVD to share with others. Best of all, have fun and really get to know each other!

As you make the final preparations for Thanksgiving over the next few days, think about ways to get people started talking about those precious family stories. WARNING: Consider the best time to start these exercises. If your family is like mine, right before you eat dinner is probably NOT the right time: the guests may not have the patience on empty stomachs to listen to everyone’s stories. A better time could be after the meal is finished, perhaps while you are letting your food “settle” before tackling the pumpkin pie and other delectable desserts.

Here are some simple story prompts to help people recall their memories in fun ways:

1. I am thankful for …
This is probably the most common Thanksgiving activity, as each person takes a turn to describe who or what they are thankful for. It is an easy icebreaker, but it may help to give an example or two to get people in the mood to participate. If someone can’t think of anything, offer to let them pass until later, or give them another question.

2. What I like best about Thanksgiving is …
Responses to this question may range from visiting with relatives from near or far away, from favorite foods to football games, from nature walks to afternoon naps, from yummy desserts to plentiful leftovers. Each person may relate to something unique to them.

3. I felt special when …
This memory prompt is a little more revealing than some of the others. If the speaker gives a short answer, ask for more details about the recollection. If they never felt special, remind them of a time when you thought they were special. You may surprise them with your own memories about them.

4. Draw from the hat
Here’s your chance to get really creative. Write a variety of questions onto small slips of paper and put them into a hat or bowl or basket. You can customize the questions to fit your own family or group of friends, mixing serious questions with silly ones. Be prepared to allow guests to switch the question if they are embarrassed or reluctant to answer. Remember that the purpose of the questions is to learn more about them while having fun with everyone.

5. Photo albums
Pull out your old family photo albums. Let each person find a picture of themselves and describe the occasion, including who, what, where, when and why. This is a great learning experience, especially for younger family members who may not know many of the old family stories.

6. Cherished heirlooms
Most families have some cherished heirlooms or stories that have been around for many years. Think about things like hand-made ornaments, sentimental trinkets, an old quilt, a child’s rocker, or anything else that makes you recall a loved one. Move one of your favorite items into the room, or take a photo of several of them if they are not on the premises. Ask your most knowledgeable guests to talk about the origin of the item, especially where it came from and why it is special to your family.

7. Thanksgiving Keepsake for Kids
Here is a simple activity to keep children occupied either before or after dinner. Kids as young as four can draw pictures; they can also talk about their own impressions about the big holiday gathering. This free template is available on my website, but you can easily make your own version to get all the children involved. The great thing is that they can create their own keepsake to help them remember time spent with their loved ones.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Tall, Taller, Tallest

One of the things I remember most vividly about fifth grade was being the second-tallest kid in the class. Another girl was the taller, but I came in a close second at over five feet. Little did I know that would be the end of my surprising growth spurt.

For some reason, our class had to line up by height that year, with the shortest in the front and the tallest in the back. That really emphasized the fact that the boys in general were shorter than the girls. On the rare occasion that dance partners were paired up, none of the boys wanted to dance with the ‘freaks’ like my friend and me. So we danced with each other.

I was convinced that I would always be tall. The one boy I really liked was a full head shorter than I was and of course he liked a little girl who was sweet and tiny, not a tomboy like me. So I always said it didn’t bother me and I continued to be ‘one of the guys’ instead of a girlfriend. My one sympathetic concession was when I noticed that a boy was overly conscious of his lack of height. Then I usually sat down or slouched just so he wouldn’t be reminded of the difference.

Fast forward about seven years to preparation for high school graduation. Once again, we were told to line up according to height. Without any hesitation, I meandered on down to the end of the line where my guy buddies were lining up.

Surprisingly, they started laughing at me! I had a bit of a reputation for frequently clowning around and they all thought I was being funny. They didn’t know I was actually serious. It wasn’t until one of my friends on the basketball team came over to me, put his arm around my shoulders and said, “Pipsqueaks belong at the other end.” As I looked up and up and up at him, it suddenly became obvious to me that he indeed was considerably taller than me. How had I missed that?

Somehow, all through high school, I never noticed that the boys had started to shoot up, while I had barely grown any taller since fifth grade. Being buddies with all the guys at school, I never dated much. In fact, on my few dates, I was always too shy to sit or stand very close to the boys. Oh, I also still tended to slouch.

Remember my last blog about not having any depth perception? I always wondered if that was part of the problem, too, with my height perception. Anyway, by that time, considerably more than half the class had grown taller than me, including many of the girls.

At just over five feet two inches and a quarter tall, I didn’t want to be teased with “Five foot two, eyes of blue, etc.” So if anyone ever asked about how tall I was, I always said “five foot two and three quarters.” I don’t recall now exactly why I felt compelled to stretch the extra half inch. But even today, I’m tempted once in a while to still exaggerate it, just that tiny little bit.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Batting an Eye

By fourth grade, I discovered I had no natural athletic ability. That was a shame, because I loved to watch my older sisters and the kids in the neighborhood play baseball. As much as I begged, pleaded and cajoled them, no one ever wanted me on their teams.

Okay, so I couldn’t hit the ball, catch or throw, but I could run like the wind – at least in my own mind. What no one realized at the time was that I had no depth perception. That quirk turned out to be due to something called amblyopia, or “lazy eye.” My right eye was dominant and I never “learned” how to judge how far away objects were.

Mom took me to the eye doctor’s office every year for new glasses that just kept getting stronger and stronger (think Coke-bottle glasses), but I still couldn’t see very well. Eventually, she took me to eye specialists all the way up in Chicago. Looking back, the amazing thing is that my gutsy mother had never driven in a big city before. She managed to overcome her own fears and take me for monthly office visits for several years.

On the very first visit to the specialist, they discovered the amblyopia, but also that I was near-sighted in one eye, far-sighted in the other and cross-eyed to boot. As a kid I called it “cross-sighted,” because it somehow sounded more poetic to say “near-sighted, far-sighted and cross-sighted.”

Correcting this eye condition is more successful at younger ages. At the grand old age of ten, I was past the threshold of where treatment would definitely help. But they tried. That first day, I had to start wearing an ugly black patch (like a pirate) over my good eye. The theory was to force the weaker eye to do all the work. My vision was so bad that at dinner that night when we had peas (which I loved), I couldn’t keep them on my fork to get to my mouth. Finally, in frustration, Mom let me use a spoon.

Eventually, I used a flesh-colored adhesive eye patch, which was slightly less noticeable, followed later by eye drops to blur my good eye. Over the next couple of years, my vision improved marginally, but not enough to do much good or last permanently.

So now, many years later, how is it? Well, I do drive the car, but when I hear a crash, I know I’ve gotten too close. (Just kidding!) Actually, I tend to over-compensate for the lack of depth perception and allow p-l-e-n-t-y of extra room for passing and parking. I just have to drive forward and backward more times than most people to get into a parallel parking space. Thank Goodness for diagonal parking.

After all these years, what stands out most about this experience while growing up? It has to be the gratitude I feel because my parents made the sacrifice to get me the best medical care they could find. Considering we had seven kids at home, that was no easy task. After all, both time and money were in short supply.

So what was the final impact on my fledgling baseball career? Well, they finally let me play, as long as I was the catcher. Ha! What a joke on me that turned out to be. It seemed like every year I ended up getting hit in the head with a baseball bat for standing too close to home plate. Sure, it might have broken my glasses, but at least I got to play!

Help your children save their memories with my FREE Thanksgiving Keepsake for Kids.

Friday, November 5, 2010

National Family Stories Month - Perfect Pear Picking

November Is National Family Stories Month – What’s YOUR Story?

One of my fondest memories is about a beautiful Fall day at my grandparents’ farm in mid-November. The day was sunny, cool and crisp, with a definite nip in the air. Years previously, they had started an apple and pear tree orchard that was especially abundant that year.

My family made an annual trek out to the farm to help harvest the fruit, often with my cousins coming along. But whenever possible, I cherished the opportunity to spend time by myself out at the farm with Grandma and Grampa.

I grew up loving both apples and pears, but the grocery stores never seemed to carry my favorite pears, the kind that Grampa grew. They are best picked after a hard freeze, so that is how I remember the time of year. The fruit is green, a little lumpy and almost as hard as a rock – literally! Some of them are so huge that a little girl can barely wrap her hands around the circumference.

Naturally, as we picked the green pears, I HAD to try one (or two, or maybe even three), which almost certainly resulted in a tummy ache later that night. I worked diligently to gnaw off the peel until I got a small bite started, then savored the crunchy, gritty flesh inside. The texture always reminded me of fresh coconut right from its just-cracked hard shell.

As the pears ripened at home, their green color transformed to a lovely shade of yellow. At the same time, they gave off an intoxicating aroma that called to me by name, “Elizabeth, e-LIZ-abeth…” until I finally had to chomp down another one.

Regrettably, this variety of pears doesn’t keep well for very long. Once they turned yellow, they quickly over-ripened. It wasn’t long before we had to peel and cook up the rest of them for longer keeping. At that point, the pears were still okay to eat, but they no longer had that marvelous crunch and texture that I loved.

Ten years ago, I discovered that my husband’s aunt and uncle had a pear tree that was the same variety as Grampa’s. I begged and badgered them long enough that now every year they bring us a “care package” of pears that allow me to reminisce about my grandparents and their perfect pear trees. Oh, by the way, I still have to grab one right away and eat it while it is wonderfully hard and crunchy. Thank Goodness, I’ll never learn any better!

About thirty years ago, my parents, son Jason and I got carried away and picked seven full bushels of apples! Just so you can appreciate our culinary creativity, here is an excerpt from my book, Granny’s Guide to Fun & Fabulous Family Stories, that follows up on that apple-picking adventure:

With all that food stockpiled, we stuffed ourselves (as well as family, friends and neighbors) with all manner of scrumptious apple delicacies.

The delicious aroma of cinnamon and nutmeg filled our house almost every day, making our mouths water in anticipation. We had apple pie, apple crisp, apple cake, apple coffeecake and apple pudding. And still we had more apples.

We enjoyed fried apples, caramel apples, taffy apples, apple butter, apple salads, apple muffins and apple dumplings until the house seemed to have a perpetual aroma of cinnamon. And still we had more apples.

Jason took brightly polished red and yellow apples to school for his birthday treat and for his teacher, too. For Christmas, we even hung shiny red apples by ribbons onto our tree. And still we had more apples.

We had enough apples to last us all through that Fall and Winter and into Spring. By the time we had finally finished eating all those apples, I realized two things: 1) an apple a day really DOES keep the doctor away because we didn’t get sick all winter long and 2) I never EVER got tired of apples!

Help your children save their memories with my FREE Thanksgiving Keepsake for Kids.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Preaching to the Choir

Mommy's Piggy Tales Week 4
Age 7, 2nd Grade

The whole first year of school, I sat in rapt attention listening to the dulcet tones of our school’s children’s choir. They sang at High Mass each Sunday, while I ate my heart out because I was too young to join. It wasn’t fair!

Imagine here that I am stomping my little feet (clad in Mary Jane shoes) in protest.

Although no one in my family had more than rudimentary skills with any musical instruments, we did enjoy singing. In fact, I remember from an early age how my sisters and I sang in two- and three-part harmonies. Perhaps we saw ourselves as the next Lennon Sisters from the old Lawrence Welk Show (1955 to 1968) – you know, Dianne, Peggy, Kathy & Janet. Personally, I identified most closely with Janet, who was less than a year older than me.

Having three older sisters participating in choir meant they often practiced singing at home, everything from pop songs to nursery rounds to hymnals. Sometimes they even let me sing along with them, but of course the Latin verses in some of the songs were much too difficult for me to learn. Regardless, I loved the experience and the closeness with my sisses.

On Sundays, our family arrived at Church early so the girls had plenty of time to get settled into the choir loft, which was in the front of the Church to the side of the main altar. A full set of risers elevated the choir so that everyone could “keep their eyes on” the choir director, who was a nun. An open divider, rather like a wrought iron trellis, separated the choral group from the rest of the congregation.

I recall one particular Sunday when I was again complaining about not being allowed to join the choir yet. After all, I knew the songs as well as they did; in fact, even better. Anyway, during Mass that day, my next-older sister made a point of walking nonchalantly along the trellis, looking directly at me and sticking her tongue! Naturally, I yelped out a “Mo-o-om,” in protest, but of course by then my adversary had moved on and I was shushed.

Again, I am stomping my little feet in frustration.

The big day finally arrived for me! Starting second grade, I was now old enough to join the children’s choir. It was a joyous experience for me. There was only thing that could have made it better: I dreamed of wearing a long, flowing robe like the ones I saw on television.

As it turned out, I never had the chance to wear any robes in all the different choral groups I belonged to. In fact, in college, I joined one chorus in part because of the gorgeous red robes they traditionally wore. My bad luck was that year they decided to break from tradition and go with street clothes instead.

You know what’s coming here: me stomping my little feet with no beautiful robe to flutter in the wind.

Over the years, our choir group became quite proficient with complex vocal arrangements, Latin pronunciations included. I loved the ethereal feeling of being part of a much higher calling, especially when I got to stand on the highest tier of the risers. We just had to be very careful not to topple off backwards. Fortunately, that only happened to me once, during the most sacred part of the Mass, naturally.

When it came time in the Mass for the Homily or sermon, half of the choir stepped down off the risers and quietly walked into the adjacent hallway to sit on the stair steps. It was drafty in the hall, so we all secretly prayed the priest would not be long-winded with his sermon that day.

I adored the choir leader and reveled in the knowledge that she combined our young voices to create such beautiful music. Even better, I recall the thrill of being recognized for having a good voice. I know, we were supposed to be modest about our talents, but sometimes you just have to savor that recognition.

Here is me, stomping my big feet and clapping my hands in appreciation of all the hard-working choir directors in our world. Kudos to all of them!

For ideas on how to start writing your own family stories, 1) sign up for my Newsletter at and 2) check my website for upcoming free teleclasses held each month.

As a Personal Historian, my goal is to help people save their heritage before it is lost forever. What is your favorite story?

Friday, October 22, 2010

How Will Your Grandchildren Remember You?

This is from a guest post I did on Simple Marriage. I hope you enjoy it.

How much do you remember about your ancestors, especially your grandparents? How much do you think your own grandchildren will remember about you?

I started thinking about this the other day, on the first anniversary of my mother-in-law’s death. She was a lovely lady, but there are many things I wish I had asked her about before she passed. Now the opportunity is gone. Because I don’t want people to lose all their memories of loved ones, I became a Personal Historian.

The most common excuses I hear from clients who haven’t saved any stories are
1) I don’t know how to start and
2) I don’t have anything to say.

So how do you get started saving your family stories?

1 – One Story at a Time

The hardest part of almost any project is getting started. My mom and I used to enjoy wallpapering rooms together. Whenever we had finished hanging the very first sheet of wallpaper, she always stepped back, took a close look and said, “There. Now we’re halfway done.” Naturally, we were nowhere near being halfway done. But we had done a great deal of prep work before getting even that far, so it really did feel like we had accomplished something significant. After that, the rest of the job was easy!

So how do you start writing your family stories? The easiest way is to scribble down a few sentences about something that you remember from an earlier time. It doesn’t have to be anything long and tedious. The important thing is to have fun and get something down on paper. No writer expects her first words to be the final version and neither should you. Take a few minutes to recall a memory and jot down a handful of details. Now you are “halfway done.”

2 - How do you eat an elephant?

Did you ever hear the riddle about how you eat an elephant? Simple. You eat it one bite at a time! Pretty much like you’d eat a slice of chocolate pie, right? Writing a story for a biography or an autobiography is the same way—you just start with one idea at a time. Don’t worry about how everything is going to fit together at the end. Take one small piece and build it up bite by bite.

By the same token, any journey begins with one small step. Take that step today and soon you will be on the road to gathering family stories about the important people in your life.

3 – Every Person Has a Story to Tell

Let me repeat that: Every person has a story to tell. To find it (whether it’s yours or someone else’s) all you have to do is ask the right questions. By writing down that story, you create a priceless gift.
• One gift you’ll be giving to current and future generations is a piece of your heritage, which is all your family stories, customs and traditions combined.
• Another gift is a piece of yourself by taking the time and making the effort to keep precious stories from being lost.
• A third gift is for yourself! Learning more about your friends and family gives you a chance to better know and appreciate who you are. That may be the most precious gift of all.

4 - Where Can You Find Inspiration?

One of my favorite movies is The Bucket List with Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. Both men are terminally ill and pair up to complete a list of things they want to accomplish before they “kick the bucket,” hence the name of the movie. It is sweet, sad, poignant, and funny all at the same time. They go sky diving, see the Great Wall of China, and rediscover the importance of family.

There is a 2004 country music song by Tim McGraw that has a similar theme: it is called Live Like You Were Dying. In the song, when a man is given the fatal diagnosis that he has less than a year to live, he decides to make the most of it. Yes, he accomplishes many of the tasks on his own Bucket List, but more importantly, he also becomes a better husband, son, and friend.

It may seem somewhat morbid to think about our limited time on earth, but it is a fact of life. The question to consider is, “What can we do about it?”

We can do several things about it and in the process, we leave a legacy for our children, grandchildren, and loved ones so they have a good chance to know who we are and to remember who we were.

• Start saving and talking about family stories (both your own and those of people who matter to you) with your friends and family. You’ll be surprised how one story triggers other memories. When that happens, savor it.
• Help children get to really know their grandparents and other elders as real people, not just old people. One simple way to do that is to teach them a few old games, like checkers or hide the button.
• Start teaching kids while they are young about what is important to you. Who influenced you growing up? What were their Personal Values and what did you learn from them? This is your chance to be a role model for the next generations and have a positive influence on their lives.

Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow
Yesterday is history,
Tomorrow is a mystery,
Today is a gift,
That’s why they call it
the 'present'

- Eleanor Roosevelt

What will you do with the gift of today? What legacy will you leave for your loved ones?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

First Grade Fears and Tears

After World War II ended, Dad was no longer needed to build LST boats. Well-trained in his craft as a welder, he started working in the Maintenance Department at the new A. O. Smith factory about 40 miles away. I didn’t realize until many years later how forward-thinking the design engineers were.

In 1946, “The company constructed a 400,000 square foot residential water heater plant in Kankakee, Illinois. Life Magazine proclaimed it ‘the most modern water heater factory in the world.’”

About five years later, Smith’s had an open house for all the families, just so everyone could see the ultra-modern facility. OSHA would have had a conniption fit if they saw the plant tours that included me and other young children. We stood beside the huge noisy blast furnace that melted frit onto steel to make the patented glass-lined water heaters. Did that impress me at just four or five years of age? Of course not! I happened to be much more excited about the little bottles of orange drink than I was about the technology.

After my father made the round trip drive to and from work for several years, my parents decided to move our family closer to his work. So soon after the war, it was impossible to find the four-bedroom house they wanted for their growing brood. The solution was to order and assemble a structure from a precut lumber kit, rather like putting children’s building blocks together from a diagram. That was the summer of my sixth year.

The house was a 1½ story Cape Cod style with twin gables, two bedrooms upstairs, two bedrooms downstairs, and a full basement. Somewhere along the line, we had seen tightrope walkers on television. Being quite a tomboy at the time, I thought I could walk across the floor joists in one of the upper bedrooms.

Walking along the floor joists from one side of the room to the other turned out to be not only fun, it was easy, too! I just had to spread my arms wide to balance myself a little bit, especially at the turn against the far wall. When I hollered for my older sister to come watch me, she wanted to do it as well.

She started walking along the floor joists, getting more wobbly with each step. Yelling at her to keep her arms stretched out wide, I was horrified to watch her fall between the joists. Luckily, she caught herself with her arms straddling two joists. Unluckily, the workmen had just that day put the finishing coat of plaster onto the ceiling in the bedroom below.

When Mom, Dad, and everyone came running to see what our screaming was all about, there was my sister dangling from the ceiling below. More correctly, there were her legs dangling from the ceiling below. In a matter of minutes, two burly men raced upstairs and pulled my sister to safety. I don’t remember the details of the aftermath, but I never did that trick again.

When September came that year, school bells started ringing. I had never gone to preschool or kindergarten, so I didn’t really know much about what to expect. All I knew was that I had brand new black-and-white saddle shoes and a red plaid metal lunchbox with my name on it.

On the designated day, I dressed in my red plaid dress with a white pinafore attached. Hmmm, I see a pattern here! I never realized what a preference I’ve always had for red plaid! In fact, when I went to Scotland earlier this year to conduct writing workshops for schools, I was drawn immediately to the Royal Stewart plaid, which is (you guessed it) a red plaid!

Sadly, the shoes, dress and lunchbox were the best parts of that day. Mom held my hand as we walked into the huge classroom, filled with complete strangers. Since we had moved into the new house just shortly before the start of school, I didn’t know a single soul. Not only that, my teacher towered above me, with a crucifix hanging down right at my eye level. I’m not sure I had ever seen a nun before, certainly never one up so close.

Mom got me settled at a desk with my name on it, gently pried my hand from around her fingers and walked away! I started to cry, but she walked further away. I cried harder and she walked out the door. That wasn’t what mothers were supposed to do! I felt abandoned and just knew I would never find my way home again.

After such an inauspicious beginning, I quickly learned to love school. I loved getting new clothes, new shoes, new books, new subjects, and new teachers, even nuns. Most of all, I loved learning new things.

To this day, each Fall I welcome the opportunity to plan my own curriculum for the next year. Whether it’s learning Transcendental Meditation, writing a book, becoming a Personal Historian, or discovering, there is always something new to learn. Maybe continually learning something new is my way of feeling young, like when I was six years old.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A Family Makes a House a Home

MPT#2: Preschool-Kindergarten Years

Although I was born on a farm in central Illinois, Dad didn’t farm there for long. The meager proceeds from rented farmland proved too minimal financially to support a growing family, with four young daughters under the age of six. Around that time, the US government needed skilled civilian workers to build LST (Landing Ship Tank) boats for WWII. When they offered a training program in welding, my father was among the first group of eager volunteers.

LST 325

Along with a new job came good pay and a steady income; my parents bought what seemed like a mansion in a tiny nearby town with a population of a few hundred people. That became the first home I remember.

The two-story house was yellow, with a huge white wrap-around porch on three sides, and a distinctive round turret in the southeast corner. There were two massive parlors (such a charming old-fashioned name for a room) in the front of the house, with gigantic wooden doors that magically slid apart to hide inside the walls. An attic occupied the topmost floor and served as our playground for make-believe on rainy days.

The kitchen was cozy and warm, with a built-in breakfast nook. It had a wooden table and benches on each side, with a scrolled design across the back. My designated seat was a red step-stool at the end, but I always tried to quickly scoot into the far corner and snuggle into a comfortable position. I felt so much more grown up there, rather than having to sit on the “baby chair.”

I loved to listen to fairy tales at that age. Looking out the turret window like Rapunzel, I dreamed of lowering my long braided hair to some knight in shining armor. On other days, my sisters and I sat out on the porch, making dozens of dolls from colorful hollyhocks. Just in case you never made dolls like that, we used toothpicks to hold two buds and a full flower for each doll; with more blooms, we made a beautiful layered skirt, rather like Chiquita Banana’s costume. Unfortunately, not many homes today grow hollyhocks, so this simple pastime is fading away.

Hollyhock doll

Continuing the fairy tale theme, my best friend lived a few blocks away in a big, white house surrounded by a huge black wrought-iron fence. Approaching the house, I always held tightly to my mother’s hand and looked for trolls and ogres around every corner. Apparently, I was listening to too many stories at that impressionable age. Many years later, I drove past that house and was completely surprised to discover that the fence I remembered as being monstrous was actually only about three feet tall.

Kitty-corner from our house was a landmark building that was eventually placed on the National Register of Historic Places: the beautiful St. Mary’s Catholic Church. It was also called the Cathedral of the Cornfields, or the Prairie Cathedral. It is amazingly elaborate, especially considering the size of the town in the middle of farm fields. The original builders must have done some serious sales and marketing to convince the community to erect such an impressive structure.

Cathedral of the Cornfields

One Sunday morning while we were all getting dressed for Mass at the Cathedral, we heard someone chuckling outside, followed by another and another until they were laughing out loud. Curious, Mom stepped outside and saw what was going on. My younger brother Pete was standing on the porch, smiling and waving at all the people on their way to church – bare-buck-naked! At just over a year old, he had developed an aversion to wearing clothes. Any chance he had, he was likely to tear everything off, then stand there and giggle.

Picture of Elizabeth at age 4

Even though we only lived in that house for a few years, it is the one that I think of as “home.” Perhaps it is because I have such vivid memories there, or because it was such a carefree time in my life, but I think that place will always be home to me.

What are your fondest memories of home? I’d love to hear about them.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Harvest Season

Harvest at the Splear Farm 2010

The fall season has always been my favorite: kids returning to school, cheering for the home team at football games, “leaf peeping” as the trees miraculously transform from boring greens to glorious autumn colors, and watching the harvest progress from field to field, restoring the wide open spaces to the land I love.

Once the harvest is complete, we’ll be able to once again enjoy an unobstructed view from horizon to horizon, some ten miles or more in each direction. This is God’s Country and, for me, the best place on earth to live, in spite of all the dirt, grime and grunge involved in the harvest.

I was raised on a fifty-acre farm just outside a small town in central Illinois (the Prairie State). Dad worked long hours as a welder in a factory, plus he farmed corn or beans in his “spare” time. We lived ten miles from a community of about 30,000 and some sixty miles from Chicago, in the middle of the grain heartland.

In my mind, it was the perfect place to raise a large family. We had the best of both worlds: a wholesome country lifestyle with a strong sense of community and all the urban benefits of good schools and plenty of cultural activities to keep seven kids challenged and out of trouble.

When I was a teenager and brought dinner out to Dad in the field during harvest, I was struck by all the physical sensations that assaulted me. During this time of year, when I watch the huge combines run through the fields, those memories are especially vivid in my mind. Here is a more fanciful version of what I remember experiencing as a kid:

The behemoth rolls through the tawny gold field, devouring everything in its ponderous path, spewing out an enormous horizontal whirlwind of chaff, dirt and stalks behind it. Slowly, inexorably, it consumes dozens of rows at a time, cutting a swath through stems bursting with soybean pods. In one fell swoop, the machine separates the precious beans from pods and stems, storing them temporarily in its enormous belly.

I stand beside the tractor, waiting for the monster to disgorge its contents into the first grain wagon. The noise is deafening, even though I try to block my ears. As bad as the noise is, the grit is even worse. The handkerchief tied across my mouth and nose does essentially nothing to keep the fine grit from permeating my mouth, my nostrils, my throat, my lungs, and even my ears.

By the end of the long day, I will feel as if the grit has invaded clear to my eye sockets through every pore of my body. The combination of taste, smell and grubbiness of the grit lingers for days after the harvest is completed, in spite of long, hot showers. I struggle to hold back the inevitable coughing fit, at least until the monster moves past me to the second wagon. Sometimes I even succeed, but barely.

Today, almost 50 years later, there is still a lot of grit, dirt, and chaff thrown out from the combine, but most machines now have enclosed cabs that are climate-controlled. While a side benefit is the comfort of the driver, more importantly it protects the sensitive GPS and other electronic equipment typically installed to monitor crops.

As advanced as farming technology has become, unfortunate accidents continue to happen. Late one autumn evening, I was heading home from a town about eighty miles away, driving through the country. Noticing a warm red glow in the distance, I thought to myself, “What a glorious sunset we’ll have tonight.” My stomach lurched when I realized the radiance was coming from the east. As I drove closer, it became apparent that the source was from a corn field that was on fire.

Lord willing, I will never see such a fearsome sight again. Flames shot into the air, surrounded by huge clouds of acrid, billowing smoke. The farmer scrambled ineffectively to create a fire break with a field cultivator, while the lone fire truck did its best to slow down the marching blaze. Continuing on toward home, I met several more pumper trucks arriving. They did not save much of that particular 160 acre field, but they were able to keep it from spreading to the surrounding fields and homes.

The next time you see a piece of farm equipment working in a field (or perhaps slowing you down on a country road), wave to them in appreciation of their dedication to put food on our tables. You’ll find they almost always wave back, with a smile on their grubby faces.

Do you have a favorite Fall or harvest memory? I'd love to hear it!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Never Known as Lizzie!

Mommy's Piggy Tales - MPT #1: My Birth and Namesake

Great Aunt Lizzie

When I was born on a cold, windy November day in 1947, my Great Aunt Lizzie served as the midwife for Mom. My parents and three older sisters lived on a small farm in central Illinois, outside the tiny rural town of Papineau. By the time the old country doctor arrived many hours later, so had I, squalling and bawling like a real trooper. Fortunately, it was a relatively easy delivery with no complications.

After cleaning up the tiny form, Aunt Lizzie laid me in my mother’s arms, asking, “What do you plan to name her?”

Mom looked up with a tired smile and said, “I think she looks like an Elizabeth, so we’ll name her after you.”

“Oh, no! Please don’t do that to her!”

Startled by the outburst, Mom asked, “Well, why ever not?”

Lizzie hemmed and hawed, then busied herself for a few minutes tidying up things in the bedroom. Naturally quiet and reticent, it was difficult to begin her story. Finally, she began to talk.

“Until I reached the age of eight, I was always known as Elizabeth, which is a beautiful name. But in third grade, some of the boys started teasing me and calling me Lizzie. Then they taunted me mercilessly about my infamous ‘namesake.’”

Although acquitted of the gruesome (and true) murder case of 1892, Lizzie Borden was memorialized forever in the popular rhyme:
Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done
She gave her father forty-one.

For the rest of her life, my great aunt was called Lizzie, usually followed by some reference to the legendary Lizzie. As a spinster woman, my relative had never had any marriage prospects, which she attributed to that horrible little rhyme and the mean-spirited schoolboys who drove her into a shell.

After much discussion back and forth, Aunt Lizzie finally agreed to let my mother name me Elizabeth, on the strict condition that I never, ever, be called Lizzie. So Baby Elizabeth was welcomed into the family with open arms.

All throughout my early years growing up and attending Catholic school, everyone called me Elizabeth. Or, if I was in serious (but infrequent) trouble, it was probably Elizabeth Mary.

That all changed when we moved to another town after my fifth grade. Nicknames were much more popular in public schools in the new area, so all at once I became Liz. Before long, kids tested calling me Lizzie and chanting the old rhyme. Luckily, thanks to the insight of my elders, I had enough confidence to just ignore trouble makers and walk away.

Image created in

Over the years, my names have changed in a progression. The initial Elizabeth C. became Liz (not Lizzie!) C. in sixth grade and stuck until I married in college and became Liz D. Ten years later, a divorce--with reversion to my maiden name--left me feeling like Liz C. no longer fit for me, so I adopted the name Beth C.

Happily, I met and married the love of my life in 1981, which led to another name change: Beth LaMie.

Actually, that change almost didn’t happen. The night before our wedding, my husband-to-be said, “So, this is your last night as Beth C.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked, obviously not understanding his meaning. “I wasn’t really planning to change my name.” After all, my professional contacts knew me by Beth C.

He paused, looked at me quite seriously, and quietly stated, “Take me, take my name.”

“Oh!” I said, recognizing how traditional he actually was. “I guess I’m changing my name again…but for a very good reason!”

I was in Scotland this last winter to give a workshop for the school my niece’s sons attended. It was an eye-opening experience when the 10-year-old boys started calling me Great Auntie Beth! That name took a bit to get used to, but I think Great Aunt Lizzie would have approved.

Although I was never called Lizzie, I have used enough variations on Elizabeth to confuse my friends and family. In fact, when someone phones me, my husband pretty much can tell when someone knew me by whether they ask for Elizabeth, Liz or Beth.

For my purposes, I answer to all the name variations, except Lizzie—that one I just ignore. In fact, you can call me anything but late for dinner.

Thanks to Janna at for encouraging stories of our youth!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Time for Some TLC

This is the guest post I did for recently. Check out their site when you have a chance - good ideas.

I started a little project recently that required getting out my sewing machine. I hadn’t used it for several months and for some reason the thread kept breaking. Finally, I broke down and dug out the owner’s manual for some help.

Hmmm, when was the last time I had cleaned and oiled the machinery? Apparently, if I couldn’t remember, then it had been way too long. As I started to disassemble each component, I made mental notes to be able to put it all back together – hopefully without any parts left over.

I have never seen so many fuzzy dust bunnies in such a small confined space. I grabbed my trusty old toothbrush (one that had been replaced recently) and brushed out all the lint I could find. Next, I dug out the good old 3-in-1 oil can to lubricate all the neglected moving parts.

Amazingly, it was immediately easier to manually run the sewing machine thru its paces. Using my photographic memory (okay, so I added a few grumbling words to help), I reassembled the machine and closed the covers for each compartment. Uh oh, where did that spring come from? I retraced my steps and consulted the manual for the umpteenth time to find the location missing one itty bitty spring.

As I worked thru the process using the manual as well as trial and error, I thought of how Mom regularly serviced her machines. I recalled how she always kept a very small can of machine oil strictly for that purpose, whereas I had to borrow my husband’s.

I also thought with pride about how she never had to take her sewing machine in for service. She knew that machine inside and out and could tell by the sound and feel when something needed attention. Sort of like she did with our family. She seemed to hone in on someone who needed a bit of TLC before we were even aware of it.

As I considered her legacy, I resolved to be more attentive to my equipment and to the people in my life who matter. I felt contentment as I finally started my sewing project and enjoyed my newly smooth-running sewing machine.

Which areas of your life could use a little TLC to run more smoothly? Consider some of these:

1.Relationships with children

Sometimes we get caught up in trying to do too many things. Spend time working on your relationship with little ones. Now that school has been out for a while, think of something fun and creative to do with your children or grandchildren. Plan an activity that everyone will enjoy that also allows some quiet time to talk. This is a perfect time of the year for a walk along the beach, in the woods or through a park. Tell them some of the activities you used to enjoy when you were their age. Ask their thoughts about what they would like to do on your next outing. You may be surprised at the pleasure they get out of little things. This small investment can pay big dividends in your relationships.

2.Relationship with spouse

We all get caught up in a whirlwind of commitments, whether it is work, housecleaning (seriously, some people do, or at least so I hear), caring for an elderly relative or getting distracted by financial burdens. Try a little “preventive maintenance” with your spouse – plan a special demonstration of your love. If he raves about your homemade lasagna and you don’t usually take the time to make it, surprise him. If she has gotten overwhelmed with housework while chauffeuring the kids to summer activities, surprise her by washing the kitchen floor. The important thing is to do something nice for them that is out of the ordinary. The great thing is that it doesn’t have to be expensive or time-consuming. The important thing is for it to be some TLC from your heart.

3.Relationship with God

It is very easy to relegate God to just an hour or two on Sunday morning. Sometimes he is trying to speak to us at other times, but we are so busy running around that we can’t hear him. Try spending some quiet time each day with no computer, no television, no music blaring. Choose a nice quiet spot where you can get comfortable, open your heart and be receptive to hearing an inner voice. Even if you hear nothing, the tranquility will refresh you in preparation for more hectic times. Years ago, I learned Transcendental Meditation and it helped me through a rough patch in my life. Now it helps me to stay focused on where I am heading and what I want to do with my life. That’s how I apply a little TLC to myself.

What areas of your life need a little TLC? I’d love to hear about them!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Memorial Day Musings

The approach of Memorial Day earlier this year made me think about some of my friends and family members who have passed away. The pain of their loss may never go away completely, but it has lessened over time.

One of the ways I dealt with the sudden loss of my mother several years ago was by writing a letter to tell her all the heartfelt things I didn’t have a chance to tell her in person. In fact, I wrote for hours that first night, often crying so hard that tears smeared the pages.

I told her how deeply saddened I was that I didn’t have a chance to tell her goodbye and how much I missed her. After a few sessions of cathartic writing, I was able to finally turn to a more joyous topic: how grateful I was to have her for my mother.

Mom taught me many of the important things in life, such as faith, love, family, honesty, respect and responsibility. I started writing vignettes about memories from my childhood and I found a sense of peace as I experienced what I can only describe as a starburst effect.

As I recalled the details of a single, simple family event (such as my 8th-grade graduation) it pointed me to stories about favorite family recipes (such as sour cream chocolate cake) that in turn made me recall summer activities (such as our huge vegetable garden and preparing projects for the county fair). If you envision the sky on the 4th of July, when the fireworks display amazes us with a burst of color and lights followed by another and then another, you’ll see a starburst effect.

Each little story made me think about another one and I began to jot down story ideas in a pretty little spiral-bound writing journal that I carried with me at all times. Every time the cobwebs in my mind cleared enough to reveal a potential topic for future development, I wrote it down in my journal. My hope was to use the snippets of memories to expand into a full story as time allowed.

So what’s the point of this rambling for you?

1 - If you’ve lost someone dear to you, try writing to them or about them. Enjoy all the old memories you can recall to save for yourself, as well as for your friends and family. As a Personal Historian, I am always excited and pleased to help people save their family stories, whether I write for them or teach them how to write their own.

2 - Think about the people around you and let them know how much you appreciate them while you still can. Tell them you love them and what you admire about them. Write them a little note to thank them for something, even if it is small. Consider this: if they were suddenly gone from your life, what would you have wanted them to know? Make an effort to show them how much they matter to you.

3 - Start keeping your own writing journal. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, just a simple notebook, tablet or sheaf of paper where you can jot down images that you recall and stories that you can pursue later.

4 - Years ago, I sent a letter to my great aunt and told her how much I appreciated her seeing me as a young lady when I was a terrible tomboy. My intention was to drive up to see her so we could talk about all the little things she had done for me. Unfortunately, she died before I could make the trip. I was so glad I didn’t put off sending that letter.

5 - Moral of the story: Don’t wait until it is too late to tell someone how much they mean to you. You never know when you will lose someone dear and you don’t want to regret the omission.

Go ahead, make their day – tell someone you love them.

Better yet, write it down so they can refer to it time and again.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Book Giveaway

A new writer friend of mine, Bill Smith, is running a book giveaway through Sunday, May 9. I haven't read it yet, but it sounds like an interesting tale of a family in the Missouri Ozarks. Check it out at

Monday, April 26, 2010

Spring is Sprung

Photo by Amber Domke

This is the guest post I did today on I hope you enjoy it.

Spring is sprung
The grass is riz
I wonder where
The flowers is! ~ Anon.

When I was a kid, Spring was my least favorite season. I loved Fall, followed in order of preference by Summer, Winter and finally Spring. In the Midwest, Spring was usually wet, rainy and muddy, which meant outdoor adventures were too often thwarted.

But a strange thing has happened. Now that I’ve gotten older, Spring has become my season of choice. Unfortunately, it seems to last for such a very short time in Illinois, followed suddenly by hot, humid weather. In fact, there is a saying that goes “Spring is the loveliest day of the year here.” Ha! I could almost be happy with spring-like weather most of the year, except for the fact that I do enjoy the change of seasons.

Our winter seemed especially harsh and drawn out this year, so when it finally started to warm up, we reveled in the changes. Here are just three of the Spring Things we’ve been enjoying.

FLOWERS – A Rose by Any Other Name . . .

I love to see the Spring flowers, such as daffodils, crocuses and tulips, but I never seem to get around to planting them in the Fall like I should. Maybe the problem is deciding which ones to buy and when/where to plant them.

One year when we lived in Wisconsin, Mom gave me a large package of tulip bulbs for my birthday in November. Now you’d think that would be the perfect time to plant, right? Well, it turned bitterly cold early that year, but I still wanted to get them into the ground. I dragged my 10-year-old son outside and we picked a spot on the south side of the house for planting.

Unfortunately, the ground had turned rock-hard as the temperature plummeted. No way could we break through the frozen crust with our shovels, so we finally brought out a pickaxe!

After working up a sweat taking turns with the big axe, we eventually had a shallow hole about the size of a dinner platter. My plan had been to plant a row all along the back of the house, but that was obviously not going to happen. As the wind picked up and it started to sleet, I made an Executive decision: we carefully positioned all the bulbs into the hole and covered them with frozen chunks of dirt as best we could.

Winter that year turned out to be one for the record books, with unusual cold and snow. When Spring poked its head out at last, we were amazed to see that the new tulips had not only survived, they had thrived! We had the most beautiful flower display imaginable. In fact, it looked like we had planned it that way all along.

If I had to pick just one favorite spring flower, I wouldn’t have to think about it for long. For me, the sunny little dandelions are the true harbinger of Spring. When I see that these resolute little wonders have returned to brighten up our world, I am thrilled. Now, if I could only convince my hubby that he doesn’t need to attack them like Attila the Hun!

BIRDS – Our Fine Feathered Friends

We have a couple of Maple trees in our yard and were lucky enough to watch a yellow-bellied sapsucker again this year. (Yes, that really is its name. And you probably thought that was just an insulting phrase used in old Westerns on TV, right?)

Photo by Beth LaMie

The Sapsucker migrates North each year and spends up to a week in our part of the country. The picture above shows a replica of the bird and the horizontal holes they drill in the trunk of our favorite bird-watching tree. It was a real treat to sit outside and watch them get the sap running, then lap it up along with insects. We were surprised to see that squirrels also appreciated the fresh sap.

We also get a nice grouping of other birds, such as woodpeckers, cardinals, blue jays, finches and, of course, robins. Sometimes they visit our birdfeeders in harmony, while at other times they squabble and fight until the aggressor has chased the smaller birds away. Squirrels join the mix and delight us by hanging upside-down from the suet feeder, then pull themselves up to grab more tidbits from the wire cage. After all that work, they must develop some awesome abs. LOL

TREES – Our Friends in the Forest

We had a few days of unseasonably warm weather, followed by much cooler days. The result was that many of the trees stated to show their buds but they didn’t mature fully for quite some time. As a result, we had a much more gradual display of Mother Nature that seemed to occur in slow motion. From one day to the next, we could actually see the slow but sure leafing out of the trees.

One of the benefits of such an unusual awakening is that we could more fully appreciate just a few varieties of trees at a time, instead of everything blossoming in a rush. One day might have a beautiful Magnolia tree in full bloom, while another was the purple plum and finally the apple trees. The steady progression of come into bud and bloom was especially enjoyable when it could be savored over many days.

So here’s the challenge:

What have you seen or experienced this Spring? Have you taken time to smell the roses, or at least dally with the dandelions? If not, it’s still not too late. Take a few minutes each day to renew your energy and your Joie de Vivre – that’s the Joy of Living and something that every one of us can enjoy.

Viva La Spring!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Take Care of Yourself FIRST

Do you know the best way to take care of your spouse and family?

Take care of yourself FIRST. This was my guest post this week on I think it is worth sharing with my blog followers today.

Such a simple thing, but how many of us actually do it?

Consider the old adage, “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” That’s not far from the truth.

Here are some ideas on how to take care of yourself.

1 SLEEP. Schedule enough time each day to get adequate sleep. If you are still groggy most days when the alarm interrupts your slumber, consider going to bed 15 or 20 minutes earlier. If you tend to have problems sleeping, talk to your doctor or a sleep specialist.

2 STRETCH. When you wake up in the morning, take a few minutes to stretch your muscles to help prepare for the new day. Try some simple bends and stretch like a cat to relieve the kinks in your bones.

3 SOOTHE. Set aside at least 15 minutes every day to do something personal for yourself. Maybe it’s to read a romantic novel, take a relaxing bath or meditate to relieve the stress of the day. You deserve this little luxury, whatever feels right for you.

4 SMILE. It takes fewer muscles to smile than to frown, so take the easy way out. The great thing about giving someone a big smile is that they most likely will give it right back. Then you both feel better, which is a nice win-win situation. Here’s another idea: If you happen to spend a lot of time on the telephone, put a small mirror where you can see it. The person on the other end of the phone will hear the smile in your voice.

5 SAVOR. Take the time to smell the roses. Look for things to be grateful for every day. We are fortunate to have a roof over our heads, food to eat, a safe environment and a sun that rises every day. Even on bad days, we can find something to appreciate.

6 SIMPLIFY. Reconsider all the things you think “have to” be done. For example, Easter is coming soon. How many of your planned activities can be pared down to save time, money and aggravation? Ask your children and family for feedback. Do they really care if the hot-cross buns are homemade or bought? Can the Easter Bunny bring simply colored eggs instead of individual masterpieces?

7 SAY NO. Choose which activities & commitments in your life are worthwhile. Just because someone asks you to do something doesn’t mean you have to. Even better, you don’t have to give a reason why you can’t do it this time. Just say, “Sorry, I won’t be able to [whatever].” I used to have a small plaque on my desk that made a good reminder. It said, “Failure to plan on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.”

8 SAY YES. Say yes to putting yourself first. You deserve it and so does your family.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Personal Values Writing Workshop

Are students in Ireland very different than students in America? Yesterday I had the pleasure to find out when I conducted a Personal Values Writing Workshop to a classs of 16 year old girls in a Dublin school. They all had lovely Irish accents which made it just a bit challenging to understand when they spoke softly.

In the course of this trip abroad, I've managed to catch a miserable cold. By the time of this workshop, my voice was almost gone and I seemed to either squeak or croak when trying to talk. Needless to say, my presentation was not quite as dynamic as usual. Fortunately, the young women were all well-behaved and I didn't have to yell. LOL

The workshop started out with a discussion about Personal Values, why they are important and from whom we learn them. At first, the girls seemed a bit reluctant to respond, but before long they offered their own ideas more willingly.

Each of the girls selected a few of their favorite Personal Values from a sample list of about 30, then wrote a short story about why they were important to them and how they had learned them. There were several recurrent themes throughout most of the stories, such as friendship, loyalty, honesty and respect. Those same values seem to resonate with American students as well.

One thing that surprised me was that none of the girls wanted to read their own writing. Rather, they volunteered to read someone else's story, which has not been the case in any of my other writing workshops. The Principal explained later that in Ireland, all children are required to learn Gaelic in addition to English. So they have less time available to work on speaking and presentation skills. From just the little that I saw on street signs, there doesn't seem to be any similarities between the two languages, as there is in French or Spanish.

A few of the girls responded quite well to my encouragement to write. In fact, one student wrote a lovely story in spite of her usually not participating fully in the classes. I was very encouraged to see that.

So the biggest difference I noticed between American and Irish students? It was their lack of confidence in their presentations. Otherwise, there were many similarities. As always, I was pleased to see their positive reception of my message.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Biography Writing in Scotland

Today's post is one of the lovely stories from my Biography Writing Workshop in Scotland. The students all did a very nice job of interviewing someone, writing their story and reading aloud it to the class. This story is from Marcela M.

The Life Story of My Granny M

Ester M known as Granny M to the family was born on the 13th March 1926. She lived in a small flat in a town in Scotland. In the flat there was a kitchen, 2 bedrooms, a bathroom, a scullery and a parlour. She lived with her Mum, Dad, her 2 older brothers Charles and Alistair and her 2 older sisters Isabel and Margaret. Gran was the youngest child in her family. There were 7 of them in one small flat and there were only 2 bedrooms. So Isabel and Gran slept in the kitchen. Charles, Alistair and Margaret slept in one of the bedrooms and her Mum and Dad slept in the other bedroom.

Her house chores were to wash and dry the dishes and dusting which she despised so much. She worked really quite hard and her weekly allowance was 1-2 pennies and she used it for sweets the way we do nowadays. Alistair was teased by Gran even though Alistair was older than Gran. She didn’t have any nicknames and didn’t ask many questions. She wishes she had asked more questions instead of just watching people talking and acting all shy. Gran’s only ever pet was a small budgie. Her favourite food was sweets like a lot of people. Gran really liked playing outside on clear sunny days with her best friends Kathy and Irene who were also her neighbours. Gran lived in the flat in the middle of the close. On one side of her house lived Irene’s family and on the other side was Kathy’s family. Her proudest moment before she was 18 was joining the Land Army.

Gran really disliked school. She cried for a whole weekend and refused to go to school. Her Mum eventually told her she had to go to school to learn and to become educated. Although she didn’t like school she had favourite subjects which were Poetry, Reading and Spelling. Gran said that her school day went by really fast and also went really well. Gran and her brothers and sisters walked to and from school. The Primary was a 5 minute walk away from her house and the Secondary was just across the road, but she said she was still rushing at the last minute. There were around 40 students in one of her classes. Gran was in the same class as her two best friends Kathy Barclay and Irene Heart. They met when they were all around the age of 3. During playtime Gran, Kathy and Irene played Pever, Skipping, Beds and played with YoYo’s.

When Gran grew up she wanted to be a Vet but said to me that she didn’t have the brains to become one so didn't. After school she worked with Mitchell's and at 17 joined the Land Army. At the weekend she and her friends went swimming. Gran took piano lessons and after she was used to playing the piano she also started swimming lessons. Gran’s family didn’t have a lot of money and didn’t have a radio so Gran rarely heard anything on a radio. Robert Burns’ songs and poems were quite popular then and She really liked them.

Gran saw her first television in the late 1960’s. The Sound of Music and Mamma Mia are Gran's favourite movies. She saw them in a picture house with her daughter Jan who is my Auntie. Gran and her dad entered sailing races in a very small yacht. The yacht was so small that there was no room for seats so you had to stand. The only other thing Gran remembers doing with Kathy and Irene was going out for a bike ride or going for messages on her bike.

Gran and her family didn’t do much celebrating or hosting any small parties. She said that on her birthday she didn’t get anything special and it seemed like any other normal day. Now Gran receives cards, presents, yummy chocolates, perfume and clothes. Sometimes she goes out for dinner with some of the family. The first family wedding Gran attended was at the Bath Hotel in Glasgow. There were around 50-70 family members or friends that were there. There were 2 food tables but the food was very plain not all fancy like what there are at some weddings. The wedding cake wasn’t all big and fancy with all these decorations, it was a small plainish type of cake.

For their holidays they went to Arran in July, for Christmas they went to spend time with their family they didn’t see much and for New Year the family they saw at Christmas came to their house for a big family dinner. All the children were told to go into the parlour and wait until the adults had finished eating. Gran said that if the table was messy before they ate they still were given the blame and were still told to clean it up.

Once Gran was married she went abroad quite a lot and sometimes went away herself. In the 1990’s she went on a lot of lovely sunny cruises with Grandpa. Now if Gran goes abroad she goes with my Auntie Jan but it’s usually just bus tours now to different places. Sometimes Gran goes to watch the bowling since she used to play bowling herself. Gran's proudest achievement in her adult life was having a happy healthy family and seeing how they have grown since they were tiny little babies. The one other special occasion was her Golden Wedding which is 50 years of marriage. WOW! Gran has been married a very, very long time.

Gran’s most important values are her Family, Faith and Friendship. Gran learned these values from her Mum and Dad. She wants to see manners, respect, kindness and fairness from other people she meets in the streets or in shops. Gran treats people with kindness, respect and care because whoever she treats like that she wants to be treated like that as well.

I hadn’t realised that Gran worked so hard during her younger years and lived really near her school. How she put up with sleeping in the kitchen and sharing her bed space with her older sister Isabel I have no idea but I know I couldn’t share a bed or a room with Elena or Ronnie. Now that’s a FACT! You might think that 1-2 pennies isn’t that much money but that was quite a lot of money 80 odd years ago.

I find my Granny M’s life story really interesting because I didn’t know much about her life so now my knowledge on her has become much better. I play tig or football at my breaks whereas Gran and her friends played Pever, Skipping or Beds. When she explained the rules of these games to me they sounded really quite fun. I’ve learned a lot more about my Granny M’s life than I knew before. Some of it is quite funny, some is interesting and some is a little different from what I thought it would be. If I was given the chance to try Pever or Beds I probably would. The things she did for fun are really different from what I do in and out of school.

I have thoroughly enjoyed myself finding out more about my Gran and her family since she knows all about mine. I also liked finding out about how small her house was compared to the size of mine or yours, and how school hasn’t changed that much. The subjects that Gran had, we have today here at our school. The one thing that has changed and I’m glad it’s changed is that if we are bad we have our name on the chart, we are moved or we are given a purple card and stay in for lunch. If Gran was bad or someone in her class was bad they were told to go out to the front of the class and were hit with the belt or the cane. I’m so happy that we aren’t hit with the belt or the cane.

Writing this biography has been really interesting and made me think how hard it was for Gran and her family then. No wonder Gran couldn’t remember some of the things in her life when she was young because there is so much to know about her. By Marcela M

Monday, March 1, 2010

Who Do You Think You Are?

Scottish Biography Writing Workshop

How well do you know your own heritage? Do you really know your grandparents and great-grandparents? If you don’t know as much as you’d like, today is a great day to start learning more about them!

Today I am very excited to have started giving a 3-day Biography Writing Workshop at an island school off the coast of Scotland. The students are in sixth and seventh grades and it was delightful to see their eyes light up as we discussed the process of their writing a biography. They were eager to get started.

The rules about who to interview for their writing are pretty basic: 1) someone they already know, such as a family member or friend, 2) someone over 18 years old and 3) someone they want to know better. Within a few short minutes of discussion, each student had selected at least one person for their first interview. A few of them asked if they can interview more than one person, which is gratifying.

Each student was given a list of questions to ask their subjects on a variety of topics, such as their early life, their school life, what they did for fun, how they celebrated events and holidays and what personal values are important to them. They can also come up with their own questions to ask.

Over the next two days, the students will interview their person of choice and start writing that person’s story. When we meet again, they will continue writing the story, then revise and edit it until they are satisfied. On the next day, they will read their stories to the whole class and the top three presentations will be awarded prizes.

If you are ready to get started on your own biography by interviewing someone near and dear to your heart, now is the time to get busy. For a list of the questions the students are using, send me an email at and put Interview Questions in the Subject. I will be glad to share them with you!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Real Old-fashioned Fried Chicken

This is a guest post from my dear friend, Lois Phelps. We share many things in common, especially being raised on farms and the memories we have from favorite foods and family dinners. I hope you enjoy her story!

I wasn’t very old when Grandma Ponton taught me how to kill and dress chickens. My grandmother was a petite woman who dressed in a cotton housedress, covered by an apron most likely made from a feed sack with nylon hose and dress shoes but come chicken killing day, she belied her image and became a killer.

In the chicken yard, Grandma chased the chicken with a wire bent with a hook on the end. It didn’t take many attempts for her to land her quarry. She stretched the chicken or rooster’s neck over an exposed tree root and chopped its head off. I know from experience what “like a chicken with his head cut off” looks like. I still remember how long it sometimes took for that dancing, headless chicken to die. Occasionally, Grandma didn’t completely chop through the neck and the chicken would run around with their head flopping around. One old rooster lived quite some time with his head partially cut off. We would pile those dead chickens in pails and carry them down the stairs to Grandma Ponton’s basement.

Next came dunking the dead chicken in boiling hot water so that the feathers could be pulled off. What an odor that made! There was fuzz left so we would light a rolled up newspaper and hold the paper in one hand and the chicken in the other to singe the remaining feathers. You had to be close to a bucket of water to put that burning paper into or you got burned.. There were pin feathers left buried in the skin. We would take a paring knife and push on the bottom of the feather to push them out of the follicles. Occasionally, we would squeeze them just like you would a pimple to remove them. Then came the most fun of all……pulling out the guts of the chicken. I seem to recall doing it from the rear.

You had to cut the heart, liver and gizzard free of the entrails as they were good eating. And you would cut those feet off up to the leg, pull the tough yellow skin off and cook them for broth. It was not unusual for homemade noodles to be served with the chicken feet in them. After you ate the noodles, you picked up those feet and ate the meat off the bones. I still remember how Grandma Ponton taught me to cut up a chicken so occasionally I will buy the whole chicken to cut it myself. Today’s butchers cut up the chicken with an electric saw which is definitely not the same.
My dad loved fried chicken but Mother wouldn’t even eat from a fork that had been in chicken so this job fell to me at a young age.

My grandmothers taught me to fry chicken dredged in flour and the shortening must be lard. There was no need to tell me to use a cast iron skillet because that is all we had. The chicken did cook with a very crispy coating as I recall. My dad would always get the gizzard; we kids knew better than to even ask. His next favorite pieces were the back and the neck. I think he liked to pick out the meat in these bony pieces. Today, we don't even get the neck of the chicken. And who cooks the liver, heart and gizzard! As for putting chicken feet in noodles, my grandchildren would take one look and pronounce it disgusting.

Okay, who is ready for some REAL fried chicken? What are some of your own favorite food memories? I'd love to hear about them.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Values to Live By

This post appeared on February 16, 2010, on Corey Allen's


What do they mean to you?

When was the last time you considered the values that make up your character?

Are you trustworthy, loyal, fair, honorable or patient?

Are your friends and family proud of who you are? Why or why not?

What can you do to improve?

What are values?

Values are the ideals or principles of a given society and the personal qualities considered worthwhile or desirable. They are different for each of us and can vary from person to person and even for each person from one time to another.

We learn our values from our families, friends, religion and community. In turn, the people we associate with learn values from us as well. Are your loved ones learning the values that you want them to adopt? The world is moving so quickly that we need to ensure that our families and children understand what values are important to us.

Consider these quotes:

Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil. ~ C. S. Lewis

As a man, I’ve been representative of the values I hold dear. And the values I hold dear are carryovers from the lives of my parents. ~ Sidney Poitier

What values are important to you?

Think of the traits you admire most in someone close to you, such as a parent or a best friend.

Do you share those same values? Most often, we tend to share similar values with the people with whom we associate. Obviously, that can be good or bad. With young people, it is especially important that they choose their companions wisely.

When I conduct writing workshops for high school students, one of the most frequently requested topics is Personal Values. It is always an illuminating exercise to have the students check off the values that are important to them. One person may select almost all of the values in the list, while others cannot seem to relate to more than one or two. What does that tell us about their character?

How are you passing your values on to your family?

Your actions speak louder than words. If you want your kids to be honest, what are you teaching them by your actions? Do you tell little white lies from time to time, fudge the numbers a bit on your taxes or fail to point out when a cashier gives you too much change?

If your faith is important to you, do you practice it with your family? Do you attend services regularly, or only when it is convenient or a major event, such as Easter or Christmas? If you ran into your minister, priest, imam or rabbi on the street, would he/she recognize you? Better yet, would you recognize them in their “street clothes?”

Children look up to their parents and tend to emulate their actions, whether we realize it or not. As an example, consider your reaction when a 4-year-old drops something and lets out a short curse. Will it be a mild expletive or something stronger that they’ve heard you say? With luck, it takes only a time or two for the parent to realize how much “little ears” pick up from us.

When my grandson expressed his frustration about something by using Daddy’s favorite swear word, Daddy and Mommy both started using a new preference of “Oh, snap!” At first, it struck me as pretty funny, but I was proud to see that exercising their values helped them to teach their children what was acceptable behavior.

It isn’t easy to be a role model for our children, but it is crucial if we want to pass on our values to them. So the next time you are tempted to cut an ethical corner or use words that you don’t want them to repeat, keep in mind that your kids are watching and listening.

Exercises on Values

Try these simple exercises on values. Look at this list of sample values and select the ones that are most important to you, or at least a few to start with. There is no right answer. In fact, your personal values may not even be on this list.


can do attitude
hard work
interest in others
joie de vivre
lifelong learning
open mindedness
positive attitude
pride (not ego)
sense of honor
sense of humor
social skills
work ethics

Your Personal Values

1. Which values are most important to you? Why?
2. From whom did you learn these values? How?
3. Which values do you admire in people around you? Why?
4. In what ways do you act on your values?
5. How do your values help you make difficult decisions?

Once you have identified some of your own values and contemplated their importance to you, take the opportunity to open up a dialog with your family members. Discuss the importance of values with them and share your own experiences.

If you could instill three values into the people around you, what would they be?

I’d love to get your feedback on which values YOU consider important.