I’ve Been Called Worse

“You know what, Grandma?”

Jesse and his brothers had just spent his spring break at our house. As we headed back to their home in Illinois, he cast an appraising eye toward me from his seat in the van.

“You’re like the grandma in Garfield.”

I hadn’t realized that there was a grandma in the comic strip. Basically, all I remembered was the orange-colored cat known for his sheer laziness, sarcasm, arrogance, hate of Mondays, and passion for food.

My grandson didn’t care to elaborate. But later, in the blessed post-spring-break quietness of a freshly-cleaned house, I read the comic for the first time in decades.

And Jesse was right. I found a grandma. Like a long-distance grandma, she doesn’t appear often, showing up mostly for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and a few times, in between.

Under her white hair pulled starkly into a bun, she wears out-sized glasses and sports a double chin. And her pink and green sweat suit couldn’t be dowdier.

It’s good I looked a little closer.

Garfield, I found, likes this grandma.  Sarcastic enough to add some spice, she also pats the trouble-making cat on the head and cuddles him on her lap, sending him into soothing and serene states. Despite her age, she exudes energy. And while she provides moments of nostalgia, she also rides a motorcycle.

I’m not sure which parts of this Garfield grandma Jesse had in mind. I know that I have a propensity for sarcasm and I’m blind without my glasses. And I know I don’t ride a motorcycle. But I’m not sure about the rest. Was Jesse commenting on my sagging skin? Calling me a dowdy dresser?  Noticing my greying hair?


But I also hope he remembered that I had kept pace with him and his long-legged brothers as we walked across the Ohio River on the Roebling Bridge, how I made his favorite shrimp casserole for dinner, and how I tousled his hair before he went to bed each night.

All in all, I can live with being called a Garfield grandma.

I’ve heard worse.

Lickin’s in the Good Old Days

Back in the good old days, my mom’s neighbor would stop her on the way home from school.

“Did ya learn anything?,” Mr. Maust would ask. “Did ya get a lickin’?”

And when she shook her head, because, of course, my mom would never get a licking, he’d wrinkle his brow in disapproval.

“No lickin’, no learnin’,” he’d say.

Though my mom learned without a lickin,’ she saw plenty of them. Once, for example, she felt the wind from a rubber hose as it flew by her ear. The teacher was whipping Frank Kemp.

A bad boy, for sure, Frank was always in trouble. Once he stole my mom’s prize pencil box. She thought it was lost from her forever, until a sleuthing classmate found it.

Still she felt sorry for Frank when he was at the end of that rubber hose. And she wondered about her neighbor’s reasoning. Frank wasn’t setting any records in learning.

My mom wasn’t the only one with paddling stories to tell her children. I’ve told stories, myself. My teachers had paddles two feet long, with holes that let them whistle through the air. The cracks of these paddles sounded through doors and down halls. And some kids couldn’t sit down the rest of the day. They had to stand in the back of the class to nurse their hind parts.

Those kids didn’t set records for learning, either.

When I was a teacher, I taught plenty of kids who needed plenty of help being good. But I saw no positive correlation between learning and the kids who were paddled in the office down the hall from my classroom.

I was teaching when Ohio banned corporal punishment in public schools. And I was glad to be done with that part of the good old days.

Captured Moments

On Saturday, we’ll gather to celebrate my mother-in-law’s life. Her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren will fly into Michigan from Hawaii, Nicaragua, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Utah, and New Mexico. They will drive from Maine, Illinois, Wisconsin, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio.

While we wait for the generations to gather, we’ve been tiptoeing through my mother-in-law’s life, collecting photos. Here are a few:

Milk Maids: Anna Mae (far left) with some of her sisters, dressed for milking with aprons and boleros to protect their dresses. After milking, they delivered the milk on the way to school, always hoping the delivery would go quickly and not make them late.

Wedding Picture: Anna Mae was born on Christmas Day and married on Christmas Day.

Christmas Day with a growing family: Six children have been born with three more to come, twins next.

Cataract surgery

Sixtieth wedding anniversary

In the last meeting with our grandchildren, Anna Mae is explaining that she grew up in the thumb of Michigan and that her husband, their great-grandpa, grew up on the other side of Saginaw Bay. Sometimes the bay froze deep enough to drive across on the ice.

Each of our grandchildren are now left with memories of an engaged  great-grandma and a blanket she made.

One Last Vigil

One last night of vigil.

One last prayer.

One last breath.

But memories that last.

Praying with her great-grandchildren (my grandchildren) the last time they visited her.

Keeping Vigil

In my almost seventy years, I had never kept vigil. This month, I’ve done it twice, once with a friend and tonight with my mother-in-law. Lighting in her room is muted, medicine charts line the table, and the oxygen machine hums and hisses and crackles in a certain rhythm. From the bed comes the more uncertain whiffled breathing of my mother-in-law.

Otherwise, the room is hushed. Besides the rise and fall of her chest, my mother-in-law is unmoving—all of her, but most notably her hands. They lay by her sides, age spotted and veined, no longer gripping a cane or a hoe or the hand of a child, no longer shelling peas or writing letters, no longer holding a telephone to her ear.

 I wonder how many hours she listened. When we traveled from Ohio to visit her in Mt. Morris, Michigan, we’d sit in her kitchen and watch as the world seemed to call. People called her from prison cells, from across the street, from across the country, from sick beds, and from shoebox-sized rooms at the YMCA. We’d watch her wind her long phone cord through the kitchen, the receiver wedged between her shoulder and her ear, so she could chop and mix and sauté as she listened and sympathized and guided.

For most of her ninety-nine years, she lent an ear and gave a hand. And that’s why the stillness of this room is so striking. It doesn’t fit my mother-in-law. Nor does it fit me. I’m not given to such quietude. Keeping vigil, I am finding, is a time to stay in place, to pray and sing and touch and remember. In this room, a reverence seems to be rising. And in this sacred space, we wait.

Caught in a Web

I dropped out in first grade. I kept going to school, where I loved to read and write and add and subtract. But in the middle of my very first art lesson, I began to hate art. And all through grade school, I never changed my mind.

On the other side of the classroom windows, autumn had hit its stride as trees let loose their orange and gold and berry-red leaves. The teacher gestured toward this swirling show and brightly announced the fall art project.

I was with her. Already she had shown me that math was beautiful and precise, that words on a page opened windows to faraway places and long-ago times, that with my pencil I could transport a thought from my mind to a paper. So when she held up red and orange and brown construction paper and scissors and glue, I expected more magic.

“Snip the paper into little pieces,” she told us. “These will become leaves that you’ll glue to the branches of the tree you’ll draw.”

The gluing undid me. My fingers became so drenched that the snips clung to them instead of the branches. The snips bled their colors into the glue, staining my hands orange and gold and berry-red. And when I dabbed with a tissue, it stuck and shredded until my hands seemed trapped like a fly in the web of a spider.

This is when I gave up on art.

And this was a moment I remembered as I taught the dropouts in my classes. They were also caught in webs. Their brains worked fine but their pencils couldn’t deliver. Or their attention was hijacked by every movement and sight and smell in the room. Or their emotions were laid open, raw and bleeding from last night’s beating with a belt buckle.

The impact of a failed art project is nothing compared to being at the end of a belt buckle or learning with a brain that doesn’t fit usual teaching styles. But that first-grade memory made me a better teacher, moving me to provide ways out of webs, not enlarge them.

In a Groove

Though I was a restless kid, I could spend hours watching records spin. By placing a record on the turntable and dropping the stylus into a groove, I could hear the Obernkirchen Children’s choir sing “The Happy Wanderer” or Horowitz play Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” or my Miller family harmonize “Night on the Hills” in four parts on one of the long-play records they made.

How could these sounds that belonged in Germany and Carnegie Hall and the mountains of Western Maryland come out of the grooves and through the speaker to fill our living room in Flint, Michigan?

As the music played, I’d watched the stylus follow its intricate path, moving back and forth, back and forth, as the record rotated, but always—well, almost always—staying in the groove.

The habits of the stylus were in contrast to my helter-skelter life. I left books at school when I needed them for homework and at home when I needed them for class. Books and magazines littered my bedroom floor. I stayed up late reading and slept past my alarm. For these transgressions, I received detentions and demerits and extra work at home.

In contrast to my haphazard ways, I admired how the stylus found the groove and made music by steadfastly following it. When I heard the idiom in the groove, I knew exactly what it meant. And I began to see that for something to be groovy—as we, in that day, called anything marvelous or excellent—someone had likely followed a purposeful path.

I remember my conscious decision in seventh grade to get into groove. That’s when I began devising systems to tame my scattered life. I stuffed reminder notes into my shoes and kept homework lists. I put my books in my school satchel every night before I went to bed. And when I got out of groove, I looked for ways to get back in.

Ever since seventh grade, I’ve kept adapting my systems. I no longer stuff notes into my shoes. But I snooze emails to remind me of deadlines and set my cell phone clock and keep lists and follow daily routines.

It’s easier, these days, to play Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” All I have to do is ask Alexa. But I miss placing a record on a turntable and watching the stylus run through the grooves.

What I Learned in a One-Bathroom House

I grew up in a one-bathroom house. And with no second half-bath tucked away in the corner, nine of us competed for that space.

Even with no one in it, the bathroom was cramped with nine toothbrushes, a medicine cabinet that let go its contents if you opened the door, an almost-always empty roll of toilet paper on its holder, damp towels, a potty-chair in the corner, and a large toothpaste tube, squeezed in the middle. If you were sharing a sink to spit toothbrush water with a sibling, the walls seemed to bulge.

To take a bath, I had to first take a poll. I’d go through the entire house, asking everyone the same question.

“Do you have to go to the bathroom?”

This is how I learned early to distrust polls. Just as I’d sink into hot soapy water, a younger sibling would bang on the door.

“Gotta go!”

“I just ask you five minutes ago,” I’d begin, even though I already knew the answer.

“Didn’t have to go then!”

Our parents weren’t sympathetic. They, after all, had grown up with outhouses and chamber pots. Going to them with our complaints was sure to bring on stories of holding noses while emptying chamber pots, of bundling up while doing the bathroom dance before traipsing through snow to sit on an ice-cold seat, and of then trying to do your business while you shivered away.

“Way back when,” my dad would say, “even kings and queens didn’t have it as good as you do. This will teach you to deal with life.”

He was right, and here’s what we learned:

  • To be efficient—Get in and get out, this was the mantra. No reading on the toilet, no dawdling in the tub, no daydreaming in front of the mirror. And if something, like combing hair or clipping nails, could be done outside the bathroom, find some other place.
  • To be aware of human biological realities—A lot of earthy things happened in that tiny bathroom. We saw filled-up potty chairs and globs of toothpaste spit in the sink, and we could tell when a little brother hadn’t bothered to take an aim. The sights and smells and sounds of that room toughened us to change our children’s diapers a decade later and, still later, to care for elderly parents.
  • To give way when others’ needs encroach on our own—We learned to speed it along at a knock on a door and to form a line and wait for a turn. But we also discovered that to be equitable, things can’t always be equal—that, for example, younger children would be moved ahead of us in line.

And though we didn’t appreciate these one-bathroom house lessons then, they helped us grow up.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should mention that our family had an escape hatch, a luxury most families on our street didn’t have. Living in a parsonage, the church, with two perfectly good restrooms, was just across the drive. And we knew how to get in the back door.

My dad was right. Way back when, even kings and queens didn’t have it this good.


Last week, the walls came tumbling down. As I stood at the demolition site of the crumpling, century-old school, my mind took me back. Hands clammy cold and heart pounding, I had walked through its columned doors and up a wide staircase to interview with the principal for a teaching job.

“Your kids got you the job,” he told me later. “They went through this school on auto-pilot.”

Noticing my raised eyebrow, he added, “That and your credentials.”

Computers first came to school while I was teaching in this building, and with them came word-processing and the internet.

“How can we teach kids to spell,” we wondered aloud during lunch in the teachers’ lounge, “when they have spell-check? How will we teach to them to research when they have the internet?”

In those first years of my teaching, I didn’t have much in my toolbox. To discipline students, for example, I relied on issuing demerits and sending kids to the office.

“Don’t make the office the authority in your classroom,” the assistant principal warned me. “Be your own authority.

In this now-collapsing building, I had discovered how to do this, one hard lesson at a time.

As the excavating machines rumbled on, grabbing at brick and mortar with their jaws, I stared at the empty sky where my old classroom had been. Of all my old classrooms, I had loved this one the most. It had high ceilings, generous windows, oiled, wide-plank floors, and miles of slate chalkboards that accepted chalk eagerly, making each marking so vivid it drew the eyes. And around the sides of the room was plenty of space for bookshelves and quiet nooks.

But no matter its charm, the school had to come down. Water had been freezing and thawing in the walls, bricks were falling off its exterior, plaster was bubbling up in the classrooms, and if you took a wrong step, your foot might go right through the floor.

It was an old, worn-out school, but still I felt sad.

I brought a brick home with me. I’d like to think it came from wall outside my classroom. I plan to chip the mortar off it and use it as a bookend for my how-to-teach books. But I don’t need a brick to remember the classroom where I learned more from my students than they learned from me.