come stroll among the wildflowers

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Dog Years 4

Part Four:  A Move, A Sister, and Queenie

     Just before I began school, my parents presented me with another puppy.  This dog was more appropriate for life on the farm.  She was half collie, half German shepherd.  We named her Queenie.  She was a gem; smart, loyal, and beautiful, marked like a collie with shorter hair like a shepherd.  When Queenie was about a year old, I learned I was going to have a brother or sister.  This seemed unnecessary and arbitrary.  I was six and the only child and grandchild to date, but the days were accomplished and she was delivered.  Mary Beth, small, red, and useless.  While she was being born, I was suffering, quarantined with the red measles, in a dark bedroom.  I couldn’t approach her or my mother until I was spot free.  Understandably, I was not thrilled with this situation.  I remember standing in the doorway of the bedroom while the family at large was introduced to the newest member.  My dad passed her piggybank and everyone dropped in coins.  I lobbed my plastic pig into the room from the bedroom door, but no one had any coins left.  My grandpa saved the day by stuffing a dollar in the slot in my piggy’s back.
     This was just the beginning.  Soon it became obvious that my parents valued MB more than my dog.  I got a spanking for taking Queenie for a ride in the new baby carriage.  There were shoutings about germs, hair, and fleas, but this was a huge injustice.  My dog was surely better looking and certainly more intelligent than that squalling brat.
     Other than the small matter of the sister, life in Plymouth was kid heaven.  There was a tire swing in the elm tree, a cedar with conveniently arranged branches for climbing, and a muddy, forbidden creek a half mile away for frog catching and bullhead fishing.  My friend, Nona, (a year younger and a head taller) lived less than a mile down the gravel road.  We built forts and camps in the hedgerow behind her house, which her older brother Jerry destroyed as fast as we constructed.  We played “Roy Rogers” endlessly.  Our biggest arguments were about “who had to be Dale Evans.”  Her dog, Friday, and my Queenie accompanied us everywhere.  He was a collie-type too and a valuable member of a working farm.  He brought the cows in for milking every morning and evening.  Nona’s dad, Albert, cried for days when deaf old Friday didn’t hear the tractor start, and Jerry accidentally backed over him.  
     Nona’s mother Mary and my mom had been friends since childhood.  The two of them belonged to Eastern Star, but could not afford formal dresses for one of the events, so they put an ad in the Emporia Gazette.  My dad and Albert and an anonymous accomplice called them with directions to a house in town that was brimming with just the right sort of used formalwear.  The residence, just south of the tracks on State Street, was infamous as the local whore house. 
     Time for another move, again without consulting me this time we moved to Emporia to a white colonial on Peyton Street at the edge of town near the soybean plant.  There was a huge yard complete with fish pond and a lovely arbor with a hammock and Paul Scarlet roses.  MB and I each had our own rooms upstairs.  Queenie had ten acres to roam and a barn and chicken house to keep free of rats.  But problems with the sister just got worse.  She became mobile and demanded to follow Queenie and me on all our adventures.  My mother would always respond to her begging by saying, “Take her along.”  One day I had enough.  I had made it to the edge of the pasture when she came to the gate.  “Take me,” she wailed.  “Go home, or I’ll throw this rock,” I threatened.  She didn’t, and I did, and for the first time in history, I hit what I aimed at.  It was a small rock and it made a small slit right at her hairline, dead center.  Blood promptly oozed down her turned up nose.  Screaming ensued as did another flaking.  I was heart sore and angry at the unfairness of it all.  As usual, Queenie sympathized entirely.
     Unlike Spike, she did not kill farm animals or molest persons in uniform.  Her only peccadillo was to roll in anything fetid and then go upstairs for a nap on my bed.  I forgave her for fouling my sheets, and she forgave me for frequent baths.  She learned to bring in my horse, catch escaped chickens without hurting them, jump a stick, sit up, roll over, speak on command, retrieve anything thrown, shake hands.  She loved to ride in the wagon (or the baby carriage), hunt rabbits and mice, kill snakes, and generally do whatever you asked her to do.  This was a problem the day MB directed her to jump a picket fence in the back yard.  She missed and impaled herself on one of the pickets.  The vet patched her up in short order, but it took me years to forgive my poor, contrite sister.  I can still see the puddled tears in her big brown eyes. 
     Nevertheless, coldhearted, I set about getting even.  I filled out her baby book.  She often pouted because hers was empty while mine was crammed with pictures, cards, notes, family trees, snipped hair, finger and foot prints, lists of “firsts,” cute sayings, and the beaded bracelet from the hospital with my last name.  I began with a National Geographic article about a baby albino gorilla.  This supplied most of the baby pictures.  Queenie and an inkpad provided the footprint.  In the “first haircut” spot went a hank of calf tail hair complete with a bit of manure.  First word:  “duh.”  Favorite food:  “boogers.”  The result: another flaking from my mother.
     The climax of all this animosity came when she was six and I was twelve.  Our parents had gone out and left me in charge.  I suggested we play amusement park and Mary was all for it.  We took all the cushions off the chairs and couch and piled them at the bottom of the staircase.  Then I put her in a cardboard box and shoved her down the stairs.  “Whee!”  She loved it.  Do it again.  “Whee!”  But this time the box tipped over and she hit her head on the newel post at the bottom of the stairs.  I thought she was dead.  If I got a spanking for unlawful use of a baby carriage, pegging her with a rock, and filling out the baby book, what would happen if I had killed her?  By the time I rushed to the bottom of the stairs, she was sitting up and blinking.  There was a good sized lump behind her ear, but no sign of death.  She didn’t even cry.  Moreover, she didn’t tell on me.  This was a huge turning point in our relationship.  I realized I loved her and didn’t want her to die.  I saw that she valued my good opinion and wanted my approval.  The fussing stopped and we have henceforth been buddies.  She is a great person and I love her even though everything in her house matches and there is nothing in her garage but a car.  Queenie and I both forgave her for the fence fiasco.
     I began to notice that my little sister was becoming a character.  When I look back at the old 8mm movies my dad took, I notice how goofy all of us were.  Why would a group of reasonably intelligent people line up in rows and smile at the camera for a motion picture?  The only one in motion was MB.  She was that blur that streaked by in front of the group.  To this day, it is hard to get her to hold still.  One day she crossed the road to visit Mr. Purttle.  “Charlie,” she warned, “I’m going to lock you in the shed.”  He laughed, silly man.  She did.  He was locked in most of the afternoon.  His wife had to take the door off the hinges because MB threw the key in the fish pond.
    We lived in the white house on Peyton Street until I was in high school.  Just about every summer, Mary and I would travel by train to LA to visit my dad’s sisters. We had passes because dad was a switchman for the Santa Fe.   We came home from one of these trips to find we had moved again.  Big surprise.  The house on Garfield never quite felt like home. Queenie and I both missed the space and freedom, and I never really liked living in town.
     Queenie lived for twelve years.  She walked me to my first day of first grade at the old Plymouth School.  I wore new jeans with stovepipe-sized cuff rolls, a plaid cowboy shirt, saddle shoes, and a green plastic raincoat that still fit when I started junior high.  My mother was always expecting me to grow, and I never did.   I don’t think any of my kid clothes ever fit before they wore out.  (Mom made most of my clothes on her Singer Featherweight, bless her.  And bless me because I wore them without complaint.  I’ll never forget the gauzy prom dress with orange roses.)  Twelve years later, Queenie walked me to college.  Our house at 1214 Garfield was directly behind the College of Emporia campus.  A scholarship and work study (fifty cents an hour) allowed me a fine liberal arts education at a bargain price. By then Queenie’s joints were stiff and her eyes milky from cataracts.  She became incontinent and was in obvious pain.  The day we decided she should be put down, I led her to the back yard and took some pictures of her sweet face.  The family mourned and for months missed stepping over her sleeping form when we went out the back door.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Dog Years 3

   Part Three:  Back to Kansas

    I was perfectly happy with 111th Street but my parents decided we should move back to Kansas.  Aunt Dot and Uncle Roy bought the place and lived there for many years.  I’m sure that is why my memories of the house and neighborhood remain vivid.  We loaded the Chevy and headed east.  I shared the backseat with Spike and a blonde console radio.  Crossing the desert with no air-conditioning and a short-nosed dog in close quarters involved much panting, snorting, and slobber.  Spike and I took turns napping among the legs of the radio and drinking 7-up from a paper cup.  We moved into an old farmhouse about eight miles from Emporia in a small village called Plymouth.  Spike had a tough time adjusting to life in the country.  He killed the neighbor’s chickens and chased cows.  Then he disappeared.  My Uncle Bud told me he had run away. 
     The community of Plymouth was home territory.  My grandparents had lived there when their children were small.  Grandpa Lehnherr ran a service station up on Highway 50.  I’ve often wished I had the hand-lettered placard he placed in the window:  “I’ll pump your gas, I’ll mind your baby.  But I only take cash, and I don’t mean maybe.”  He could have written for BurmaShave.  Another of his poems was a bit more salty.  Each morning, my grandmother served him his coffee with the sugar bowl and a small tin of condensed milk.  Next to the milk can she placed a punch type can opener.  As he poked a hole in the tin, he always said, “No tits to pull, no hay to pitch.  Just poke a hole in the sonofabitch.”  My mom’s brother, Uncle Bud and his wife Betty lived with us for a time.  The antics of he and my dad are the stuff of legend in Plymouth.  The Gossers had this black cow that was always getting out of the pasture and tromping other people’s tomatoes.  My dad and Uncle Bud caught her and made a Holstein out of her with some whitewash.  The Gossers didn’t find her until it rained.  Our neighbor, Albert Harris, was sometimes in on and frequently the victim of their escapades.  I don’t think the poor man was ever able to visit the outhouse in peace.  Someone always dropped a cherry bomb down the vent pipe.
    My mom worked in Emporia at the hospital and Aunt Betty was my day care provider.  One day she was cleaning house and discovered a coiled up snake at the back of the utility closet.  She phoned Uncle Bud at his job in town at the welding shop screaming in panic that there was a rattle snake in the closet.  He broke  a land speed record and several traffic laws covering the eight miles in less than ten minutes.  Rushing into the house, he grabbed a shotgun from the back porch, ran to the closet and blasted away.  He opened up a ragged dinnerplate-sized hole in the floor of the closet, then had some choice words to say to his wife when a closer examination proved the snake to be a coil of fringe off an old chair.  Lucky for us because if it had been a snake, he would have missed it completely.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Dog Years 2

Part Two:  California and Spike    

    My parents found a puppy for me for my third birthday.  By then, we lived on 111th Street in LA where we moved from Kansas after my dad returned from fighting Hitler. His brother-in-law got him a job at the Jantzen Swim Suit factory (“Just wear a smile and a Jantzen”.)  My mother, a registered nurse, worked at small maternity hospital nearby.  Daycare was provided by Evie, my mom’s youngest sister, and Dorothy and Lucile, my dad’s sisters.  My memories of those days consist of an odd collection of disconnected details and are probably highly influenced by listening to family talk of these times and looking at those old black and white snapshots with the serrated edges.
     My aunt Evie was just twelve years older than I.  She babysat me during the summers when she was not in school.  She still claims that I was a spoiled brat.  There is some evidence, I must admit, in that direction.  My mother had a professional photographer come to the house regularly to take my picture.  I was cute.  I look in the mirror now and wonder what happened.  Evie claims I used to tell my mom everyday when she came home from work, “Aunt Evie spanked my butt,” whether she had or not.  Aunt Dorothy and Aunt Cile were both married, but never had children.  They absolutely doted on our family.  Even after we moved back to Kansas, they were just a phone call or train ride away.  They took us in almost every summer and entertained us with all Southern California had to offer:  Disneyland, Knotts Berry Farm, Marine Land, The La Brea Tar Pits (or Par Tits as Aunt Dot called them) and of course, the beach.
     I used to love the days when Aunt Dot babysat.  She was a person of amazing innocence and sweetness, a master of misspeak and constant victim of teasing from her ornery brother, my dad.  Once for breakfast at the local greasy spoon, she ordered Number Two with Pisscuits.  Part of our ritual when she came to baby sit was to take a bubble bath before my nap.  She would bring paper packets of gardenia-scented bubble powder that created foamy mounds.  One day she put off bath time saying that we needed to wait for the Postal Express man.  She was expecting a package.  I thought she meant that he was going to join us in the bath.  When he rang the doorbell, I ran to answer the door.  “Oh boy,” I gushed.  “Are you going to take a bubble bath with Aunt Dorothy and me?”  He looked over my head at a shapely, embarrassed Aunt Dot and leered, “Well, I guess that’s up to Aunt Dorothy!” 
     Our house was tiny and cute:  living room, dining room, kitchen, two bedrooms and a pink tiled bath.  The driveway was two strips of concrete with grass between.  Three tree roses trimmed the front entry, a peach tree grew in the back, and a pink oleander dominated the small front lawn.  The flowers on that bush smelled like sugar cookies.  My mother warned me that they were poisonous and that I should not eat them.  Of course, I would never have thought of eating flowers if she had not mentioned it. 
     The Oliveras lived on one side.  They had many beautiful brown children and brought home tortoises every time they came back from a weekend trip to the desert.  Mr. Baker and Mrs. Cook (or vise versa, I never could remember) lived on the other side.  They had a Chihuahua that played the piano.  I was fascinated by that dog and puzzled by the disparity in the owners’ last names.  I never did get a satisfactory answer to my questions about that.
     My other memories of the place include a neighborhood kid with blond hair who came to play on occasion.  We would stretch out on our bellies on the floor and color in a coloring book.  I was frustrated by the fact that he was meticulous and slow, and I was always ready to turn the page before he was.  I also remember a neighborhood theater, The Riveola,  that played westerns.  I was in love with Roy Rogers.  My mom and Aunt Cile took me to see him at Bullocks department store.  We stood in line for hours and finally made it to Roy.  I pitched a huge fit when all I got was a pat on the head.  I wanted to talk about Trigger and Bullet and Dale and invite them all to dinner.
     Aunt Cile, wise, witty, and fun, loved to take us to the beach. Her hubby, Uncle Johnny was her perfect match.  Once while we were bobbing in the surf, a big wave knocked off the top of her twopiece.  Uncle Johnny said, “Lady, if you’re going to drown those puppies, I’ll take the one with the pink nose.”
     Anyway, back to my dog.  (Obviously, I am prone to digression…probably ADD.  My mom did get a note from the kindergarten teacher, brief and to the point: “Your daughter is restless on her rug.” And just last week I returned to the bedroom after brushing my teeth to discover that I had made just half the bed.) The dog was acquired from an ad:  “small mixed-breed puppies to give away.”  My parents have always been naive about animals.  They saw the mother, a small terrier type, but the father was “unknown.”  We named the pup Spike and he promptly grew into the name.  Dollars to donuts the dad was a pit-bull.  Spike had a square head, no neck, a fireplug body, and waddled like a weightlifter.  His coat was a lovely yellow and brown bristly brindle.  He loved me and hated anyone wearing a uniform:  meter readers, cops, and mailmen.  We got warning letters from all three departments.  The mailman was especially testy.  Part of his attitude was probably my fault because I routinely filled the mailbox with snails.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Dog Years 1

Part One:  Grandma, Grandpa, and Skipper 
     The first dog in my life wasn’t really mine.  Skipper belonged to my grandparents.  My mom’s parents lived on Cottonwood Street in Emporia, Kansas.  Grandpa was a welder, a Democrat (yes there are some in Kansas) and a Yankee fan.  Grandma worked at Bon Ton Cleaners and made pies and noodles.  From my grandfather, I learned to swear.  (Skipper thought his name was "blank blank you Skipper, get your blank in here.”) From my grandmother, I learned to eat.
     I have often wished I had also learned her passion for cleaning dirt.  She did not clean, she attacked.  She preached that any good housewife had all her “chores” done by nine am.  This included baking pies and bread, making beds, sweeping, mopping, scrubbing, and doing the laundry.  She came to visit me early one morning and was thrilled to see my laundry on the line by eight.  I didn’t have the heart to tell her it had been there for three days.
     Perhaps my favorite story about Grandma Martha's tidiness happened shortly after Duane and I returned from his military stint in San Antonio.  When we moved, we left our parakeet, Linus with her until our two year tour was up.  She adored Linus.  He was a special bird.  He could talk.  His vocabulary included: "here kitty, kitty, kitty; Duane is a fink, hello, come here, bye now."  But what grandma liked best about him was his personal hygiene  routine.  He took a bath every morning in his green plastic bathtub with a mirror in the bottom.  Then he would check out his reflection in the toaster, bobbing his head, and muttering to himself in parakeet, not English.  When we came home from Texas and reclaimed Linus, she went directly to the pet store and bought a bird that looked just like Linus.  This one was, in grandma's words, "a dud."  He didn't talk, but worse, he refused to bathe.  No shape or color of tub or bowl, or temperature of water would tempt him.  She named him Billy.
     One day when I came for a visit, I stepped up to the cage to say hi to Billy.  He went berserk.  I asked grandma what was wrong.  She said, "He's been like that ever since his bath."
     "But I thought you said he didn't like to take a bath," I said.
     "He doesn't, she answered, "so I gave him one."
     "How in the world did you do that?" I asked, wondering how one would go about force-bathing a bird.
     "I just put a little shampoo and water in the bottom of a fruit jar, put him in, put on the lid, and shook him up a little."
     One afternoon after school, my grandmother looked out the front window to see her youngest, Franklin D. (I told you Gramps was a Democrat.) pulling a white dog up the sidewalk by a rope tied to its neck.  Once on the porch, he took off the rope, tossed it into the spyrea bushes, picked up the pooch, and came into the living room.  “This dog followed me home.  Can I keep him?”  Grandma caved and the dog stayed.  Frankie  named him Skipper. A circus had recently put on a show at the civic auditorium just down sixth avenue.  We thought Skipper might have been left behind.  He knew lots of tricks.  He was mostly white, perhaps part spitz, and medium sized.  A bit longer than tall, he might have been part corgi.  He was tolerant of kids.  My mom has a picture of me at about eight months with Skipper under the coffee table sharing his bone.  I was his first “grandchild” but eighteen more followed.

When I Grow Up

I guess I've finally gotten around to being what I've always wanted to be...a writer.  I have always loved telling stories.  I caught this disease from my Grandmother Martha.  Actually all the women in my family have it.  They tell stories about the long ago past and what hilarious thing happened at work this morning.  Sometimes the stories bring tears as well as laughter.

I began my adventure into the world of authorship with a children's story called "Raccoons in the Corn," published through CreateSpace and with the help of local illustrator, Josh Finley, and graphic designer, Shawn Honea.  The Raccoons have done well locally ( around 250), but not so hot on Amazon (about 40).  I have had much positive feedback, but hubby says, "Who's going to walk up to you and say that your book really stinks?"  He keeps me grounded.

I am working on four more picture books and have revised a color book for kids called "Grandma's Prairie Patchwork."  My husband Duane and I are starting a home based publishing company called Prairie Productions.  I will create, he will take care of the business end of things.

I have decided to start posting some stories loosely connected by the lives of my favorite dogs.  The plan is to title the resulting collection Dog Years.  I have several chapters "finished."  I will start posting soon, but first I have to figure out how to get them from my old pc to my new IMac.  I would love to build a community of readers and writers, commentators, critics.  I'm a newbie, so bear with me.  Later, J