Tag Archives: childhood

Little Moments: Diet Pepsi


In the corner of my grandfather’s carry-out, I sat on a ripped, green vinyl chair.  I could feel the cotton stuffing coming through the cracked vinyl on the back of my thighs and the cold metal of the legs left cool ghosts on my calves.  Fans buzzed and turned back and forth tirelessly and the ding of the cars coming through the drive-thru was constant.  Sticky yellow flystrips dangled from the ceiling, speckled with victims and swaying with the fans as I watched my grandfather and my mother move busily behind the counter, scanning lottery tickets, passing 12-packs through customer’s car windows, and packing their cigarettes.

It was summer in Ohio in the 1990s, and the fields were green, the sun was hot, and my shoulders were freckled.  Inside the fluorescent lights of the store, my skin looked even darker as I picked at my knee.  I spun the vinyl chair back and forth waiting for my mother to come with the acid.  That summer, warts decided to pop up all over my right knee.  I was horrified.  I spent afternoons on the picnic table with my cousins finding ways to cover my knee and spent days at the pool with towels draped over my legs.

When we went to the doctor, he said, “Typical.  Only way to get rid of them is to kill the mother.  Kill the mother and you’ll kill them all.”

“Which is the mother,” we asked.

“You won’t know until you kill her,” he replied.

So we bought liquid acid in a small glass jar, stuff that dried in hard white caps, and put it over each wart on my knee.  We liked to guess which one was the mother and and my mom would cuss as she put the acid onto my skin, “Damn you, mother wart.”  Mom made jokes, her permed hair brushing my arm as she bent down to look at my leg.  I watched her dip the wand into the brown bottle and lean down close.  I cringed through the burning sensation that came with each dab of the brush.  Mom blew onto the clear liquid, turning it white as it dried.

Once she covered them all, she stood up and twisted the top off of a glass bottle of Diet Pepsi.  “Do you want the first swig?  It’s my favorite, but I’ll let you have it,” she smiled.  Her eyes twinkled and I looked at her hands as she extended the bottle to me.  Her skin was the same color as my shoulders and her knuckles were large between slim finger bones.

“Sure,” I said, taking it from her with both of my hands.  I looked up at her as I tipped the bottle back and leaned into the vinyl.  Mom lit a cigarette – a Misty Menthol – and took a long draw while I admired the rainbow on the square package sticking out of her jeans pocket.  She wiggled her eyebrows at me and I handed her back the bottle with my stubby fingers.  I was always envious of her long sturdy digits and the strength in her hands.

She took the Diet Pepsi from me and tilted her head back.  She drank it like Cindy Crawford did in the commercials, lips relaxed so that I could see the pop passing from the bottle into her mouth.  She handed it back to me and I greedily took a sip.  It was so different from that first sip, now tainted with smoke and menthol – and I loved it.  But she was right.  Nothing beat that first drink from a bottle of Diet Pepsi.

I felt her hand, cool and wet from the bottle, on my shoulder as she pushed me off the vinyl chair.  The rough edges of the cracks scratched my skin and the concrete floor felt cool against my bare feet.  “Now get back outside,” Mom said.  She took one more drink of the pop and handed me what was left of the bottle and sent me back across the blacktop to my grandparents’ farm house.


One night toward late summer, I climbed into bed and pulled my knees to my chest.  When I looked down, the warts were gone.  I yelled for my mom and she came bounding in to rejoice.  We’d killed the mother.

I have never slept as good as I did that night.  Each time my mother let’s me take the first swig of a Diet Pepsi we’re sharing, I remember the smell of vinyl and summer and victory.


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What to Expect When You’re Blah Blah Blah…

Yeah yeah yeah, you’re already offended.  Take this all with a grain of salt, as I have never been pregnant, and have never been a mother.

I don’t understand all this crazy “read every book-buy every new gadget-try every new fad” approach to parenting.  Have we not survived years without books on what to expect?  I mean, seriously, my cousins were talking about all of the things you aren’t supposed to do while you’re pregnant and my mom looked at me and said, “I did all of that…”  Then all the tests that they can do before the kid is born?  It’s crazy!

And then once that baby actually is born…it gets worse.  Baby yoga?

WTF is baby yoga?  Let the kid play and take the time to play with it.  There’s its exercise!  Not giving your kids gender roles to follow?  Not disciplining them?  Not letting them get hurt and learning what not to do?  Rushing over every time they bounce on their padded little asses?  Because society tells you to “let their children choose for themselves” and that discipline is “abuse”.  To each their own, though, I guess…

My point is, don’t get over-educated and buy into so much crap just because you “read” about it.  Instinct is good.  You don’t need a book to teach you instinct.


Posted by on December 29, 2011 in Raising My Youngins


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Catching Bees

Meghan and I spent a lot of time catching bugs, for whatever reason.  There was a certain time of year that the ladybugs covered the north side of the house.  We spent hours seeing how many we could fit into discarded Slim Jim jars from my grandpa’s carry-out.  I believe we probably had two hundred in one jar.  I still remember the smell of smashed ladybugs in the grooves of the lid and the sound of their wings cracking under the pressure as they tried to escape with each new capture.

A lot of the bug catching happened in and around the barn.  Spiders lurked in every slat and the woodpile was full of creepy crawlies.  When Grandma and Grandpa opened the cellar for cleaning, Meghan and I lined up mason jars and Slim Jim jars full of our bugs along the shelves and pretended to run a bug museum.  At the end of the day, we unscrewed the lids and watched them escape into the night.

I remember one day I was the only kid at Grandma and Grandpa’s, and there were hundreds of bees buzzing around the mud puddle.  It was hot, and the bees were moving lazily from one patch of mud to the next.  I found one of our Slim Jim jars with holes poked in the red plastic lid and perched on the small hill above the puddle.

I watched the bees rise and fall to the mud and crept up slowly.  I had gotten my first bee sting that summer after running through the fallen petals of the catalpa tree in the side yard, and I didn’t want to get another.  With the lid in one hand and the upside-down jar in the other, I slowly lowered it over one of the bees.  It immediately flew upwards toward the bottom of the clear jar, trying to escape to the sky.

I slowly slid the lid under the jar and retreated slowly.  I did this all afternoon, and eventually I had 29 bees in the same jar, and no stings.  And no matter how many times I flipped the jar upside-down or horizontal, the bees always flew up.

It occurs to me that whenever we try to escape something, we, like the bees, always go up.  It’s as though altitude makes us more untouchable, less vulnerable.  People take off on planes to vacation spots every day.  Bees go up.  When we’re running short of air in the pool, we go up.  When kids are afraid of something on the ground, they raise their hands to their parents and say, “Up!”  Goats climb things all the time just to be up.

Funny how humans, who are land animals, take such comfort in being “up.”


Posted by on October 18, 2011 in When I Was Young


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The Mud Puddle

At the request of my dear friend and former student, Jerry, I am writing again about my childhood.

My cousins and I spent every weekend on my grandparents’ farm, where we searched for Jessie Simmons’ tongue, and our sweet Grandma Cleobelle rarely let us in the house if it was nice out.  So we spent a lot of time inventing games, climbing trees, and getting into trouble.

This is my grandparents' barn. In front of this was the mud puddle.

In front of the barn, there was a perpetual mud puddle.  After it rained, it could be as deep as halfway up to our shins.  During the drought of 1988, it turned into flake clay mud that blew away in the dry wind.  But for the majority of my childhood, it was a mud puddle.

We rejoiced in riding our bikes through it, spraying water up on our backs and the cousins who were unlucky enough to ride behind us.  We filled water guns and Solo cups for water fights, and built mud pies out of the thick mud below the rocks.  And if we were lucky enough to find something that floated, we had make-believe sea adventures.  Even though Grandma wouldn’t let us into the house after such antics, we still played in the mud puddle, ate dinner with our muddy hands, and smear mud on our arms and faces like war paint.

What is it about a puddle, or mud, or dirt that draws children in?  Perhaps it’s an innate instinct to locate water and exist near it.  Perhaps it is just because we can.


Posted by on October 11, 2011 in When I Was Young


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Jessie Simmons’ Tongue Part 2

I apologize for being gone for so long.  The post I scheduled for Friday did not post for some reason.  I apologize.  However, here is the second half to Jessie Simmon’s Tongue.  Read Part 1 here.

Meghan and I spent days scouring the walls of the barn, looking for what we though might point us in the direction of the actual tongue. “Jessie Simmons lost her tongue here.” So literal to a kid under the age of ten: “Here.” The boys must have written it as they shoved the tongue into the dirt or into a box. They must have been proud of their work, but had to hide the evidence. What had she done to deserve that? As far as I could tell, nothing called for such extreme gestures.

We searched the walls of the barn doors and the back wall by the woodpile. We climbed over old engine parts and shovels, broken rakes and boxes of papers to the side walls to see if we could find the faintest hint of a word or two, but we found nothing. Meghan wanted to see this tongue, but I wasn’t so sure I could. I imagined it in a Garcia Vega cigar box, shriveled into hardly anything, looking a bit like the deer jerky my father ate. It seemed disrespectful, too, to look upon the tongue of a young girl, but in our minds, it was our duty to do it.

Avoiding half-hammered nails and splintered wood, we tried to look higher on the walls with a ladder, and when our parents weren’t looking, Meghan and I climbed into the hayloft where we were never supposed to go, stirring up dust that remains in my nose to this day, and stepped from plank to plank, over trash and cats and beer signs, even an old Bridge Out sign, to look with only a flashlight and what little sunlight found its way through the cracks. There was nothing up there, either, and our time was limited in the loft anyway. Had any one of our parents caught us up there, we surely would have gotten the kitchen spoon across our asses. The tinny sting reminded me of what the boy‟s thumb must have tasted like. But I think now it would have been worth it, to justify the injustice caused to that one Jessie Simmons.

Beaten and tired of looking, we asked our parents if they remembered where it had been on the walls of the barn.

“In the granary, but you can’t go in there.”

“Why not?” we asked, never having thought to look in the granary, pissed that the adventure might be put to an end. I felt Meghan pinch me and I looked at her. It wasn’t over.

“Because it’s packed full of Grandpa’s stuff from the store. And there are rats in there anyway. You can’t go in there.”

“Oh yeah?” Meghan and I ran out the door and into the barn. We tried to pry open the door to the granary, but it had been closed for so long that two kids were never going to provide enough force to open it. We settled for looking just for the tongue.

As the days and weeks passed, it eventually got old and we quit looking as much, but it was always in the back of my mind. Each summer we returned, devoted some time to looking for Jessie‟s tongue before we began to realize the scale of the world, of a tiny tongue to a huge barn. It would be nearly impossible.

I wondered if anyone had ever said anything to those boys. I bet they denied it up and down. How could they have done that? I had smashed my share of spiders on the walls, pushed little cousins into bushes with thorns and prickers, but I never seriously hurt anyone. I wanted to talk to Jessie, but realized that would have proven worthless. All I could see was the square stub of her tongue lashing about in her open mouth as she struggled to tell anyone what she was fighting for, who had done this to her, why they had done it. Her eyes must have been sad all the time after her tongue got cut, and I thought about how hard it would be to never be able to talk to her children or her grandchildren, if she ever found a way to fall in love with a boy. Taking  away the ability to talk makes everything a little difficult, and I can‟t imagine how one goes about French kissing or kissing at all.

We never found the tongue, and the truth was that we kind of let it go after a few summers. It came up in conversation, but only briefly, and I always imagined Jessie’s terrified face before Meghan started talking about something else. We moved on to climbing trees and keeping secrets from our younger counterparts. Once we started our periods, it seemed juvenile to worry about a tongue anymore. The talk turned to boys, and dating and where we were going to shop for school clothes. Until one day in the kitchen at Grandma and Grandpa’s house:

“Remember when we spent all those summers looking for Jessie Simmons’ tongue?” I asked.

“Yeah, we never did find it.” Meghan fiddled with something.

“We did.” My mom piped up.

“What?!” We both looked up at our mothers. Our parents had never assumed the seriousness of our mission.

“We found it.”

Recreating this conversation would be a jumbled mess, but the story alone is enough to make my question my own sanity as well as that of my family, maybe the entire northwestern part of Ohio.

All according to my mother, my grandparents and their children moved into the farm house on C.R. 185 on April 21, 1968. It was Grandma and Grandpa’s twelfth anniversary and all the kids were excited to finally live in the country, to have room to run, play baseball, normal kid things. That spring and summer, they explored the property, all the barns and buildings that were later torn down to build Grandpa’s “Gene’s Drive-Thru/Carry-Out.” One of those buildings had great red paintings on the insides of the doors and my mom and her siblings were convinced that Indians had done them with blood. Great, I think, we’ve been fascinated with blood for generations!

While they were playing house in the barn that still stands, they ventured into the granary to see what was there. It was on the wall there that they saw, what my mother late recalls, “Jessie Simmons lost her tongue here in 1938.” She is unsure of the year, which I fully believe is wrong. They were excited and ran into the house to tell their own mother about the writing on the wall. No part of the barn was left uncovered as they did what we did. They searched high and low for the tongue, even going so far as to dig up the sand floor of the barn to see if it had somehow shuffled beneath the loose grains. Their mother, my grandmother, even helped them look for it a few times.

After a couple of months, they “found it!” as my mother writes me. In one of the smaller stalls of the granary, she and her sisters uncovered a brown piece of gristle, shaped like a tongue, rough and covered in dirt. To them, it was the very tongue that was written about on the wall, the very one that had been cut from Jessie Simmons’ mouth in 1938. They picked it up and ran across the driveway and the backyard into the house to show my Grandma Cleobelle. She congratulated them, gave them an old Sucrets box to put their little treasure in, and shooed them outside. Mom remembers guarding the tongue for days, never letting it out of their sight. It was more valuable than anything they could have found in the barn. They had a human tongue, the cruelty of the boys, all in one sacred Sucrets box, and they fully intended on keeping it.

About a week later, Mom, her sisters Karen and MaryLynn, and her brother Mike were playing outside. The box was close-by, the unspoken words of Jessie Simmons unceremoniously screaming from a little tin box. And then came the incident. Mike got pissed off at the girls and managed to wrestle the box away from them. Without any warning, he dashed into the barn and flung the Sucrets box and Jessie Simmons‟ tongue up into the hayloft.

The girls wailed, cried for hours and told my grandma all about it. But they, like us, were not allowed to venture up into the hayloft, so a few days later, they convinced Mike to go up and get the tongue for them. They found the box, but the tongue was gone. They assumed that Jessie’s thankful spirit had come back to retrieve the tongue from the box in the barn and that she was able to speak again, wherever she was, if she hadn’t been granted the gift to speak after her death. After that, they had let it all go, happy that they’d done something for the poor girl who lost her tongue.

Once we found out that our mothers had looked for the tongue, too, I started to realize that it was a sick and twisted tradition. At this time, Meghan and I were old enough to understand that there probably wasn’t a real tongue in the barn at any point in time. This Jessie Simmons girl that I had imagined so many times probably just lost her tongue there in the barn, became speechless because of what someone said to her. Maybe those boys weren’t as vicious as I had made them as a child. Maybe one of them asked for her hand in marriage, or even a date, and left a spirited-tongued young woman lost for words. Which is still interesting, to think that this girl always had something to say and that a man could easily set her off kilter. Was that enough to make someone speechless? Men, love, lust.

But I was certainly not made speechless by the mistreatment of rodents. Or the fact that I spent so much time looking for a tongue. It took a lot to make a girl speechless if it wasn’t a matter of the heart.

Before my mind wandered too far, Grandma Cleobelle piped in, “We looked for it when we were little, too. You girls’ Uncle Joe and me.” Now wait a minute; three generations of women in my family looking for the tongue of a woman who never even lost her tongue? I stared at my tiny grandmother, her fingers immersed in bubbles at the sink and her shoulders sloped forward. The band-aids that capped off each finger were sopping wet, some of them held on by more layers of flesh-colored rubber. She smiled like she did when she’d been keeping a secret from us and it was all beginning to surface, the way she did on Christmas morning when we sat around the dining room and poured through mountains of paper to the gifts she spent hours wrapping. Her eyes disappeared in laugh lines, and her cheeks became tight, right up under her eyes, and she looked young again. In one of Grandpa‟s shirts and torn up shorts, Grandma Cleo scratched the back of her calf with her toes and raised her eyebrows, a silent, “You didn’t see that comin’, didja?”

It turns out that when she was little, Grandma and her brother Joe and sister Pat used to come down to the farm where they live now to pick asparagus and raspberries. Their uncle lived across the street and before that, a family named LaRue owned the land. While the kids were out in the fields doing the farm work, they took breaks to play around and in turn, found the writing on the wall and searched for the tongue throughout their childhood…

So to break this down, my grandma and her siblings looked for this tongue, never found it, and eventually moved into the house. Grandma let her own kids look high and low for this tongue, even going so far as to help them look for it, humor them when they found a piece of gristle that was probably stole by a cat from the pork chop waste, and dragged into the barn. Later, they tell my cousins and me the story and we spend hours, days, summers looking for this damned tongue that would have surely decayed. My mother recalls now that the writing on the wall said, “Jessie Simmons temporarily lost her tongue here in 1938.” Temporarily. They asked Grandma what that meant, and she told them that it meant nothing, that a girl had really lost her tongue in the barn. And because we never actually found the writing on the wall, the “temporarily” never tripped us up.

I don’t know whether to feel misled when I think about the times I actually spent looking for that tongue. It was fun.

It seems like a cruel joke, a sick thing to talk about, especially through three generations, but it’s a good story, worth a good chuckle, a great way to get someone to look at you with horrified eyes. I take some sort of sick pleasure in seeing the faces of people who I talk to about my hometown, and I think I tell them the gross stuff on purpose. Why not? Why not let them see what I am, where I came from, what I’m doing? Blood is nothing, animal cruelty, nothing in regard to the animals that are not our friends. Mistakes happen on the farm. They have to.

After I found out that the story was kind of a joke passed down from one generation to the next, I started to wonder if Jessie Simmons had actually existed. In a list of Sandusky County residents in 1905, sure enough, there was a Thomas C. Simmons listed and he lived in Clyde, one and a half miles from Greek Creek Township. He was an American fruit grower. He owned thirty acres. Do you know what else? He was married to a Mrs. Elva Simmons. Children? You bet. Thaddeus, Edith. And Jessie.


Posted by on May 16, 2011 in When I Was Young


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Jessie Simmons’ Tongue

It must have been a summer day when all my cousins were packed into the old farmhouse in Clyde. Our skin must have already had enough of the sun as we rolled on the dingy green carpet in the kitchen. The blacktop must have already burnt our feet because we had them propped up on chairs, the residue of asphalt still rich on our skin. The air must have been too heavy to cuddly furry kittens against our necks and the plastic sun chairs must have been sticking to our thighs, because instead, we chose to lounge in front of the fans in the living room. It must have been one of those days where we were driving our parents crazy, getting in the way of Grandma’s cooking lunch, crowding up the space at the table and eating Tootsie Rolls from Grandpa’s pocket. It had to have been one of those days that called for striking the fear of human kind into kids to get them out of the house. And they did.

I don’t remember which aunt said it, or my mother or my uncle, but someone, among the bustling, said, “Why don’t you go look for Jessie Simmons’ tongue?”

“What?!” We were all shocked. A crime on our own turf. Something real.

“Jessie Simmons’ tongue. She lost it in the barn.”

“Oh yeah? How‟d she lose it?” one of us asked. Even children can be skeptical.

“No one knows. All we know is that she lost it in the barn.” This was too good to be true. This was better than the blood that appeared on the walls when Grandma smashed a huge fly. It was even better than our fake massacres behind the barn, raspberry blood boiling up from our fingers and our heads. I imagine our eyes growing wide while they secretly elbowed one another to continue the story. “We looked for it when we were younger. You should go try to find it.”

“No way,” one of us said, suddenly afraid they were teasing us with a story that only excited out of our chairs and back onto our blacktopped feet.

“That didn’t happen. How do you know?”

“It was written on the wall. It said, “‘Jessie Simmons lost her tongue here.'” Somehow, this solidified our beliefs. It was written on the wall in the barn, they said, and if someone had taken time to document such an occasion on the wall, then it must have been true. I pictured white, spray-painted words across the splintered wall, sliced open by the sunlight that came in through the slats as the dust swirled in the stagnant air. I had to see it.

No sooner had they given us this information, we were outside, out of their hair, out of the house for the next three summers. Meghan and I were the ones who took the most interest in the idea. The younger kids tagged along, but soon fell into disinterest and picked up an old cash register or jerky jar or a kitten that had escaped from beneath the wood pile. I imagine our conversation went something like this:

“We have to find where it says it on the wall because the tongue‟s probably around there. I mean, that’s where they wrote it.”

“And then we have to find the tongue.”

“Would there really be anything left?”

“I don’t know, they didn’t say when she lost it.”

“How do you think she lost it?”

The question had to come up. How does a girl lose her tongue?  Now I know it’s just something people say, I know it’s a phrase, and I know what it means now, but to a kid under the age of ten, horrendous ideas went through my head. I can still see Meghan’s blonde ponytail moving toward the barn as I imagined a girl dressed in all black, and she must have been Jessie Simmons. Her named seemed to bite at my own tongue when I said it. She was tough. Jessie Simmons could have pushed me against a wall, pinned me there with her hip. Jessie Simmons. It was the s’s in her name, the hiss, the slits she glared through and the hollow cheekbones she sucked in, the sallow skin.

I imagine her back-talking, standing up for something, maybe protecting a little brother. Something heroic. Opposite her are two boys, wearing older clothes, high socks and torn knickers. They wear plaid hats and vests and chew tobacco as they tower over Jessie. I see my grandparents’ house in the background, the high peaks and the uneven square windows of a hand-built home, the concrete back porch and the big maple outside the bedroom window. The whitewash of the barn wall and the gravel driveway melt together. No birds chirp and no children yell as the two teenage boys standing across from Jessie, one wielding a shiny knife, the kind Dad used for gutting fish, snarl in Jessie’s face. Her long hair swings in the breeze as she says one thing, and then another, but it’s all silent. The look in the boys’ eyes turns lethal when they realize she is not afraid. And then the scene turns black and white. One boy spits and wraps his arm around Jessie’s neck, the other arm around her waist, pinning her own arms to her sides. The other boy takes his time, walks up to her, just stares. A snarl that could be a smirk lurks on his lips and tobacco shavings litter the crevasses between his teeth. His broad hands, the hands of a young boy raised on a farm, raised on hard work and slaughter, worked hard into flesh-colored shells to the point where even sharp hay couldn’t stab through, reach for Jessie. With one hand on her chin, he uses the other to pry open her mouth. She fights, turns her head until the first boy tightens his lock. Jessie purses her lips, never letting her angry brow rise in fear, even as the boy with the knife sticks his thumb between her lips and grips her cheek, leaving a black smear down the side of her face. Jessie squeals as a mixture of dirt and mud and the steely taste of his skin sinks into the saliva that slides down her throat without the aid of a swallow. The boy snatches her tongue in a matter of seconds, pressing his thumb into the soft, pink, dotted top while he hooks his index finger underneath. Jessie grunts from deep down in her throat, a grunt of defiance, a daring growl. And then the knife flashes. It comes down slowly from the top, and down torturously slow into the meatiest part of her tongue.

Jessie falls to the ground, her hands covered in blood as soon as she begins to claw at her own face. It is the only color in the shades of gray, her face a font of life liquid. A little boy runs up next to her, sees the blood and runs away screaming as all the sound suddenly resumes. The boys are gone as Jessie kneels in the gravel, the sharp stones digging into the taut skin over her kneecaps means nothing as she sees the small trail of blood that disappears into the barn. It didn’t last long. After all, only so much blood is held in such a tiny vessel pressed into a farm boy’s palm.
Even picturing it now, I get the chills. And Jessie could never tell what happened to her. She could never speak, never defend her point, never prove guilt. The boys disappeared into the barn, but who knows how long they were there or which of the extra doors they escaped from.

To never be able to speak again, and to go through the pain of a knife through a muscle as strong as the tongue. Why would my mom and my aunts tell me this?

Part 2 tomorrow!


Posted by on May 12, 2011 in When I Was Young


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Every once in awhile, you come across the perfect tree.  And if you’re really lucky, it’s on property that you know you’re allowed to be on.  Mine was a big old Maple on the east side of my grandparents’ house, the side that faced Gene’s Drive-Thru Carry-Out.  The tree had a bough that was low enough for my cousins and me to wrap our arms around, pull ourselves horizontal to the earth while we pushed our feet against the trunk, and lob a leg over mid-swing.

Each weekend at my grandparents’ was a race to get into the tree.  Whoever got there first claimed it, and being the tallest and last of the Big Kids (the first four grandchildren of the 10), I had an advantage.  My cousin Meghan and I spent the most time in the tree, seeing who could go higher, and who was brave enough to step on the branch that didn’t seem strong enough to hold us.  We were the ones who stole all of Grandma’s spoons out of her silverware drawer, and strung them all in the branches with yarn so that we could have an entire tree of wind chimes.  When Grandma went to set the table for dinner, her fingers grasped at the empty space in the drawer, and all she could hear was a jingling from outside her window.

After looking down through the trees and seeing her laughing, Meghan and I cut down the spoons and went in for dinner.

Seeing as my grandparents lived on a farm, there was no shortage of stray cats, each of whom were adopted as soon as we dug the litter from underneath the wood pile.   My brother always took the tiger-striped cats.  Meghan always took the charcoal gray ones.  I, on the other hand, always took the runts.  I don’t know if I felt sorry for them, or if it was some sort of mothering instinct kicking in, but I always picked the runt.

This left me with some obstacles:  Muffin was a light gray runt who was cross-eyed, and every time she heard a noise or lightning struck, she’d run head-on into a wall.  And then there was Bart, who would follow me anywhere I went.  But as he got older, he developed a bad habit of ingesting his food twice, sometimes three times, and we began calling him Barf.

Because Meghan and I were in the tree so much, we were missing out on valuable cat time on the ground.  And while cats can climb trees, they don’t always want to go up there when YOU want them to.  So we solved the problem with:  THE KITTY-VATOR.

It was just a plastic milk crate with old sheets lying in the bottom, but to us, it was the best invention ever.  With a frayed rope tied from handle to handle and up over a tree branch to create a not-so-intricate pulley system, the Kitty-Vator got us what we wanted off the ground.  Generally, I climbed into the tree with the rope looped around my belt loops, and Meghan stood on the ground, rallying the cats around her and fitting as many as she could into the milk crate.  We’d then tape a piece of cardboard over the crate (so they couldn’t escape) and I hoisted them into the tree.  Meghan then scampered up to help me unload the loot, and we spent the day lounging on long branches, barefoot, and holding cats in our arms.  If we thought the tree was perfect, well why would the cats think otherwise?

Eventually we nailed platforms between forked branches and kept a bag of cat food up there, too.  And the cats learned to like it.  I can’t imagine, though, what the customers at my grandpa’s store thought when they saw two little blonde girls jamming cats into a milk crate and disappearing into the leaves of a Maple tree.


Posted by on April 25, 2011 in When I Was Young


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The Cooler Pig

When you’re young, you love to hang out where you’re not supposed to.

For me  that was Grandpa Gene’s store:  Gene’s Drive-Thru Carry-Out.  I wasn’t forbidden to be there, but it was an adult world-one I wanted to know dearly.  “The Store” sat between two cornfields, with just a row of trees behind it to protect it from the dust when the wind picked up.  Neon beer signs and Cleveland Indians signs hung in the windows and a Snoopy bank sat on the Formica counter, right where the edges were peeling back to reveal the cork underneath.  Candy covered the wall next to the drive-thru, and a freezer full of ice cream hummed against the wall facing the road.  A wall of wine faced my grandparents’ house, just across the asphalt and over the clothesline, and a picture of my Uncle Mike was perched above a doorway with a sign that read, “I want to be like Mike, THE STUD!”

My mother and my aunts and uncle worked there from the time that they were old enough to sell beer.  I recall my mother, moving cases and smacking cigarette boxes against her palm between swigs from Diet Pepsi bottles.  When I was lucky enough to be at the store with her, (Grandma couldn’t take babysitting all of us grand kids all the time) she would pass me the Diet Pepsi and smile, scan a lottery ticket, and wait on the next customer who drove up.  My mom’s Diet Pepsis always tasted different than the ones I drank myself–like stale smoke and love and her perfume.

And I loved it.  I loved being out there, seeing my grandpa leaning over the counter on his elbows while he listened to a man named Squirrel talk about his wife and scratched lottery tickets.  I loved handing free Tootsie Rolls to the kids who weren’t lucky enough to have a grandpa who owned every kind of candy on earth.

But there was a whole world behind the front room of the store.  There were long hallways packed with boxes of beer, old signs and mirrors under moving blankets, and a heavy steel door that led to the cooler.

My cousin Meghan and I were always trying to get into the cooler.  We loved looking through the bottles of Diet Pepsi and Mountain Dew to the glass doors that looked out into the store and made a sucking noise when they were pulled open.  And the way that the cases were stacked in the cooler made for excellent fort building and climbing.  During the hot summer days, nothing felt better than pulling open that heavy door, stepping into the foggy cool air and feeling the sweat freeze on our arms.

But sometimes the door was too heavy.

Grandpa had a lot of friends, and he bent over backwards for them on more than one occasion.  Grandpa also knew how to throw a good party, and when one of his friends decided to throw one.  Gramps helped out, but not in the way you might expect…

Meghan and I were really the troublemakers of the cousins, and we were constantly pretending we were tornado chasers, spies, explorers of unknown worlds–i.e. Grandpa’s store.  After some careful planning, we ran across the blacktop and hid in the brush behind the store.  Once there were no cars in the drive-thru and my mother and grandfather were preoccupied scanning lottery tickets, Meghan and I made our way into the backroom maze, hiding behind cases of beer and dollies.  We were only feet away from the cooler door when my mom spotted us.  We made a mad dash for it, and I felt the cold handle of the heavy door give way under my urging.

And we were in.  We turned around in the icy fog and stared at the door, pulling it shut against my mother’s advances to get us out.  And then she stopped.  We wondered what had happened, but decided to take advantage of our free reign over the beer mountains.

Then we saw it.  Right there.  On the floor of the freezer wrapped in Saran wrap and on a piece of cardboard was a big dead pig. Suddenly the cooler wasn’t so cool, and we were still sweating.  Its eyes were open and its legs lay unnaturally.  And although I’m sure there wasn’t a smell, we could smell it. 

We screamed, pushed hard at the inside of the cooler door, looking over our shoulders to make sure the pig wasn’t crawling out from underneath its plastic sheath.  My mother looked at us through the clear glass doors from the front of the store and I swear I saw her smile.  Slowly, more slowly than should be humanly possible, she walked around to the heavy door that, thanks to the vacuum of the cooler, we could no longer open.  When she finally pulled it open from the outside, we ran out gasping for fresh air and hid behind her legs before taking one final glance back at the pig.  Then we were out into the heat, feeling it come up from the blacktop as we darted across it to the dry grass on the bottom of our bare feet–where there were no pigs.


Posted by on April 13, 2011 in When I Was Young


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Digging to China

I didn’t grow up in a cul-de-sac neighborhood.  I grew up on Township Road 15 with fields to the South and to the West.  Now this is built up considerably, and there are subdivisions and houses popping up all over the place.

Most of my neighbors had children who’d already moved out.  Marven and Cre lived next door, and they were grandparents before I was even born.  But on the other side of them, there was a yellow house with a big white-flowering tree out front, and a swing set in the back, and it was chock full of kids.

My brother, Jason, and I were always outside playing with Abby, Mindy, Mallory, Allie, Annie, and AJ.  I loved saying their names quickly and hearing the A’s and the M’s blending into one another.  They moved away while I was still in elementary school, and while we saw each other momentarily in the hallways of the high school, we never really hung out.

And of course I’ve kept up on Facebook.  I watched them post pictures of children and engagement rings and basketball games.  And this past weekend, I went to visit Mallory, her husband Mike, and her three kids.

I was BEYOND thrilled to see her.  It took no more than a hug before we started talking about living on Township Road 15.  We talked about riding our bikes across Marven and Cre’s front yard until Marven told us we’d have to use the road, or the back yard because we were leaving tracks.  We talked about how we used to get into trouble, how we caught lightning bugs and played on the dirt mounds when they were building houses behind us.

Our fathers used to make sinkers for fishing in their shed.  Our mothers smoked cigarettes on the porch and watched us play.  When their babysitter burnt their pizza, they came to our house and played Barbies.

We were never alone because we were always together.

Mallory and I both remember digging to China in my front yard.  My dad had decided to tear out the shrubs in the landscaping, which left glorious mounds of dirt for us.  We loved dirt.  And we loved it even more when it was dirt we shouldn’t be playing in.  When we tipped the sandbox to catch the bugs underneath, when we climbed the construction piles, when we saw what had been underneath those shrubs for our entire lives, we felt like we were seeing a whole new world.

With our mother son the porch, cigarettes and Diet Pepsis in hand, we came from sheds and garages with shovels, trowels, and hoes.  I don’t remember who said it through the white hot sun that day, but I remember hearing, “Why don’t you dig to China?”  Annie was still a baby, and her mother shifted her from one tanned leg to another.

“Is that possible?” we all turned to our mothers.

“Sure.  Go for it,” they said.

And we dug–probably not for very long, and probably not very deep, but we were digging to China.  I remember my brother and Allie showing no interest as they sat in the yard tinkering with something Playskool, but the rest of us were intent.  Through the worms and roly-polies, we worked.  We must have dug all day.  I know we didn’t stop until the sun fell from the sky, at least until the lightning bugs began dipping quietly behind blades of darkness and we could no longer contain our desire to put them in butter bowls and Mason jars. 

We dug until we looked too long into the dirt.  We dug until we needed the light.


Posted by on February 1, 2011 in When I Was Young


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