Dental Floss and a Dog Biscuit
Now that I've got your attention, I'll tell you a story. In the winter of 1996, I was between jobs and decided to accompany Andy on a business trip down south. I had been pretty useless anyway because my right arm was in a cast. The week before, I was on my way out the door with both hands full of dry cleaning. Traversing the icy sidewalk in red "duck" shoes, my feet flew out from under me and I crash-landed, breaking my wrist. A road trip on the expense account sounded like a good diversion.
First stop was Greenville, NC to visit our daughter Hannah, a freshman at East Carolina University. From there, we traveled west, where Andy made some business calls. Heading home on U.S. 81, which cuts diagonally across Virginia and into Pennsylvania, we drove right into the teeth of a menacing snowstorm. As icy sleet hit the windshield, it froze instantly, making it impossible to see. The little motor that ran the wipers overheated and died. Panicked, we pulled into a church parking lot to assess the situation. I voted for a night in the nearest motel, but was overruled. Andy called information on his company cell and found the nearest Pontiac dealership, which was 30 miles north In Harrisonburg. How would we ever get there?
Then my husband's engineering instincts kicked it. Saying he'd be right back, Andy went to the trunk in the freezing wind and dug around in his suitcase. He returned holding a plastic dispenser of dental floss aloft. Words failed me. Dental floss? He cut a long piece with nail clippers and tied one end securely to the left wiper, bringing the other end into the car through the window, which was now slightly open. Then he repeated this procedure on the other side. Half-frozen, he scraped the ice off the windshield and got back in, explaining that each of us would pull on the dental floss to move the wipers in unison. Right. Andy tied the floss around the cast on my arm and then looked for something to which he could tie his end. Rooting around in the side pocket, he found a small green dog biscuit, there because a bank employee gave two to Scrapple when we came through the drive-through and he only consumed one. This became his floss-holder.
We practiced the wiper maneuver a couple of times then inched back on to the deserted highway. All the smart people were holed up in motels, but not my intrepid husband. It was snowing so hard you hardly see ahead, but on we went, pulling back and forth to keep the windshield clear. It was seriously scary and we only went about 20 mph to avoid sliding into a ditch. Because the windows were slightly open, a nasty stream of cold air came in, even though the heater was going full blast. This might be a good place to mention that we were both suffering from head colds and blowing and sneezing between pulls. This would have made a good script for a sitcom.
Finally we pulled into the Pontiac dealership, where the mechanics were expecting us. The guys practically rolled on the floor laughing when they saw our solution to traveling through a snowstorm with a blown wiper motor. We gratefully consumed lunch in a nice warm restaurant while the problem was fixed and soon we were on our way home to Pennsylvania where we could share our adventure with Alison and Pete over Chinese take-out.
One post-holiday task I actually look forward to is computing our taxes for the prior year. I load TurboTax on my computer, and gather all the required forms and paperwork. There's always one or two income statements that do not arrive until the very last minute of January, which is annoying. As senior citizens, our taxes are pretty simple, with a few sources of income and no dependents or child care expenses to consider. Texas has no state tax--yay!. It's kind of fun to step through all the sections of the program, answering the questions (some of which are pretty arcane) and plugging in all the numbers needed.
In December, I went through bank and credit card statements for 2017 to note down health care expenses, which were many this year because of my surgery and physical therapy. Of course, TurboTax makes you divide these into sections for prescription drugs, payments to doctors, dentists and physical therapists and hospital fees, x-rays, and lab work, which makes it more complicated than it should be, but resulted in a sizeable deduction.
Mortgage interest, property taxes and charitable contributions all get entered in their respective fields. Property taxes in Texas are pretty weird. You pay a school tax, Dallas county tax, a hospital tax for Parkland Hospital (the public hospital of Dallas), a city of Rowlett tax, and some other small amounts I don't quite understand. Fortunately, the mortgage company takes care of all of that. Sometimes you even get a check for escrow overage, which is always welcome.
The software keeps track of your refund in a little window at the top of the screen. The Holy Grail is getting the biggest refund possible, so with each new entry you watch in eager anticipation to see if that little green number goes up or down. Will Andy and I be jetting off to some island with our refund? I highly doubt it, but maybe we can pay off a few bills and wait for next year's windfall. Of course, 2018 could be a whole new ball game with the passage of the tax bill. Are we having fun yet?
A Bluegrass Memory
As I listened to bluegrass music while preparing dinner the other night it brought to mind a visit to the Appalachian town of Hyden, Kentucky. In my first real job after being home with kids for a decade, I was working for the John B. Franklin Maternity Hospital and Family Center in Philadelphia, as Director of Community Resources, a position that comprised volunteer services and fundraising. Certified nurse-midwives handled nearly all deliveries, with physician backup always available. It was a wonderful place that truly put the needs of patients and families first and where I learned what makes a hospital run, knowledge that would serve me well in a 35-year-long career fundraising for health care organizations.
In 1988, the Hospital began a partnership with Frontier Nursing Service. This unique organization, founded by Mary Breckenridge in 1925 , brought maternity care to some of the poorest areas of eastern Kentucky and vastly improved infant and maternal mortality. Kentucky had long been known for its beautiful quilts and crafts, and I hit upon a concept for a unique fundraising event that would incorporate a craft fair and social event in Philadelphia. So off I went to the Bluegrass State, where I would attend a state-wide craft fair and visit the home of Frontier Nursing.
After spending a day taking in the fair and assembling a list of potential vendors, I took off for Hyden in my rental car. Warmly greeted by FNS staffers, I was given a tour and a room in the Big House, the historic two-story log home of Mary Breckenridge. After a home-cooked meal served in the "Dogtrot" dining room, two local gentlemen took out their instruments and proceeded to play bluegrass music for us. One of them was missing several fingers, but that didn't stop him from giving a virtuoso performance on the banjo. Another clog-danced to the music, something I had never seen. I felt as if I had stepped back in time, sitting before a fireplace in this venerable log cabin listening to music that had been passed down through generations. I don't think I'll ever forget those moments.
Alas, the event I had conjured never came to pass because of budget constraints and sadly, the Hospital closed shortly thereafter due to insurmountable financial problems. Frontier Nursing University continues to thrive, however, continuing to improve public health in Eastern Kentucky and training health care professionals.
The Prince of Boardwalk
Yesterday I picked my 10-year-old grandson Booker up from school. He was barely in the door of our house when he made a mad dash for the Monopoly game. You see, I had trounced him the last time we played and he was now out for revenge. Fueled by a big glass of milk and a homemade muffin, he eagerly assumed the role of banker and handed me the property cards. His racecar token and my shoe, were placed on Go. We rolled the dice to see who would go first. Taking alternate turns, Booker and I raced around and around the board, buying up as many properties as possible and collecting $200 when we passed Go. Booker frequently landed on Chance or Community Chest and took delight in collecting prizes such as Second Prize in a Beauty Contest ($10) or an inheritance of $50. (This is a little different from playing with his cousin Lena, who tends to make up her own rules, purposely miscounts the number on the dice to get in the space she wants and pouts or quits when things don't go her way.)
I come from a long line of Monopoly players. On rainy days at Clear Lake, as many as six of us would crowd around a rickety card table and play one game that lasted all day, taking breaks only for lunch and snacks. We'd aggressively try to beat each other, but bail out anyone in trouble so they could stay in the game.
I had managed to buy up all the properties from St. Charles Place to New York Avenue (one whole side of the board), as well as the cheaper brown and light blue ones. He concentrated on the opposite side, acquiring the more expensive real estate, all except for Park Place, which was held by me. In a savvy deal, I traded that property to him for a couple of others I wanted. Soon we were both putting little green houses on our fiefdoms. He blew almost of all of his funds putting three expensive houses on both Park Place and Boardwalk and I had to bail him out with some cash a few times. Trouble was, every time he got to the corner where the jail was located, Booker faced the gauntlet of my built-up properties on that side of the board and was sweating bullets. Time after time, he escaped disaster by landing on a railroad he owned or Community Chest. His luck didn't last forever, though, and soon he was handing me large sums in rent, badly depleting his cash reserves.
Unfortunately for him, not once did I land on those highly improved upscale properties. Poor Booker was saved from total ignominy by the arrival of his mom, who had just finished work for the day and wanted to get home. We packed up the game, knowing that he would seek revenge another day.
Every wife and mother knows the unending task of turning dirty laundry into clean, fresh clothing. When Andy and I were first married, our apartment building had a communal laundry room. The washer and dryer in our first home were located in the garage--often freezing cold in the Ohio winter. Our Denver houses had actual rooms for the washer and dryer, a distinct improvement. When we moved to Pennsylvania, our 50-year-old abode lacked this degree of convenience. The laundry was located in the dim, dark basement, so baskets of dirty clothes had to be carried to the family room, out one door to the garage and then through another that led to the basement steps, a massive pain. A later renovation gave us a mud room with room for the appliances and a double row of pegs for coats and jackets.
As the kids grew and I began a full-time job, laundry became a weekend task. Hip deep in clothing, towels, sheets and athletic gear, I often did more than 20 loads, leaving baskets for the kids to carry upstairs and put away (a constant battle). My offspring knew that the quickest way to enrage their mother was to include fold-marked clothing in with their dirty clothes. (I know, I know, they should have been doing their own laundry.) When our first dachshund, Scrapple, heard the dryer door squeak, he would race downstairs, leap on the couch and await the load of warm, fragrant laundry I would dump on him. When I got to the last item, he would be on his back, eyes closed in utter bliss.
When we moved to Texas, my daughter Hannah and her husband generously got us a Samsung washer/dryer pair with electronic controls for our laundry room. Upon completion of their cycles, the appliances play a tune taken from Franz Schubert's Piano Quintet in A Major, popularly known as The Trout. While some people seem to be annoyed by this musical interlude, I enjoy it. I bring the warm laundry to the family room to fold while I watch TV, and yes, I still dump it on our dachshund Toby, who revels in its warmth.
Sew and Sew
I've loved to sew since my high school home economics class taught by the exacting Mrs. Harriet McClure. Our first project was (naturally) an apron. Double-fold bias tape was to encase the perimeter of the fabric. No amount of pinning or basting was going to make this anything less than a disaster but thankfully we moved on to simpler garments. By graduation, I was able to make a beautiful wool suit, as well as a silk skirt, jacket and flowered silk top from complex Vogue patterns.
My grandmother Lake, quite the seamstress, had been a department store hat maker and made beautiful quilts. I remember coming to her in tears when the collar wouldn't lay flat on the aforementioned suit, which she easily corrected. My mother did not inherit her sewing ability, save for the odd Halloween costume. I took Mom's Singer Featherweight with me to college and often whipped up a quick outfit for a fraternity party, and even an elaborate dress and coat made from brocade my parents brought from Hawaii.
After I got engaged, I declined the froufrou wedding dresses at our local bridal shop and decided to make my own wedding gown as well as those of some of the bridesmaids (the others made their own after being sent all the materials). My dad bought me a new sewing machine, which I still have. I often made my own maternity clothes and little dresses for my daughters. As the kids got older, I made scads of Halloween costumes: devil, witch, Eagles cheerleader, Little House on the Prairie, etc. One Christmas, it was huge dolls with clothing for the girls. I made several baby quilts and hand stitched the appliques. Then it was on to prom and special occasion dresses for Alison and Hannah. I went on making clothes for myself until dwindling fabric stores stopped carrying anything worthwhile. When grandchildren came along, my venerable sewing machine produced costumes until they got to the age when they wanted to be superheroes or Disney characters. My last project was several pretty dresses for Lena's American Girl doll (not recommended for your sanity).
Why do I love sewing so much? First, there's the fun of choosing a pattern and fabric, as well as thread, buttons and zipper for the project. I like the discipline of following the directions (always read thoroughly beforehand). Next comes laying out the pattern on the material and cutting the pieces. I love the feel of the fabric as it moves from my fingers to the needle of the machine. Pressing open seams, trimming armholes and the handwork of hemming are comforting in some way. Finally, the joy of having a beautiful and unique finished product is unmatched. I fear this is becoming a lost art, but one I'll always remember with fondness. Thank you, Mrs. McClure.
One of the most enjoyable things I did in 2017 was to join the inaugural class of the Rowlett City Academy, made up of 25 people from all walks of life and a range of ages. At the first of ten three-hour sessions, we were presented with notebooks, nametags and T-shirts. Each week there was a pre-class social hour so we could get to know each other. One of the city's goals in holding this academy was to develop a "farm team" of individuals who might like to serve on boards, commissions and even hold seats on the city council. My personal goals were to learn about Rowlett and meet people.
So it began, with presentations about the structure of city government, responsibilities of elected office and the Action Center, which provides citizens with a way to lodge concerns ranging from animal control to potholes. We learned about economic development, including big plans for Bayside, a new resort, business and residential development on the shores of Lake Ray Hubbard, one several huge reservoirs that supply water to North Texas. Then it was on to the more utilitarian aspects of the city: water/waste water, streets and engineering. Planning and zoning, building and code services came next. Our class went on tours of the city parks, fire station and rec center and the library. We learned about police and EMS services and capped the course with information about human resources, the courts, and finance/budgeting. Some of these topics sound mind-numbing, but most were quite engaging. Rowlett's strong city government, a city of 60,000+ people, had been incredibly important in the aftermath of a EF-4 tornado on December 26, 2015 that demolished 300 homes and damaged 1,100 more.
I did make a few new acquaintances and plan to participate in a board or commission once my recovery from spine surgery is further along. Joining the Rowlett Police Academy is also on my bucket list. It came highly recommended by my daughter Hannah, who had a ball participating in it.
The old saying of "think globally, act locally," might apply here. I might not be able to change the world, but maybe I can make things a little better for Rowlett.
Rocky Mountain Days
Andy and I lived in Toledo, OH for the first few years of our marriage. I was teaching fifth grade and he was a mechanical engineer for Johns-Manville. We had just bought a house in nearby Waterville. Then came some exciting news. The entire company was moving to Denver! Andy was put in charge of relocation for families in Toledo and New Jersey.
So we headed west and purchased a brand-new home in Aurora, near Andy's office. The tri-level house was unusual. that the bedrooms were on the lower levels and the high-ceilinged living room, family room and small kitchen were on top. There were so many families with young children on East Bates Circle that we jokingly called it "rabbit row." We had lots of friends and started a gourmet group. There were trips to the mountains and jaunts downtown to enjoy Denver's rapidly burgeoning restaurant and museum scene. Alison and Hannah were born just 19 months apart.
Then the company built a new headquarters (big as the Empire State Building lying on its side) west of the city in the valley between what's known as the Hogback Ridge and the Rocky Mountains, a beautiful area with red rock outcroppings and wildlife. JM also developed a community called the Ken-Caryl Ranch, named for the original property. So we moved there so Andy could be closer to work. At that point, there wasn't much development and the nearest grocery was six miles away. Once again, we found ourselves with many other young families and quickly made friends. I had transferred my membership in the Junior League, so I had volunteer work (made possible by a babysitting co-op) to keep me from going insane caring for two toddlers. When our youngest was only about 18 months old, I was slicing mushrooms at a friend's house and became instantly queasy. That's when I knew our son Peter was on the way, giving us three children in less than four years!
It was an exciting time in our lives, filled with possibility, and we soaked up the excitement of a growing city. Eight years later, Andy took an East Coast sales territory and our family moved to Berwyn, PA to spend the next sixteen years. More about that in another post!
P.S. Our daughter Hannah had a recent business trip to Denver, so I sent her our former addresses and she took photos of both homes.
My Crazy Moment
Everyone has moments of craziness in their lives-- when you go off the rails a bit and pursue something that sounds like a good idea at the time. In my case, that would be Grand Finales, a little business I started in the years when I was still home raising three kids and did not have a paying job. I had always loved to cook and bake. Gourmet Magazine was my bible and I learned to make quiches and elaborate desserts without ever taking a class. One day, on a whim, I showed up at one of the stands in our nearby upscale farmer's market with a tray of desserts and asked the owner whether she would be interested in buying them on a regular basis. She bought them on the spot and put in an order for the following week.
Before I knew it, I was producing all kinds of small, medium and large quiches, beautiful (and labor intensive) fruit tarts. The market was open on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, so on alternate days, I was shopping or baking. I would make dozens of recipes of pate brisee for quiches and pate sucre for tarts in my food processor, gallons of pastry cream and lemon curd. On market days, I was up early to assemble the tarts--pastry cream and beautifully arranged fruit with an apricot glaze. Sometimes, I made pastry-covered pears or cakes. Holidays nearly doubled the output. At Christmas, I got permission from our parish church to use their commercial kitchen. Occasionally, I would pay off my friends in pastry so that I had an extra pair of hands.
There were disasters along the way, of course, like the time several unbaked quiches slipped off the pan and into the seam of the oven. Yuk. I had to clean up the mess and start all over in the wee hours. Or the time Andy was on his way to the market with the order and ran out of gas. After a year of working my tail off, I was exhausted. I either had to get a place that wasn't my home kitchen and a partner or quit entirely. I chose the latter.
So why did I do it? It certainly wasn't for the money. I guess I liked the moment when I came in through the back door of the market at 7 AM and people oohed and aahed as I passed them with the trays of pastries. I was flattered by comparisons to the French bakery stand a few stalls down. Am I sorry I tried it? No way. I found out how far I could stretch without breaking and when to hang up my apron. Interestingly enough, when I interviewed for jobs, Grand Finales was often what most interested the interviewer.
P. S. I still love to bake, but these days it's mostly scones, muffins and quick breads. Occasionally I make something special for a birthday or holiday and enjoy remembering this crazy time in my life.
My Boy Toby
There's one being in my life who is apolitical, has no opinions, doesn't talk back and is always glad to see me. That would be our four-year-old standard dachshund Toby. We picked him out of a litter of seven adorable puppies when we still lived in Delaware. He was much darker brown than his siblings, so the breeder's husband called him Blackie. Apparently he would put him on his chest while watching TV, so he was already spoiled rotten by the time we got him. We decided to name him Tobler, after the Swiss chocolate bar that comes in a triangular yellow box. When I tell a man what his name is, the reaction is always, "Huh?" But when I tell a woman (who is most likely a chocoholic) her eyes light up and she says, "Aw, I get it. That is so cute."
Toby was preceded by Scrapple and Oskar, who both lived to the ripe old age of fifteen. Scrapple was a hunter at heart, and loved the woods behind our Pennsylvania home, although he once tangled with some animal and came back punctured in a couple places. Oskar was more of a lover than a fighter.
On his first night with us, I deposited Toby in the crate, but after a 30 minutes of his whimpering, I gave in. So guess where Toby sleeps now--cuddled up next to me under the covers. He is a real mama's boy and follows me from room to room all day. For all of his general adorableness, he can be a bully. When he thinks it's time to eat, he plants himself in my line of vision and gives me the death stare until I put some kibble in his dish. Going outside has to be Toby's idea, not ours. He would rather not put his delicate feet in wet grass. Sometimes Toby gets out of bed during the night and sits on the floor whining under his breath until I give him a handful of kibble. I know, I've created a monster. But he's our monster, and there's nothing better than his warm little body next to me on the couch.
I'm Chris Barabasz, retired from a 35-year career managing communications for health care development (that's fundraising for you civilians). I'm a wife, mother, grandmother and freelance writer. My husband Andy and I moved from Delaware to Texas to be closer to our daughters and three adorable grandchildren.