I used to work third-shift at an alarm security company. At the same time, I was going to grad school and teaching English 101 at the university. The alarm company job was both vaguely interesting and supremely boring.
Basically, I was the person on the other end of “Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up,” as well as monitoring business openings and closings and calling the cops or the fire department if an alarm went off in the middle of the night. I had to call the business owners too, and some of them were well beyond rude, especially when the call proved to be a false alarm.
I liked the job for the solitude – I was the only person in the building on third shift. (As you’d expect for a security company, the building was thoroughly locked down tight at night.) It was pretty quiet most nights, so I could read my assignments for the master’s degree and grade papers for English 101 while waiting for the alarms to sound. But on windy or stormy days there would be loud beeping from the machine spewing out false alarms and then the clack-clack of my IBM Selectric as I created the nightly reports.
One of the worst things about the business was that, what with both the job and grad school, I was frequently so short on sleep that I was afraid to drive myself. (Another worst thing was that the bosses would grant other workers time off for their kids’ school activities, but I couldn’t take off to study for a big exam. Or for any family-type holidays, like Easter, Thanksgiving, or Christmas. But I digress.)
What does this have to do with bunnies, you may ask? The bunnies were an after-work, early-morning bonus.
My husband, saint that he is, would sometimes drop me off at the security company late at night and come to pick me up early in the morning, to drive me to the university. Often, he got there a little early and parked behind the building to sit in the early morning light for a few minutes while I neatened my area and punched out. Sometimes, he got there ten or fifteen minutes early, just to look at the small field between the security building and the house across the way.
When I finally got to the car, if we had a few extra minutes, we both contemplated the field and counted the bunnies. The field was a place where they gathered and ate and hopped.
The thing about bunny-counting was that you had to pay close attention to the field. The bunnies were well-hidden in the long grass. Only when a bunny moved did you really notice that it was there. A wiggle of the ears. A movement towards another clump of grass. Bright eyes looking around for potential predators.
Some mornings we spotted only one bunny, and that was okay. Sometimes, if we waited a little longer and really concentrated, we saw more than one. We took the number of bunnies we saw as an omen for the day. The more bunnies, the better luck we would have. A three-bunny morning was a pleasant way to start a pretty good day. Some days we saw four or five bunnies and felt ourselves blessed. Once we even saw seven bunnies. It was a spectacular day.
Now we live in a house where there used to be woods, but the trees are not there anymore. Still, sometimes we see baby rabbits in the spring and well-fed rabbits in the fall, making their way across our walkway and devouring things my husband has carefully planted. (We also see many squirrels, a very fat groundhog, the occasional deer passing through, and multitudes of birds and butterflies.)
Bunny-counting days are long gone. I don’t even know if the security building and the house with the bunny-field still exist. I miss the days when we would have a leisurely bunny stakeout as we waited for the day to begin. The morning light, the calm expectation, the excitement of spotting a bunny’s ears, the three-bunny morning – these are things I miss.
Not long ago, I saw on Facebook a picture of Captain Kangaroo in his costume, with a silly expression on his face. The caption was something on the order of “Who in his right mind would put this man in charge of a bunch of children?”
Well, I would, for one. It’s easy to take a photograph of anyone that presents an unflattering portrait, and if that person’s job is to be a children’s entertainer and to have ping-pong balls dropped on his head, he’s even more likely to look goofy.
The reality is quite different. Captain Kangaroo may have acted goofy, but in real life, he was far from it.
I had heard that Bob Keeshan (the Captain’s not-so-secret identity) was an advocate for children, but I never realized how passionately and compassionately until I had the chance to interview him, many years ago, when I was the editor of Early Childhood News magazine. (The accompanying photo is a souvenir of that occasion, resurrected from a single frame of film that somehow survived both the tornado and all our moves. My husband found it and I found a way to digitize it. If Mr. Keeshan looks tired in the photo, it’s because he had just finished giving one of his impassioned speeches. But I digress.)
Keeshan was a friend of fellow children’s entertainer Fred Rogers (of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood), and they occasionally guested on each other’s shows, spreading their message of gentleness, care, and fun with widening audiences. After Captain Kangaroo was pushed into an unfavorable time slot, the show was picked up by PBS and ran for a number of years there.
Keeshan began his crusade of child activism while he was still The Captain to innumerable boys and girls, including me (I was particularly fond of the puppet character Bunny Rabbit because it wore glasses like I did). But Keeshan learned that there was a horror movie involving an evil Santa Claus, and that commercials for it were being shown during children’s shows, including his own. He objected and made his voice heard.
After he retired, Keeshan became a tireless child advocate and speaker. He stood strongly against violent video games, which he noted taught children nothing about the real world, and particularly against children’s shows based on those same video games or on violent toys, like “Power Rangers” and “The Transformers.”
But Keeshan’s crusade for children’s rights didn’t stop at the other side of the TV screen. At the speech I attended, he said that many run-away kids should really be called “throw-away” kids for how families and society failed them. Unfortunately, neither my clips nor my notes of my article have survived, so I can’t tell you exactly what he said, just that he said it with fervor and sincerity. And sometimes quite a bit of anger.
In lieu of the article, I offer some Bob Keeshan quotes taken from other sources over the years.
Back in the old days, when I was a child, we sat around the family table at dinner time and exchanged our daily experiences. It wasn’t very organized, but everyone was recognized and all the news that had to be told was told by each family member. We listened to each other and the interest was not put on; it was real.
Generosity has built America. When we fail to invest in children, we have to pay the cost.
Children don’t drop out of high school when they are 16, they do so in the first grade and wait 10 years to make it official.
I enjoy meeting not only contemporary children, but yesterday’s children as well. It’s nice to talk about the experiences we shared, they tell me, “You were a good friend.” That’s the warmest part.
Now, how goofy does that sound to you?
Over the years I’ve had some pretty terrible birthdays. Ones with surprise parties that flopped. Ones with unwanted presents. One when I woke up in excruciating pain from a back injury.
Usually, however, I have small, quiet birthdays, with my husband giving me thoughtful gifts that he has sometimes hidden away for almost a year. (If he can remember where he hid them, of course.)
But the absolute worst birthday I ever had was one when my husband wasn’t even there. He had gone to Pennsylvania to visit his mother. He had also sworn that he would be home by my birthday. One would think he meant that he would leave the day before and would be home for my whole birthday. One would be mistaken.
My husband likes to drive at night when the highways are less crowded. By this theory, he should have been home early on my birthday and been able to spend virtually the whole day with me (after, perhaps, a nap). That theory, also, would be incorrect.
Instead, what he proposed to do was leave Pennsylvania early on my birthday morning and be home in time for a nice birthday dinner. This theory was incorrect as well.
By this time, I was getting agitated. My birthday rendezvous with Hubby seemed to be slipping away.
It slipped even more when on the morning of my birthday, it turned out that he had to stay longer and do a few more handyman chores for his mother (in my opinion, the main reason he goes to visit her). That would have him leaving Pennsylvania at lunchtime (or after) and arriving before I went to bed. Technically still my birthday, but I tend not to do much celebrating after I’m in bed.
Eventually, he got on the road. The snowy, slippery road. (It was December.) He called me from along the way – though he knows I hate when he talks while driving – to report his progress. Passed through the tunnel. Over the mountain. How many miles closer to me.
Then I got the phone call that meant he wouldn’t be home on my birthday at all – and that immediately became the least of my worries. He had crashed his car on a bridge covered with black ice, going through a guardrail somewhere near a tiny town in PA, and was at the hospital.
In other words, I had to bundle up on my snowy birthday night and drive to Pennsylvania to meet him at the hospital. He couldn’t remember the name of the town, but he was able to tell me what exit it was just after.
Now, I’m not the best at driving in a raging snowstorm at night in the first place. Add the stress of knowing that my husband was in a hospital – somewhere – made me forget all about my birthday. Instead, I had to drive about 300 miles just to find out what had happened.
Once I found the town and once I found the hospital, I found Dan sitting up in an office, chatting pleasantly with a social worker. Not that he needed a social worker’s services, he was just wandering around the hospital, bored. There was not a scratch on him and his nerves were much steadier than mine.
We found a local hotel, since there was no way I was driving all that way back to Ohio in the snowstorm. We were hoping it would clear by the next day. And the hotel gave out chocolate chip cookies, so there’s a plus. Not a birthday cake, but at that point, I was satisfied.
When I finally did get a chance to see the car, I was amazed that the front of it was so smashed in, yet Dan was unharmed. I’ll say this for Jeep, they really know how to build in crumple zones and passenger capsules.
So, in a way, I can thank Jeep for the best birthday present I ever got, even if it was the worst birthday of my life.
I have an emotional support animal. They’re a trend now – so trendy, in fact, that people are trying to certify miniature horses, pigs, and sloths as support animals so they can live with them in rentals and take them on airplanes. (I personally would not want a support horse, of any size, with me on a plane. I’ve seen and smelled horse flops before.)
These are not the tiny “purse dogs” that fashionable women used to carry a decade or more back. Those were merely accessories, and cost as much as such women pay for other accessories. Of course, they were adorbs, but like the obnoxiously rich women, they did no work. Even more obnoxious is the fact that one can buy on the internet animal-sized bright red vests that claim an animal to be a working dog, when in fact it has no training or official status.
Other dogs have real jobs. Seeing-eye dogs were probably the first working dogs most of us heard about or saw. They perform an important function and are not to be treated as pets if you encounter one. (It’s totally politically incorrect, but a friend of mine wrote a song, “My Seeing-Eye Dog and I Don’t See Eye-to-Eye.” It was funny, though. But I digress.)
Since that time, dogs – and particularly dogs’ noses – have been trained to detect any number of items. They detect drugs and bombs for the police and airlines. They find live people or dead bodies under rubble following an earthquake or building collapse.
Then there are animals that provide care and support of another kind: therapy animals, emotional support animals, and psychiatric service animals.
Therapy animals are most often used with geriatric patients and children in hospitals. In some nursing homes and convalescent centers, you find programs that bring small animals to interact with the residents. Even farm animals – chickens, lambs, piglets – may spark memories that had been hidden away for years.
Emotional Support Animals are dogs or cats (or, less commonly, other animals such as guinea pigs) that live with and provide comfort to a person with a psychiatric disorder. They should be registered as such, and there are places with laws that allow such animals to accompany their humans into public spaces.
Some folks confuse Emotional Support Animals with Psychiatric Service Animals. They think that “training” a dog to offer a kiss on command, or jump in their lap is a task making the animal an official service animal. Service animals, including psychiatric service animals, must receive special training that teaches them how to alleviate the symptoms of an ADA-defined disability.
Legitimate tasks for PSDs (psychiatric service dogs) include counterbalance/bracing for a handler dizzy from medication, waking the handler at the sound of an alarm when the handler is heavily medicated and sleeps through alarms, doing room searches or turning on lights for persons with PTSD, blocking persons in dissociative episodes from wandering into danger (i.e., traffic), leading a disoriented handler to a designated person or place, and so on.
(By the way, forget about cats as service animals. Just try training a cat to do anything it doesn’t want to do. If you are able to register your cat as an Emotional Support Animal or get a medical/psychiatric recommendation, you may be able to have your cat live with you in a pet-free community or have the fee for a pet waived. But that’s about it where cats are concerned.)
I, on the other hand, have an emotional support animal that requires no diagnosis or permit, though I guess you’d have to say that he does require special handling and a bit of training – my husband. In addition to the many other things he does for me, Dan is my emotional support for distressing situations, such as going to the dentist, of which I am terrified. He gets permission to enter the treatment room, sits on a stool that’s not in the doctors’ way, and touches or pats my foot (the only part of me that he can reach in that set-up).
This tiny touch grounds me and provides emotional comfort. And my husband doesn’t even have to wear a bright red vest.
I understand that there’s lately been a furor on TikTok (I don’t tok and barely tweet). I guess “barely” is the operative word there, though. The burning (I hope not) question of the day – or week – is “Do you pee in the shower?”
My husband told me about this. (He doesn’t tok or tweet either, but heard about it from someone at work.)
“Well, do you?” I asked.
“If I need to, I just let it fly,” he replied. (I hope that doesn’t include while he’s driving the car or in church or many other circumstances I could name. But we were talking about the shower.)
I found that idea disturbing, if not exactly unhygienic, because after all, number one would just go down the drain. But he’s cleaning the shower from now on. (And I can only pray that he doesn’t do number two in the shower. But I digress.)
“I don’t think women can pee in the shower,” I said.
“Because they don’t have the right equipment for it.” (Not that I’ve ever felt penis envy, except while camping, but this comes close.)
He stuck with, “Why not?”
“Because it would run down their legs.”
“And don’t you wash your legs?”
“Well, you wouldn’t want to pee in the tub if you were having a bath instead of a shower,” I retorted.
He allowed as how I was right on that one. Except neither of us takes baths anymore since we had walk-in showers installed.
We left it at that, mercifully. But I was reminded that someone once told me that the definition of a gentleman was someone who took the dishes out of the sink before he peed in it.
You might not think this dilemma comes up too often, except possibly when the kitchen and bedroom are both on the first floor and the bathroom is on the second. But I have heard (from a reliable source) that one man of her acquaintance used to relieve himself in the sink with some regularity. He was even proud to have saved the six steps from the sink to the bathroom. (I don’t know what he did with those extra steps, but presumably his FitBit does.)
I do miss the baths, though. I like to relax in a near-boiling hot tub of water and pretend I’m a big ol’ tea bag. I find it soothing. I am sure this love of baths is because as children, we only took baths, never showers. And my love of tea.
Then there’s the sink bath, which you should only take if you’re sure there’s not a sink-peeing man in the house. Say you’ve forgotten something at the store and don’t feel the occasion deserves a full shower. Use the quick-sink- rinse-smelly-bits-wash-upTM. Wash underarms, underlegs, underboobs, and face (though not in that order). A dab of deodorant, a swish of mouthwash, and you’re ready to go, at least if you’re not likely to engage in a big group hug, which, in my experience, seldom happens at Target.
But we started this discussion in the shower, and that’s where we’ll end it. Personally, I recommend the kind of shower with built-in seats and grab rails and even those inane little rubber ducky stickers. Even with slightly pebbled texture, those surfaces can be slippery. When you’re sitting in a bathtub, it’s nearly impossible to break any bones, but in a shower, it’s relatively a long way down. And I, for one, don’t care to have the rescue squad see me in my all-togethers.
Footnote: For no reason that I can determine, my post “What Is It with Showers Anyway” (https://bipolarme.blog/2017/03/05/what-is-it-with-showers-anyway/) has proved unexpectedly popular. Here’s an excerpt from it:
First I have to find a clean towel and a bar of soap, get undressed without seeing myself in the mirror, fiddle with the water temperature, wash and shampoo, dry off, find clean underwear, and that’s not even thinking about drying my hair and figuring out what I can wear! Oh, my God, I’ve used up all my spoons just thinking about it! I should just eat Cocoa Puffs and go back to bed.
This is my maternal grandmother, Winnie Rose.
We visited her less often than my Kentucky relatives because she lived in Florida. In fact, my first airplane flight was a trip to see her. To give you an idea how long ago that was, DisneyWorld was not yet built, though there was a Visitor Center with a 3D model of how it might look someday. (I didn’t make it to DisneyWorld until I was an adult, when I went with some friends. But I digress.)
Grandma Rose loved fishing and handed down her love of it to my mother. In her old age, my mother took to fishing at local ponds with her church friends or at the city’s recreational center’s pond. She brought home her catch and fried it, unless the pond was labeled “catch and release.” These fresh fish meals disturbed my husband who, despite his occasional desire to be a mountain man, hated to eat any animal that he saw caught or killed.
Once when we visited Grandma, we all went deep-sea fishing. I don’t remember catching anything, but Grandma caught a red snapper, which of course we ate, my husband not being on the scene yet. I wasn’t seasick while I was on the boat, but after I got back to land I was definitely woozy and wobbly.
Grandma also fished from a rowboat, and this solved a family argument. When we kids were teens, we desperately wanted go-go boots. (Remember those?) Our parents wouldn’t get them for us, claiming that they didn’t give enough ankle support, which we thought was just a pretext. Then we learned that Grandma had go-go boots for fishing, as they were exactly the right height to keep water from sloshing inside. Needless to say, we got our go-go boots after all.
Once while we were visiting Grandma Rose, I dipped into her library. There I found mystery books – I particularly remember Nero Wolfe and Agatha Christie. My fascination with these books turned into a lifelong love of mysteries, from Robert Parker to Aaron Elkins to Sue Grafton to Sara Paretsky and many, many others. If there’s a mystery gene, I got it, though it skipped a generation. I also got the crossword and Scrabble genes from Grandma.
One of Grandma’s other hobbies was knitting. She knit fabulous sweaters for the family, all with a little tag inside that said “Made especially for you by Grandma Rose.” There the gene bred true. My mother took up crochet and I did needlepoint and Bargello, plus those awful hooked rug kits.
And lest you think that she was sedentary, in her youth she rode horses. Her other love was bowling. On bowling days, she ate a hearty breakfast of Rice Krispies over vanilla ice cream. It must have worked, because she had dozens of bowling trophies, patches, and other memorabilia. In fact, she went bowling in her 90s, the week before she died.
As you can see from the picture, Grandma Rose had gorgeous, snow-white hair, which used to be naturally red, until her husband died, killed by a drunk driver. After he died, she no longer kept up the red color that he had loved. If I had been born with red hair, instead of acquiring it later, I would have been named Winnie.
Occasionally, Grandma would visit us in Ohio. There was a spare bedroom that we always referred to as Grandma’s room (though it would have made more sense to use it so my sister and I could sleep in separate rooms, at least when we got old enough to fight).
I wish we had lived closer together so that I could have spent more time with her, sharing our mutual hobbies. But I’m glad this picture survived so that I can remember her as I knew her – an active, creative woman who raised lovely flowers, plus three boys and one girl, my mother.
It was an ordinary farmhouse, located outside Beattyville, Kentucky. But there was a secret inside that we kids loved. The kitchen, of course, was the best room to be in. But getting there was even more fun. The kitchen was obviously an add-on to the house, and the entry points to it included not just a door but a window, leading from one of the bedrooms to the kitchen. Of course, we never used the door like the grownups did.
The house belonged to our Cousins Addie and Jim Mainous. They were old even when we used to visit them during the summers. But every day, Cousin Addie hand-made biscuits and sawmill gravy. (Sawmill gravy is different from redeye gravy. Sawmill gravy uses milk. Redeye gravy uses coffee. But I digress.) The kitchen was painted black, but there was lots of sunshine coming in the windows and the back door. It wasn’t at all gloomy. It was warm and cozy and smelled like the biscuits that were rolled out with a drinking glass and cut to size using the mouth of the same glass.
Addie was a thin woman with a big laugh, who almost never wore her dentures. All I remember ever seeing her wear were dark cotton dresses and white aprons. Cousin Jim always seemed to be sitting at the kitchen table, not talking but drinking coffee and eating biscuits and gravy. We kids used to make butter in the authentic churn, which would now be an expensive antique.
In the living room, we found old paper or cardboard fans that were printed with the names of churches and funeral homes. The beds we slept in were much taller than those we were used to, which made climbing into them a workout. Just beside the house was a kitchen garden, which was endlessly diverting. We pulled up carrots and potatoes (which were usually not full-grown yet).
A little ways from the house was a barn, and it was the site of many adventures. There was a hayloft that contained bales of straw (not hay), but we were too young and timid to jump from it, as kids always do in the movies. There was also a fascinating old iron machine that took the kernels off the cobs of dried corn. We loved using it, though it turned out later that the corn cobs were meant to be left whole. There was also a mule, which I once got to ride bareback. Here’s some advice: Never ride a mule bareback. Their spines are very bony.
Across the road from the farmhouse was a hill that led to an ancient family cemetery. It made a nice walk to swing on the gate across the path and trek up there. I don’t know for sure, but I like to think of Addie and Jim being buried there and not in some huge cemetery far from their home.
Just a ways down the road, there was a drive-in theater, which we could see from the screened-in back porch. It was fun to watch the movies, especially the cartoons, even with no sound. Another nearby attraction was Natural Bridge State Park. There was an impressive lodge that we never stayed in, but where we could buy that sugary white candy that seems mostly made of air and dissolves in your mouth. We took pictures of each other standing under the bridge, though I don’t have them anymore.
If Beattyville had a town center, we never saw it. Down the road from the farm was a small gas station owned by Ollie Dooley, a more distant relative, but you couldn’t really say it was in a populated area. The areas we got to see were in the hill country of Kentucky, which we called “the mountains,” though they were nothing like the mountains they have out west. These were sometimes steep, rolling mountains, grassy and rocky, full of minerals.
Fracking didn’t exist back then, and I am glad. I’m sure the old farmhouse and barn are gone now. They were old when we visited them, and they can’t have survived or been rebuilt. And no one today would want a house with a black kitchen that you could enter through a window from the bedroom.
Last week I wrote about Kentucky relatives on my father’s side of the family. This week’s reminiscences are of Kentucky folks on my mother’s side.
Our Uncle Sam (yes, I had an actual Uncle Sam, and an Aunt Jemima whom I never met) and Aunt June lived on a farm outside of Campton, Kentucky. We took the Bluegrass Parkway, which was then a toll road, to get there. Every summer, we vacationed there for a week or two, along with visiting other relatives in the area.
We often stayed a night in Campton, where my Aunt Thelma ran a small hotel (Roses’ Hotel) and general store right across from the town diner, which had much to recommend it, including jukebox access at every table, and a pinball machine. (Note: I have no idea whether Uncle Sam, Aunt June, and Aunt Thelma were actually my aunts and uncles. They could well have been second grand-uncles and great-grand-aunts twice removed, for all I know. The only titles we used for any relatives other than Granny (Coburn) and Grandma (Rose) were aunt, uncle, and cousin. But I digress.)
The general store was notable to us kids for having a wide assortment of penny candy where we could get root beer barrels, red hots, and Sugar Daddy pops. There were clothing and tools in the back, but we never made it farther than the candy counter.
Uncle Sam, down the road a ways, was a sharecropper. He owned the land where the house was, on one side of the road, and farmed the other side of the road for some other owner. He had cows and chickens and a horse. When I brought my then-fiance Dan to visit, he and Uncle Sam went off to bring in the cows. Dan, having no experience with cows, wandered along behind them with a stick, while Uncle Sam made polite conversation by pointing at various plants and asking, “Do they have those where you come from, Mr. Reily?”
Sam’s wife, Aunt June, was a round, comfy woman with bright, black eyes, who was at least part Native American. She was famous for her biscuits. Dan won her heart when, just before we left, he stuffed his pockets full of them.
We had, I would say, a strained relationship with the chickens. We would try to gather eggs for breakfast, but were never assertive enough to reach under the squawking and pecking fowl and collect the eggs. An adult had to be summoned for that. I was also mildly traumatized when I saw Aunt June wring a chicken’s neck for that night’s dinner, and I learned what the saying “like a chicken with its head cut off” really meant. I still ate the fried chicken, though.
The horse was another matter. We loved to ride it, but once when I was on its back, one of the farm dogs came yipping at its heels and the horse took off at what seemed to me great speed toward the barn door. The closed barn door. I bailed off sideways into the cornfield and the horse sensibly stopped when it got to the barn door. But for a moment, it was terrifying.
There was lots to do at Uncle Sam and Aunt June’s. There was a fishing pond. The path to the pond was lined with blackberry bushes and if we visited at the right time of year, we picked the berries on our way to the pond. I don’t remember catching any bluegills longer than about three inches, of which we enormously proud, but which were fed to the barn cats.
Another notable feature of the house was the plumbing, or the lack thereof. There was running water in the house for washing or cooking, but there was no inside toilet. Instead, we had to make do with the outhouse or, at night, with the “slop jar” under the bed. The bed was cozy with handmade quilts and it seemed a shame to leave their warmth to grab a flashlight to trudge to the outhouse.
Living along with Sam and June were our cousins, C.B. (Benny) and Betty Sue. C.B. was kind of a hellraiser and too old to be interested in young cousins, but Betty Sue, although among the shyest persons I’ve ever met, liked to hang around with us. Later in life, she became an attendant in a senior care facility.
The farm was a special place, with a traditional porch and rocking chairs. If it wasn’t too hot – and it often wasn’t, this being in the Kentucky hill country – we would sit and rock and drink lemonade from Mason jars.
Perhaps my memories of these idylls are why Dan and I choose to spend weekend getaways at a bed and breakfast called The Farm, where we get a small cabin with a porch and rocking chairs, beds with patchwork quilts, chickens and goats and rabbits that have the run of the barn and the yard, and huge country breakfasts. We’re going again this August, and I can’t wait.
Not a lot of people know it, but I was born in Kentucky and lived there for the first four years of my life. My father, who was very attached to his mother, took us to visit on school or government long weekends, and sometimes even regular weekends. Summer vacation invariably involved a trip to see Granny, Pete, and Willie; Uncle Sam and Aunt June and their kids, C.B. and Betty Sue; and Cousin Addie.
One object of all this travel and family bonding was to make sure we kids didn’t pick up “Northern” accents, which I did anyway through speech and debate classes and watching Walter Cronkite on the evening news. I could still pull out a Kentucky accent when needed, such as when trying to appall my sorority sisters in college.
I suppose I should start with Granny, Pete, and Willie, who lived in a small house in Lexington. Granny was my father’s mother, and Pete and Willie were dad’s siblings. Pete was actually named Edna Mae. As far as I know, the origins of the name Pete are lost in the mists of time, and no one ever called her Edna Mae unless they were mad at her.
She was, frankly, a homely woman with thick ankles, but we loved her dearly. She had a good heart and a sly sense of humor that seldom showed itself, except when we kids did something goofy, like when I go-go danced for Granny to “Winchester Cathedral.” Every year for Christmas she gave me and my sister identical presents, differing only in color. The gifts always included an Avon roll-on perfume and a box of stationery.
Granny’s house was wonderful. There was a magnolia tree and a peach tree in front, and a black walnut in back. There were touch-me-nots growing all along the front porch and we loved to pop the fuzzy little pods and scatter the seeds everywhere.
We kids had the run of the house and Granny would frequently open her coin purse and give us spare change so we could go down the street to the store to buy penny candy. Next door was a parking lot that connected to the back door of a laundromat. We would often take the shortcut to get to the Woolworth quicker for comic books and sundaes.
Granny had long, white hair – I doubt if she had ever cut it. I still remember her sitting in a chair, with her hair flowing down the back, and Pete brushing and braiding it for her, then wrapping it in a neat coil at the nape of her neck.
We kids loved the coal fire grates that heated the house for the longest time – they were replaced later with gas heaters, which weren’t nearly as much fun. Pete had one of those old popcorn poppers that was a rectangular basket with a sliding lid. We held it over the coal fire and shook it until it was full of popped corn, then emptied it into a bowl and start over.
Names are different in Kentucky. My dad, James Robert, was invariably known as Jim Bob. All names ending in A were pronounced “ie. I was surprised when I went on an ancestry site and found my grandmother listed there as Calla. We all knew her as Callie. There was also a Callie Jo in the family, who smoked cigarettes and had a questionable reputation. Naturally, I found her fascinating, as she was the only “bad girl” I had ever met up until that time.
When Pete died, I was chosen to represent the Ohio branch of the family as my father was bed-ridden with cancer at the time. When I returned, I described the funeral to him, including the car that followed the hearse and was filled with flowers. “A truck,” he insisted. I knew he was talking about what she deserved rather than my account of what actually happened. Apart from relatives, most of the people there were from the Greyhound Bus company, where she had worked all her life.
There’s lots more to tell about my other Kentucky relatives, but I think I’ll save that for another time.
When people ask how my husband and I met, I tell them the Reader’s Digest Condensed (clean) version: At the Philadelphia Folk Festival, introduced by mutual friends. Which is true, as far as it goes. But it fails to capture the essence of the experience.
I’ll never forget my first sight of Dan. He was wearing a t-shirt that said Dr. Demento (which his coworkers at the psychiatric hospital had given him) and a patch over one eye. The patch was to cover a missing glasses lens, but it gave him a certain piratical air, and I’m known to have a weakness for pirates.
We were introduced by mutual friends, who had come with Dan to the Festival. We were all in front of the Alferd G. Packer Memorial Food Tent. (If that reference isn’t familiar to you, Packer was the leader of the Donner Party of explorers, who got lost and made a meal of one another. But I digress.)
Dan and I were on committees to help us pay our way, but we were on different ones. He was on the grounds committee, which had access to any part of the festival area and helped construct stages, booths, and the like. By the time the festival started, they had done their work and were free to enjoy themselves.
I was on the camping committee, which patrolled the tented area and its borders, making sure that no one set their tents on fire by letting their campfires burn out of control. (There was also a security committee, a tickets committee, a medical committee, and there must have been a food committee who set up the food tent, but I don’t want to think about that too much.)
I was also at the Festival with a group of friends, including Uncle Phil, my soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend Rex, and a good friend from college. Uncle Phil was the catalyst for all that ensued, as he was the person that nearly everyone in both groups knew. We and several other friends and acquaintances had tents around a shared, large campfire, where at night we talked, drank, made music, and sang.
That night at the campfire, Dan purposely sat next to me, though I didn’t think anything of it at the time. Later, when he had to excuse himself for a moment, he leaned over and kissed me. I clearly remember thinking, “Why is this man kissing me?” (I was a little slow, or maybe both fast and slow.)
That evening Dan invited me to take a walk with him, and his all-access Grounds pass got us into Dulcimer Grove, a small, isolated venue where small, intimate concerts and workshops were given. This time when Dan kissed me I had some idea of why. We were there a long time before we rejoined the campfire.
After that, Dan and I were inseparable (which mightily pissed off a number of the friends that we were there with). Dan even got me into the Grounds Committee compound, which had the marvelous amenity of a shower. An outdoor shower, but still. It was a luxury that existed nowhere else on the Festival site, to my knowledge. Of course, since he was so nice as to offer, I availed myself of it.
By the time the Festival was over, Dan and I were a couple. My by-then-ex boyfriend left for New Jersey with my college friend. I borrowed money from everyone I knew to get busfare back to Ithaca. Dan drove me to the bus station and gave me two gifts: an enameled necklace and a bag of banana chips. I don’t know what happened to the two people Dan had been there with, except that one of them eventually forgave us.
Dan and I saw each other again the next weekend. I had invited him to a large house party. Neither one of us attended it, which, believe me, was the better choice. Most of the same people from Philly were there, and it seemed best not to stir the pot. We had to make ourselves a little party of two, occupying a friend’s attic while the friend went to the house party.
Then we went our separate ways, he to Philly and me, soon after, back to Ohio to live. We maintained our long-distance relationship with letters, phone calls, and the occasional visit. (This was in the days before cellphones and texting.) Eventually, Dan moved out to Ohio (as I knew he would) and after a spell of actual dating, we married.
We have since been back to the Philly Folk Festival a few times, most notably on our honeymoon, but we have never made it back on any of our anniversaries, as jobs and such made it impossible to get away at the right time. Maybe for our 40th anniversary, next August.