Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Dance Dream

One of the best moments in the movie Enchanted was at the ball near the end when Giselle says to Robert, “But you said you don’t know how to dance,” and he replies, “No, I said I don’t dance, not that I can’t,” just as he sweeps her into a romantic waltz.

It was a satisfying moment for me, because I spent so much time as a kid and teen watching Fred Astaire with Ginger Rogers and other partners, Gene Kelly, Shirley Temple and many other dancers, and I loved ballroom dancing. If anyone had asked me then what I thought romance was, I would have answered, “Dancing in a long, lovely dress in a big room with the man you love.” Something straight out of the coronation ball scene in the 1937 or 1952 versions of The Prisoner of Zenda.

This wasn’t simply the result of watching old movies. My parents had financed their dates during the Depression by entering and often winning dance contests up and down the Jersey Shore—which meant that they danced to the live music of greats like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Hoagy Carmichael, Bix Beiderdeke, and Dad’s favorite, Glenn Miller. On special occasions, they may have taken the train or Dad’s car up to dance at a New York City club.

When I was 7, thanks to being the unofficial mascot of the Blue Ridge Drum & Bugle Corps Band, my ambition was to be a baton twirler like Ginny Gulick, their majorette. Mother enrolled me briefly at Mrs. Taylor’s Dance Academy for lessons in baton and dance. Her younger daughter Wendy was in my big brother’s class; a year or so later, the school was closed so that she could take her daughter to join the June Taylor Dancers (no relation) on the Jackie Gleason Show in Florida. But such a void didn’t last long; soon after, Mother informed me that I was going to be attending Madame Selandia’s dance classes on Thursdays after school, at the Grange Hall on Main Street, for acrobatic, ballet and tap.

Mother had no ambitions for me to become a second Shirley Temple, unlike some mothers; in fact, other than making sure that I had a clean leotard and the dollar fee each week's lesson, after the first time, it was up to me to get myself there. No, Mother’s desire centered around a wish that I be graceful. It was a nice ambition, although mostly doomed to failure.

Mme. Selandia was a large, stout woman arrayed in a black leotard and layers of colored tutus, always topped off by a black one, fishnet stockings, and worn ballet shoes. Her dyed blond hair was styled like Betty Grable’s in the 40s, long out of date, and she carried a long wooden pointer—although I don’t recall her ever using it. Her husband was a comical contrast: much smaller, with thinning, slicked-back dyed black hair, thick glasses and a too-large suit. His role was to collect the money and change the records on the record-player behind a desk. She was the artiste.

The Grange Hall was a long rectangular room with splintery wooden floors, lined with folding wooden chairs. At the end farthest from the door was a low stage which we never used, and behind it a small kitchen, also never used except by girls hiding out from the lessons, perched on the formica counters and gabbing.

Each lesson always began the same way, with acrobatics to warm us up. We would stretch and tumble around on red gym mats, cartwheeling and doing headstands last.  That was fun! I was born double-jointed; this was something I could do well with little effort except for a headstand. My star turn was to lie on my stomach on the mat, arch my back, stretch up my legs and touch my head….This was hard for some, I could not only do that, but rest my heels on my shoulders for seven minutes at a time with no discomfort.

The largest girls having dragged the mats out of the way, we’d pull out folding chairs to serve in lieu of a barre, go through the five feet and arm positions while she slowly walked around correcting us, and then we’d be lined up to try different steps to the music and finally a dance. I liked that too, although I was soon aware that I was far from the best at that. Last would be tap, which I learned to hate.

The problem with tap dancing lay in my shoes. I was very proud of my dance bag, bright red with a picture in rhinestones of ballet shoes on the side. The top part was big enough to hold a leotard (although I always changed at home) and one’s tap shoes, and in the bottom was a cunning little space for ballet or toe shoes. Tap shoes were different from regular shoes in two ways: by tying with ribbons over the instep instead of laces, and in the taps on the tip of each shoe. And therein lay the problem: no matter how often I outgrew and got a new pair, my taps never tapped. Every other girl in the class went tappety-tappety- tap; I came after them, going clack-clack-clack. They thought it was funny. I thought it was hell.

But every time I thought I’d ask if I could quit, it would suddenly be April and we’d begin practicing for our annual June recital, and that was exciting—we’d wear costumes like real ballet dancers! And makeup! I’d be graceful AND beautiful!

Alas, it didn’t work out that way. We had the recitals, attended by parents, at the grade school auditorium, and the magic departed when I saw my face in the bathroom mirror after Mother dutifully tried to follow the directions I'd brought home. She was a brunette; I was fairer. Her black mascara looked odd around my eyes under blond eyebrows. She never used rouge or blusher, so she had me spit on a dab of liptick on her fingertip, which was then rubbed unevenly on my cheeks, and her scarlet lipstick looked peculiar on my mouth, as well as tasting…strange. I burst into tears. And at the recital, while I managed not to fall, I was wretchedly aware that I was not a graceful swan even before it was time to clack-clack-clack through our tap routine. I had five years of dashed optimism before I rebelled in favor of Opera Festival.

I was in high school when Daddy got it into his head that I should learn ballroom dancing, although he never called it that. Mother had gone to her night job, and he put some records on the record player. For the first time, I heard the strains of “Don’t Sit Under the Apple-Tree” and other standards straight out of the movies…and his past. “Come out to the kitchen,” he commanded, showed me the correct position with a stern, “Not too close!” and thus we embarked upon my new adventure.

The Dip
Daddy wasn’t a teacher. We had had epic struggles when he’d sought to teach me how to ride a two-wheeler bike, and we would again when he tried to teach me to drive both automatic and stick-shift. He simply could not clearly explain what he wanted me to do, and then he’d get mad—he had very little patience—and I’d get so frustrated I’d cry. But somehow, that didn’t happen with this. Although he grumbled that I steered like a Mack truck at first when we attempted a quick-step, he went on to a polka. “I know that!” I cried happily. I did, too. In 7th grade I used to go up to pre-teen dances at the Episcopal Church Guild Hall with Maureen Tierney, who taught me to do the Mexican hat dance. Daddy didn’t know that one; he was intent on my social future, although I didn’t know it. From the polka we moved to the fox-trot’s box step. “You can count to four! You know left from right!” and then the waltz, my favorite. Before long we were dancing out of the kitchen through the dining-room and living-room and back, and he was teaching me the trick steps that had won contests: Broadwaying, spins, crossovers, dips and others as he hummed, "It's Three O'Clock in the Morning." I wasn’t wearing the fancy dress, but it was magical, and my optimism revived. Someday....

Did I attend high school dances? Dad would drive me to the high school for the first sock hop of the year, and after being a wallflower and completely ignored by everyone for an hour or so, I’d slink out to the phone booth, call him to come pick me up, rush up to bed when we got home and cry myself to sleep. As a junior, I was on the most prestigious committee for the Junior Prom, the social event of the year, but my date got the measles the week beforehand, and Mother refused to buy me a dress when no one else asked me. Once again, I cried myself to sleep, as drearily sure that those dancing dreams were dead as only a teenager can be. Nobody asked me my Senior year either. I was certain I was the only girl in Warren County, if not New Jersey, who didn’t own a prom dress.

My social past was so dismal that Mother would not make me a long formal for college. Instead she insisted on making me a short cocktail dress which I hated and never wore. Luckily for me, the college was celebrating its centennial my freshman year, including a formal ball—for which I had a date, plus a borrowed gown. Its owner was about half-a-foot taller than I was and wore it with three-inch heels, so we tacked up the hem about nine inches. There was no time to find new shoes for my midget feet, so I had to wear the admittedly ugly black flats with huge studded buckles which were the only non-casual shoes I owned. Partway through the evening, those buckles gnawed through the temporary hem and I suddenly found myself wading around the dance-floor with what felt like miles of extra fabric while my date was trying to pull up on the back.

That was where I learned that one should always have, if not a sewing-kit, some extra safety pins in one's purse, which I did…and that most men I would date would not know how to slow dance other than to steer a girl backwards in circles, or else gyrate during a fast tune, period. None of them seemed to have even heard of ballroom dancing.

The other memorable dance in my college years was the one in which I went with a date who was 7 ft. 4 in. tall. Sam was a very nice guy, but since I was at the time barely 5 ft with a low heel, I could just about chin myself on his belt buckle. Mother had provided me with a lovely yellow damask brocade dress, very simple, the fabric making the dress, and a hand-knit  mohair shoulder cape that was like wrapping myself in a white cloud. At first, things went wonderfully (in other words, fast dances), although I was getting impatient for the romantic waltz of my dreams. At last the band began a slower tune, and we went out on the floor…and that was when the problem began. Sam wanted to dance cheek-to-cheek, which might have worked if he’d been willing to get on his knees. But no, he chose to pick me up. This might still have worked if he’d put one arm under my knees, but he didn’t; he chose to lift me up as if we were of an almost equal height, whereupon two facts came into play:
  •    Damask of any color is a slippery fabric. I began to slide down out of my dress.
  •    With my feet dangling over two feet off the floor, and feeling insecure, I reflexively attempted   to climb higher inside the dress. The end result was that, well, the toe of one foot connected with um, a vulnerable part of his anatomy. Sam folded over in half, set me on the floor, and hobbled to the nearest chair.
We broke up not long after that…..Once again, the romance of the waltz had eluded me.

Near the end of graduate school, my former roommate Betsy and her fiancĂ© Bob introduced me to a guy named George. He was almost 6 ft. 2—but I always seemed to date tall guys (yes, Sam held the record for height. The shortest was 5 ft. 9). As I discovered, however, George had one very valuable quality the others lacked: he was an excellent dancer. Moreover, he loved dancing as much as I did. It is not the reason we got married, but I admit it was a consideration. He taught me to cha-cha, rumba and tango.

The good band we had for our wedding reception also played for the rehearsal dinner the night before. It was a delight to watch my parents, who made the most difficult steps look effortless both evenings.

I wanted to wear Gramma’s engraved silver lapel watch which Grandpop had given her as a wedding-gift, without its vanishing into the decoration of my dress. As a result, I chose a candlelight ivory knit fabric, made into a very simple long dress, no train—but what made it different was that the sleeves went to the elbows and then hung in long panels to the floor. No matter how I sat, stood or moved that day, for once in my life, I was graceful, to Mother’s almost incredulous joy. And waltzing in it, with George and later Daddy, was perfect. Finally!

Later George discovered disco. No, don’t laugh. If you have ever seen a really good routine, by an excellent dancer with a good partner who’ve rehearsed a lot, it can actually look better than you might think. And George and I did practice a lot, learning all kinds of steps and moves. It was fun. I remember one dinner dance (he was an advisor for a chapter of his college fraternity) when I wore a slinky black dress—this was very long ago, before the sands in my hourglass figure shifted—and by the time we finished one dance, we were the center of a ring of onlookers. This was held at a suburban nightclub owned by one brother’s father; he asked us if we’d give lessons. We said no, but it was nice to be considered that good.

John, at our wedding reception
Much later I married John. My husband is a wonderful, wonderful man who is the greatest blessing of my life. If I could change one thing about him, it would be that he had not been stricken with rheumatoid arthritis when he was a little boy.  Telling you that he went from twenty years in a wheelchair to years on crutches to just a cane six months before I met him barely expresses the minimum of one of his journeys. We did not have a band or even a DJ at our wedding; I didn’t feel it would be right to spend our first married evening with him watching me in the arms of other men, and he told me over and over that he does not dance. But that was fine; we were together, and that was enough. I was happy. It was a perfect day.

A few years after our wedding, we decided to go to one of my high school class reunions. My classmates like to dance—the floor of the old American Legion hall was shaking under our feet. Yes, our—no longer constrained by etiquette that the boy had to be the one asking, I boldly invited some of my male classmates to dance with me. Despite not dancing, John had such a good time chatting with them that he agreed to go to another one five years later. That one was held in a country club ballroom with a good dance floor.

Near the end of the evening, John shyly asked me to dance. We stood on the edge of the floor, he hung his cane over a chair, put his arms around me, and we swayed to the music for two songs. That was what it may have looked like outwardly. Inwardly, we were doing all kinds of fancy steps, the hem of my dress swirling around us, and the only word to describe it was and is…perfectly enchanting.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Place in Earth Day

Usually when people speak of Earth Day, they seem to emphasize environmentalism and conservation, but it seems to me that an important and often ignored component is to foster a sense of place.

With so many families moving so often, that is hard—but it is even more important. To a child (and in many schools, after Christmas and Hallowe’en, Earth Day is the most celebrated holiday), statistics such as:
  • 800 million people will go to bed hungry and awake too weak to lead productive lives.
  • Only 11% of the earth's surface is used to grow food.
  • 40,000 acres of land, an area about the size of Boise, Idaho will be converted to desert.
  • 200 million tons of topsoil will be lost through erosion from croplands.
  • 50,000 acres of forest will be eliminated.
are dry, hard to visualize, and well, not very meaningful to many people.

I grew up in the Musconetcong Mountains, a spur of the Kittitinny Ridge of the Appalachian Mountains in northwestern New Jersey. As a child, I heard place names dating from the time that the Lenni-Lenape tribe of Native Americans had called it their homeland, as well as those associated with later waves of immigrants from Europe: Dutch, Swedish, English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, German, and others.

My parents were transplants from Red Bank and Middletown in the south-central part of the state, which is probably why my brother and I were encouraged to learn what we could of local history, often discussed around the dinner table. (I don’t recall it being taught in school at all; I hope that that has changed.) Mother passed on her “canaler fever” to me, and I in turn infected my Pennsylvanian husband, because I grew up around the remnants of the Morris Canal.

Because my family were unusual in the late 50s and 60s in taking us on vacation camping trips across the country and Canada, my brother and I were exposed to a wide variety of landscapes besides the ones in which we moved every day. By the time I was 15, I’d been to all but 3 of the lower 48 states and 5 provinces of Canada—a wonderful learning experience!

"Uncle Dan" Beard
Dr. Charles Eastman, Ohiyesa
Sioux Activist
My father, Charles Richard Jacob, was an amateur naturalist. As a boy, he’d been taken into New York City by his opera-loving French father; Grandpa Jean Pierre Jacob spent several Saturdays every season at Metropolitan Opera matinee performances, paying a guard at the Natural History Museum to keep an eye on his son and giving him some money for lunch at the cafĂ©. Daddy was soon a familiar sight there, often allowed to go behind the scenes as he grew older. One day he wore his Boy Scout uniform because he had persuaded Grandpa to go to a father-son banquet that evening when they got back, and there wouldn’t be time for him to change. As usual, he wandered around, eventually opening a door into a library that was normally deserted. But that day it was occupied by a man he recognized from pictures immediately—Dan Beard, the founder of American Boy Scouting—and another, more slender, dark man. Stammering apologies, Dad was about to leave, when Mr. Beard beckoned him in and they began talking to him. The other gentleman was Dr. Charles Eastman, the Sioux protagonist of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, an outstanding activist for his people…and who had helped Dan Beard design much of the outdoors programs then used. Both men enlarged my father’s view of the world; he never forgot that meeting, anymore than he forgot that at that evening’s Scout banquet, he became a Life Scout. To the end of his life, Dad was fascinated by the outdoors and Native American life.
During WWII, forced to be active on the Home Front instead of in the Army Air Corps as he wanted, Dad became the local Boy Scout District Superintendent. I think it was a big disappointment to him later that my brother had no interest in becoming a Cub Scout or Scout, but when I was 8, Mother formed Brownie Troop #33 in Hackettstown, and I was an ardent member of the Girl Scouts for the next ten years. Daddy was happy to be a resource, teaching us how to march, tie knots and a lot of woodcraft like tracking, finding our way with and without a compass, mapping, making fires, and so on.

Matchstick Lichen
 Mine is a family of enthusiasts. I remember one chilly spring when I was about 9, most of it spent crawling around portions of Stevens State Park with Mother, as we identified different kinds of mosses and lichens through a small magnifying glass Jeff had given her for Christmas. The aluminum cover, embossed with an American eagle, swiveled to form its handle. That may have been the same spring that Daddy got interested in making and using Stone Age tools, and that meant that I did too. It was fun to imagine a family using them long ago…

Almost every Saturday and/or Sunday afternoon when I was a girl, Dad and I, and often Mother too, would go for a walk or hike in a park: as a little girl, to me Voorhees and Stokes seemed a long way away, but we also hiked up and down Mt. Tammany in the Delaware Water Gap more than once, and closer to home were Stevens State, Hacklebarney, and Jenny Jump. Mother and Dad sometimes went up to Hawk Mountain in PA for the hawk count. Besides wherever we vacationed out of state, we went to just about every non-urban park and bird sanctuary in New Jersey from High Point to Barnegat. We knew and loved them all at different seasons.

I can’t go anywhere without looking at things like the color of the dirt (to me, proper soil in the black humus soil of Great Meadows; I look at red and think “clay” and wonder how much grows in brown). I look for birds, especially hawks, and I rejoice in trees. Mother the artist taught me about the 3:1 ratio of branches, and she loved the shape of trees as much as I do.

Is it any wonder that from the ages of 9-17, I was a Transcendentalist? I wondered how my ancestors could bear to leave their homes for somewhere else, although now after so many years in southwestern PA, I can understand how one can come to love another place, in a different way. But my heart is rooted firmly in those mountains and rivers of my childhood, and when I think of Earth Day, I think of those places. There have been times in my life when I have longed for them so much it is physically painful, when I have needed to get away from buildings and move my feet from macadam, asphalt, or concrete sidewalks to the more yielding and sympathetic earth. It nurtures me in the deepest places.

That is why I believe it is important for us to encourage our children to love places, to develop that sense of unique place in each of their hearts. Yes, we need to take care of our planet and those who dwell upon and in it. Yes, we need to be better stewards. No child, anywhere, should go to bed hungry, ever. We should not waste or mar the beauty around us.

But all the statistics in the world will not be as real as a treasured memory of a spring or summer or fall morning in forest, desert or coastland, or a winter moon seen through air so crystalline you almost feel it will shatter at a loud noise. Those memories will be our earth’s safeguard, because they will arouse a passion for preserving more than the regret and impersonality of numbers.

Here are two poems of mine:

Muscanetcong River, Stephen's State Park
Stephen’s State Park
(for my father)

My first quarter-century,
March through November,
we drove North Jersey roads
            to walk the trails of her parks:
the height of Mt. Tammany,
Brigantine’s southern bird-cry,
Voorhees’ mossy ledges,
Hackelbarney’s glacial scree
--all part of weekend freedom.
Mother the artist delighted in tree-shapes,
    framed-in compositions, matched earth-tones.
I hunted for words, fought with line-breaks,
    Spun out rhythms like stones on water.
You    simply   loved.
Last year the family asked you
not to go alone.
Your almost-eighty years scared them.
Mother still works; I’m far away.
You walk on macadam among houses
    --a man can’t sit all day inside.
Daddy, this spring I’ll come home.
We’ll choose canes from your collection
--maybe I’ll lend you one of mine—
drive out Willow Grove Street,
leave the car in Stephens’ lot
      below the hill you cannot climb now.
We’ll walk the river path,
watch the Muscanetcong brown as Mother’s eyes
below a sky as blue as yours,
look for fiddlehead ferns and early violets
sheltered by bleached brittle leaves,
the way we always do.
We’ll pause on the footbridge
to Brock Island,
find weathered seats, sturdy
as your larger bones,
touch new bark on tree-trunks,
talk    and    not-talk.
There   we always    listen.

Daddy, I love you.
I’ll come in the spring, I promise.
Wait for me.

4th draft


Colors II

The eyes have it
  Jackfrost-sketches on slate walks
too delicate to sense by foot…
            bright TV flickers…
the pattern in drapes…
 plaid in pleated skirts…
patina of hand-rubbed wood…
   the expression of sycamore pallor
against smooth-silk falls
at Clinton near the Old Mill

so many shapes I’ll never touch again
   clear to my caressing eyes

I’ve gotten inside pictures
  gotten drunk on mountain views,
groped for words to express the colors
I remember
                         delicacy of shading in Badlands rocks,
   azure sky      measureless above summer yards,
       the narrow snaking distant     Fall of Embers
              to  orangeyellow   to
                                                                                to a blur of tears
                                                                                    at Yosemite…

              the primary poster-paint of childhood
               vibrant with  just-discovered

               the shape of chrysanthemum days
                 textured with growth, adjusting

               an incandescent glow
                  of vision against
                                                     the    dark.

Spring, 1973.
Fall of Embers, Yosemite
Where, Reader, is your place?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Back-Hall Bat Lady

National Bat Appreciation Day was on April 17th. (Yes, I’m a bit late with this post. Sorry.)

I think this refers to the mammal, not the implement/club used in sports like cricket or baseball.

When I was growing up in the Washington Street half-a-double-house in Hackettstown, NJ, and my mother had to go up into the attic for something that she couldn’t have one of us do for her, she’d habitually tie on a large straw hat with flowers on the brim and a long gauzy pale blue scarf before ascending those steep narrow stairs. This was because, despite Daddy’s insisting that he’d bat-proofed the attic, she firmly believed that we did have bats up there. There were always huge sheets of brown cardboard tacked up against the rafters as a ceiling, but in some places they would sag, and nothing would convince her that they didn’t harbor a flitter of bats—not a colony, but a flitter, the collective word she always used. “I just know those rafters are festooned with a flitter of bats up under there,” she’d say darkly, and shudder at the thought of their little claws getting into her hair and their flapping leathery wings around her ears.

She’d do whatever it was as quickly as she could, tight-lipped with revulsion, so she could go back downstairs…but sometimes she’d forget to take off the hat and restore it to its place atop the white metal shelved cabinet that took the place of a linen closet. At least once, she wore it downstairs after guests had arrived suddenly. This annoyed her because she really wasn’t absent-minded, but that day she had been preoccupied, I forget why. She was even more annoyed that none of us had been there to head her off, so to speak.

She would not have liked this occasion at all.

I’m not exactly a fan of bats myself, although I’m not afraid of them. As a storyteller, I’ve discovered that just about everybody has a bat story, and if you tell one, someone else will say, “Oh, I had an experience with a bat that you’ve got to hear!” Some of them are scary, and some are funny, and some are filled with facts about how useful they are.

I have a bat story of my own….and yes, I’m going to write it out here:

It happened in the early 80s, when my first husband George and I were Urban Pioneering on Pittsburgh’s North Side, in a neighborhood called the Mexican War Streets—that’s because the man who developed and parceled out the lots on those streets had fought in the Mexican War, and named the streets after its battles, Spanish names like Palo Alto, Buena Vista, Resaca, and the names of generals in that war. Urban Pioneering means that you are living in an urban area, like Pittsburgh,, in modern times, but you're living like a pioneer while renovating a house, aka gentrification or yuppication in an old neighborhood.We lived in a big old brownstone house, half of a double house, that had been built in 1881 as a wedding present by their father for twin sisters and their husbands. Our half had seen better days, all of them before the Depression; after that, it was turned into three apartments and went downhill from there.

The original kitchen had been in the basement. It wasn’t dark, because the ground sloped in the back, so on the alley side, the kitchen was at ground level—although the front door of the house, up a level, was on the street level. This is not all that unusual for houses of that period in Pittsburgh, which is not exactly a flat place….But the owner who’d bought our side from one of the twins jerry-built two-story addition in the back for kitchens on the first and second floors. The problem was that he’d skimped on the materials. (Jerry-built is defined as "poorly built with shoddy, flimsy materials.") As a result of the way he propped it up, it sagged. By the time we bought it and moved in in 1980, the kitchen and the room above it had a pronounced slant going from the front to the back. The third floor apartment had a back bedroom converted into its kitchen.

Our plan was to eventually knock off the addition and go back to having the kitchen in the basement, with a restored dumbwaiter up to the dining-room (the original dumbwaiter’s back had been taken out, it was floored on each level and the mechanism removed, so it became the entrance to the first and second floor kitchen addition). We were going to put the twelve rooms back into a one-family house, to be filled with/used by extended family and friends.

For three years, the house was an odd combination of partially-restored and not-tackled-yet, so we had miles of walls stripped down through layers of paint and wallpaper to the original horsehair-plaster-lath, and more miles of stripped woodwork and interior wooden shutters (all done by me), a lovely slate fireplace that worked in the living-room (originally the back parlor), broken tile hearths in several other rooms, and a bathroom on each floor except the basement.Interior shutters were propped up in a corner, ladders and various tools and pails of debris were lying around, and so on.

In its heyday, the house had had two staircases, an elegant front one that swept up from the entrance hall, and in a back hall, behind it a narrower, steeper one with a bell next to it to summon the maid, back when there was no lack of cheap labor. At some point, the servants’ stair had been torn out, along with the bell, and the maid was long gone too. Unfortunately. I could have used her help! We did have two ghosts, though, which is another story entirely.

But one day, just before lunch, I noticed that our two cats were acting oddly in the back hall. Investigating, I found that my first fear, that they had cornered a rat or mouse (Tyke, the Japanese bobtail, had cleared them out in his first three weeks of residence; Freight, the tortoiseshell, wouldn’t have known what to do with either kind) was groundless.

Instead, they had found a bat.

I immediately spoiled their fun by clapping a cardboard carton over it and yelling for George, who had chosen that day, unusually, to come home for lunch. He emerged from our library—we both had lots of books even before we married each other, and so the front parlor had become the library/office. Pointing to the box, I informed him of our latest livestock addition. “We have to move it!”

“You mean we have to touch it?” he asked in horror.

“Not if we can help it, because there’s definitely something wrong with it,” I told him. “After all, it’s winter, and chilly in here, and broad daylight. It shouldn’t be here—and it was kind of skittering around on the floor. It didn’t fly.” We had nice high ceilings too, over ten feet high.

So he slid a piece of plywood under the box, and together we moved it into the first floor bathroom, the only room on that floor with a door the cats couldn’t get open; I was concerned that they might get bitten or somehow infected with whatever ailed the bat.

I returned to fixing lunch; George went into the library to make some calls as to what we should do with the bat. After all, bats do live in colonies—or flitters—and if something was wrong with this one, others might be affected as well. Presently he came into the kitchen. “Well, I called several places,” he said cheerfully. “The state ag guy was telling me all kinds of interesting stuff about them. They’re very useful in controlling bugs.”

“I’d be thrilled if they’d take care of the silverfish and cockroaches,” I told him, “except that I doubt that’s why this one was down on our hall floor!”

“I told him you weren’t feeling very appreciative of them today.”

“Not when they’re in my space, no. I don’t go in their caves. And?” I prodded.

“And he suggested we call the county health department, and I did, but all I could get was a recording; they must all be out to lunch. Gosh, is that the time already? I’ve got to run or I’ll be late to my meeting!” And the coward beat a hasty retreat, leaving me stuck with a bat in the bathroom.

I did get through to the county health department a while later, and the gentleman I spoke with was very enthused. No, that wasn’t normal behavior at all, he agreed. The best thing would be to have it tested. But they didn’t pick up, nor did they deliver, so I’d have to bring the bat to them in Oakland. It was alive? Oh, the thing to do was kill it, he said blithely.

I regretted eating lunch. “Can I drop a cinder block on it?” I asked. We had plenty of them in the front yard, from demolishing an ugly porch in favor of a more appropriate front stoop.

“No! We need the brain intact. It would be best if you smothered it. ‘Bye now!”

I hung up the phone and contemplated my options. A sense of unreality was overcoming me, a not unusual feeling during those years….In the end, I walked down the hill to a little mom-and-pop corner grocery, and asked Mr. Ward if I might please have one of his butcher bags—very thick mylar. No, I didn’t want any meat, I just needed a bag.


My truthful response startled him—and fascinated the old neighborhood drunk who'd come in to get warm, abnd who followed me up the hill. He was still there when I brought out the carton and plywood, so I made him shovel the bat into the bag, along with a few wind-blown dead leaves. If he was going to kibitz, he might as well be useful.

Bats have very large, fierce eyes, did you know that?

Slowly, thinking dark thoughts about Karma, I squeezed the air out of the bag, its little claws scrabbling at the clear mylar shroud enclosing it….as it mouthed little bat curses at me and the world on its way to the Bat Hereafter.

I dumped the bag into a garbage bag so I didn’t have to see those accusing eyes, and put it once more back in the bathroom while I called George. His new secretary, sounding dazed, put me through to him.

“Okay, the bat’s dead, but we have to take it to the health department, and I am not taking it on the bus. You’ve got the car; can you come back and run me over there, please?” I asked.

“Well, okay. I’ll be there soon.” After all, urban pioneering had been his idea.

Presently, he drew up in front and I opened the bathroom door, wondering what I’d do if instead of a dead bat in a garbage bag, I found a gentleman with a widow’s peak, a black cape, and a Transylvanian accent….

Nope, just the garbage bag next to the claw-footed Victorian tub. I felt distinctly let down.
We drove over to the health department, where the receptionist made us put it under a chair in the corner furthest from her little window while she called the white-coated men in back to come get it.

When George and I arrived home, it was almost twilight, and we saw a plume of black eddying out of the third-floor window of an abandoned house two doors away. It was one of those bitterly cold, Arctic days that Pittsburgh gets in mid-January. They should have been hibernating, but we were sure that that was the source—even if we never did figure out how that one had gotten into our house.

Now, we had an elementary school up the block, and a lot of children, cats and dogs living on our street—this was back in the days when neighborhood kids walked to school. I called every city and county agency I could think of that might have some kind of jurisdiction over abandoned houses and/or bats, and every single one of them suggested another number I could try. I tried all of them, every morning.

Eventually, the  health department gave us the results of their autopsy. Our bat was sick. No rabies, which was our biggest concern, but sick with something rare. Maybe not contagious to humans, but they weren’t sure.

At the end of three weeks, I called each number again—by now I was on first name basis with most of them—and said the same thing to each person: “Look, we have a grade school, with kids going back and forth every day right past that house. These are little kids, who are fascinated by anything that might remotely look like a pet and might try to pick one up if they see it on the ground. There are lots of cats and dogs on this street too. Last night we had a meeting of our block club—I’m president—and we all agreed that I should tell you our decision. If someone from your office does not come out here tomorrow, gets rid of the bats and boards up that house, and any one of them bites any child, adult or pet, we are going to sue your office and you personally, and we will call every TV and radio station in Pittsburgh so that you get lots of lousy publicity about your indifference to the public welfare and safety.”

The next morning at 8 am, there were crews outside from both the city and the county, boarding up the house and trucking away the bats. I don't know where they took them and I didn't ask.

A few months later, a crew from the phone company dumped a large pole along the curb in the street outside. Our street was narrow and cobblestoned, and most of us had no parking except on the street; this pole was really in the way. They’d simply put it down and disappeared. I called the phone company two days later to ask them to move it. When I mentioned our address, the man on the other end said, “Oh, you’re the bat lady! We’ll take care of it!” and it was gone the next day.

Now that was a day that I appreciated bats!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

No Housework Day--All in a Name?

April 7th was (among other things), No Housework Day.

Never heard of this before seeing it listed on an April calendar. I have no idea who made it official or if it's a grassroots holiday. But it triggers a surprinsing variety of thoughts for me!

I have never claimed to be Suzy Domestic. Like many women I know, it's a juggling act to manage outside-the-home work, housework, errands (what the Scots call "messages"), and the multitude of other things we want/need/ought to do every day.

My mother, Dorothy Dangler Jacob, did housework because it had to be done, and she delegated chores to me as I grew old enough to learn how to do them, but she was not a career housewife--which must have been awkward in the 1950s and early 60s when Donna Reed and June Cleaver presided over the cultural consciousness of Sweet Housewives wearing pearls and heels. Although Mother maintained a clean, welcoming and pleasant home, she was much more interested in art, church affairs, and other activities than she was in having the shiniest kitchen floor on the block. As more and more women have combined working inside and outside the home, that has become more the norm, and more women have struggled with Doing It All--as women have always struggled, if without formal acknowledgement in their cultures that they were handling many roles.

My first husband's grandmother and great-grandmother were Career Homemakers. His mother, a divorcee and single mother, worked as an executive secretary from the time he was three and she moved him back home to her family in Pittsburgh's Homewood neighborhood. The two of them had an apartment in the attic, his grandparents lived on the second floor, and his great-grandparents lived on the ground floor. As the adored only child, he had the run of the whole big house, spending many hours with his grandmother and great-grandmother. This was good, in that he was a happy, loved child and boy. But they were so adept at running their households in tandem that they made it look effortless...and somehow he completely missed the point that they were in the home all the time, and not also in an outside workplace. Thus, when we got married, his expectations of what I would do did not mesh with mine...

It was understood that I must find a job, which I did. One example of our differing perspectives of my role in the home started with his watching me fold laundry one day in our bedroom after bringing it up from our apartment building's laundry room. "Hey! You aren't putting those in the drawer, are you?" he asked.

"Did you want your undershirts in a different one?" I asked, pausing.

"But you haven't ironed them!"

I stared at him incredulously. "Ironed undershirts?" I repeated the utterly foreign phrase carefully.

"My grandmother always irons my undershirts," he asserted. "They feel better, ironed. No wrinkles."

Did I mention that except for college, he had always lived at home? And that they delighted in spoiling him?

I set them aside. That evening, I set up the ironing board and he watched me iron one before turning back to a Pirates game on TV.

Two days later I asked him how his undershirt felt. "Fine!" he said. "You did a good job."

I looked him in the eye. "Just so you know," I told him, "I ironed the one you wore yesterday."

"I could tell," he nodded.

"But you can't, because I didn't iron the one you're wearing now. And I'm not ironing them again, or your teeshirts. It's a pain and completely pointless, since nobody can tell the difference. Grandma Jane has her routine, and part of that is spending four hours every Tuesday ironing. She irons everything, clothes, sheets, towels, handkerchiefs, even though she has drip-dry and no-iron things, simply because it's a habit and part of what she's done for the past fifty years--and I am working fulltime, the same as you are."

To his surprise, his mother backed me up. "She's not being lazy," Belle-Me/re said to him. "There is a difference between being unwilling to do something necessary and doing something that is just extra work. Grandmother Jane had the leisure to do it for you; your wife does not. She could have pretended to do it, you know. Frankly, I think you should learn to iron your own clothes. I'm sorry I didn't insist on it!"

As  a girl, I objected to interrupting my play or reading to dust or vacuum or clean the toilet. My parents listened to my protests, and told me to do whatever it was anyway, and I did. Most of my objections stemmed from a feeling of unfairness. It wasn't that I felt myself above doing it; it was the injustice that I was expected to do my chores while my older brother was usually able to get out of doing his. My parents admitted later that they spoiled him, and that's the truth, but they were determined not to make the same mistakes with me, and this inequity only sowed the seeds of my rebellion and dislike.

Mother's mother, Abigail Jones Dangler, rarely allowed her blindness to stop her from doing what she wanted to do. When I was 7, that included teaching me to make my own bed. From scratch. Daddy had made me a new pink bed, now that I was too old for the youth bed converted from my crib. I was so proud that he had made it just for me! It was high, so I had to scramble up on it, and that was so the bottom part could have two big drawers to hold linens, extra blankets and some winter clothes. The headboard was heart-shaped, just right for sitting my Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls on until I needed them to sleep with or console me for any troubles.

Gramma had me strip the bed down to the mattress, and then showed me how to do hospital corners, explaining that that was the way nurses did it, so the sheets were less likely to come out and slide around at night. (Yes, this was before fitted bottom sheets.) So I practiced putting on the bottom and top sheets, and then the blanket, a nice new blue one, folding back the top of the sheet under it--something that apparently is not done west of the Alleghenies in western PA except by NJ transplants like me. Perhaps having a few inches of sheet turned over the top edge of the blanket dates from a time when blankets were scratchier (It must have been hard to completely rinse soap out of woolens before automatic washers), or perhaps when hand-embroidered sheets were a prized part of a housewife's linen chest, to be shown off before the post-WWII fashion of bedspreads as a decorative status symbol). She showed me how to put the pillow case on, and then the bedspread. That was the hardest part, getting it on smoothly, the design centered and without wrinkles. With her sensitive fingertips, Gramma could find the tiniest mistake. "I'll never get it right!" I grumbled after I made my bed for the eighth time.

"Ach, aye, you will," she said, pointing unerringly to the framed needlepoint pictures Daddy had hung up on the wall for me. "Remember when you learned tae dae those? You thought the first stitches waur hard tae dae, and noo you dinna even think of hoo tae dae them. It will be the same wi' this. The wa' you ken you've mastered something is when you dae it wi'oot ha'ing tae think of each step."

She was a wise woman. It's true; making a bed from scratch, queen-sized now instead of a twin, takes me less than five minutes.

I have a friend who has collected how-to-do-housework books for years, and I've read some of them. The Side-Tracked Sisters helped me reorganize my kitchen more efficiently. Several years ago, I was having a hard time. I was working fulltime, and in one year, my husband had seven operations (and long recuperations) and four infections. I was his caregiver. When he was in the hospital, I was going from home to work and then the hospital and then home to fall into bed....and at the hospital all day and evening on the weekends. When he came home, the house was a mess and I felt overwhelmed.

Enter the FlyLady, Marla Cillia, a housework coach. (Forget any horror movie images; the name stems from a time when she taught fly-fishing!) I love her sensible approach, that not everything she suggests will work for each person, but that most of it will. Marla advocates decluttering, something I still struggle with. She recommends maintaining a shiny kitchen sink or something that you will keep looking nice, as a starting point in a room, to gradually expand on as you slowly develop new, better habits, and that you can accomplish a lot in just fifteen minutes. This notion of being able to start anew is something I strongly believe in, the hope of improving. As I remarked to an acquaintance yesterday who told me he is reading Plato's The Republic for the first time, I'm more of an Aristoltian than a Platonist, because I am in a process of becoming.

But what really saved my bacon that year was her belief in routines. I developed one for each evening, putting out my clothes before bedtime (which Mother had started me on when I began kindergarten), but expanding that to getting things ready for breakfast the next morning like prefilling DH's coffeemaker (DH stands for Dear Husband), putting things I needed to take with me the next morning on my "launch pad" (like bills to mail), and setting the alarm clock . After a while, I added a morning routine for before leaving for work. Timing how long things take made a big difference for me, because if it takes four minutes to do something, and I have five minutes, then it doesn't seem that huge. The first time I had to change his incision dressing seemed to take forever, not to mention giving a bed bath, but in less than a week, I had a routine worked out so I didn't overlook any steps or materials, and knew exactly how long it would take. Knowing a task's length helped me figure out what time I needed to get up to get them done without rushing--and for an owl like me, that was important! .A routine for the afternoon after I returned from work followed--simple things like making sure that nothing was lying on the dining-room table, starting a load of laundry, having a few minutes to sit down and share our day before starting supper. At one point, dusting seemed like an insurmountable obstacle--but if I broke it up into babysteps, doing one room a day, by the end of the week, the whole place had been done and no surface was grey-furry with dust. If  our home wasn't white-glove immaculate, at least it was neat and, I felt, under control, as well as easier for my husband to move around in as he grew stronger.

For me, one of the least enjoyable chores is grocery shopping. i don't understand why some women boast of going to the store two or three times a week. John was able to download an application onto my Palm, and once I customized the list according to the store's layout, checking off each item on that list as I put it into the cart, the quicker I could get done and the fewer things I forgot.

I developed routines at my job too--doing periodic "room rescues" every day of two areas I was in charge of  which were used by most of the staff kept things neat and supplied. Every day my desk was cleared off before I went home, and getting to work a bit earlier than my start time gave me a few unhurried minutes to get organized for the day.

If this sounds remeniscent of  Grandma Jane and her mother, well, yes. The old rhyme:

Wash on Monday,
Iron on Tuesday,
Bake on Wednesday,
Brew on Thursday,
Churn on Friday,
Mend on Saturday,
Go to meeting on Sunday.

was followed by thousands of women for over 100 years in this country. The more I think of it, the more sense it made for many of them before the invention of the many labor-saving devices we take for granted today. Washing clothing dirtied by hard physical work, at a time when one commonly bathed in a washtub in the kitchen on Saturday night, was difficult, especially when fabrics were coarser and often worn more than once between launderings. If cloth took a long time to make, it was more expensive, so people had less of it. Up through the 19th Century, clothing was often mentioned in wills, handed down through generations. In A Girl of the Limberlost (1909), Gene Stratton Porter had one of her characters remark, "A girl who can't keep a dress clean for three days is a dirty girl." If you look at the list of items Laura Ingalls packed into her new brass-bound trunk to take in 1888 to her marriage  to Almanzo Wilder, as described in These Happy Golden Years, she did not have as many clothes as most women take for granted now.

To do a load of wash, you heated water on the stove or over a fire built in the yard, dipped or poured it into the washtub, added lye soap (hard on the hands), added the clothes, and rubbed each item up and down over a slatted washboard (which meant you had to bend over it, so your back would ache) to loosen the dirt, then wring it out, put it into another tub of clear water to rinse it up and down, possibly more than once, wrung out the excess water, and then put it into a basket to lug to a line and fasten with clothespins. Yes, I've left out the steps involved in bleaching or "bluing" whites). By the way, the washboard and a clothes-line in the 19th Century were high-tech; before that, women would slap the clothes against a river-rock and drape wet clothes over bushes. When it was dry, you folded it back into the basket and took it inside--supposing that something hadn't caused the line to fall down, or a goat tried to eat the tablecloth or sheets, or it rained suddenly.

Mother's was green.
The first washing-machine I remember was a big old round green wringer washer on legs. Daddy put it on castors when we moved from New Street in Budd Lake, NJ to the second-floor apartment on Mountain Avenue in Hackettstown, NJ when I was 6 1/2. We learned to walk small and speak softly on Mondays, a day Mother hated from her soul. She would connect the washer via a hose to the kitchen sink to fill it, add some Tide and the clothes, run it, and then roll it over the linoleum floor to the bathroom off the kitchen, where she would hand-crank each item through the wringer; it would fall onto a metal "slide" Daddy made her; she propped one end against the washer, and the other into the bathtub, half-full of clean rinse water. She'd souse the item up and down, run it through the wringer again without letting it slide, and put it into a cloth sling that hung from a frame on wheels. Once that bag was full, she'd wheel it out of the bathroom, across the kitchen floor, out to the landing on the back stairs, in winter put on her coat, open the window, and hang it on a pulley clothesline. By the time she was finished with a week's washing, she was tired, aching and very short-tempered.

One of Mother's painting friends, Mrs. Koehler, had her sons dump clothes from the line into the basket for her, and then  she used to spend a lot of time rolling up clothes and sprinkling them with water before ironing them, a common step. Mother felt it was a waste of time after drying the clothes in the first place; she maintained that if you folded something carefully, it had fewer wrinkles, and if you had a good steam iron, that would take care of steaming out any harder wrinkles as you ironed. But while Mrs. Koehler didn't have an old flatiron she heated on the stove, she didn't have or use one with a steam feature. Years later, I was surprised to find out that my college roommate's mother sat down to iron! Everyone I knew stood up.

I was started on ironing Daddy's handkerchiefs, then dish-towels, moving on to more complicated things like blouses and shirts. By then I could understand why Mother felt that percale and other "miracle" fabrics of the mid-20th Century were just that--it was hard to iron something as large as a sheet, for example, and keep it off the floor. Once I got over being scared of burning myself, I found I loved the scent of freshly-ironed clothing, and I liked watching the wrinkles vanish. Mother found it boring...until we moved to the half-a-double-house on Washington Street. Then she would set up the ironing-board, lugged upstairs from its bracket and rope hanger on a basement pegboard, in the dining-room, and listen to French records while she performed this task. By then, she and I were dividing it up; she did her clothes, my brother's, and half the household things, and I did mine, Daddy's, and the other half--and by the time I was 12, we had matching white boxy washer and dryer in the kitchen. Somewhere deep in my memory are overheard French irregular verbs, the complete lyrics to the Singing Nun albums, and Roger Tory Peterson's North American birdcall recordings from her ironing stints.

Bee Butter Pat Mold
Because Mother didn't bake, except for holidays, or brew (dating from the days of home-brewed beverages like beer, ale and homemade wines--and did you know that Jane Austen was considered a fine brewer? You can see the brew-house behind her cottage in Chawton near Winchester, England if you go), she did other things on those days. She didn't churn in my childhood, either, although when she lived on farms as a girl, she and her sisters must have churned the milk from Mollie the Cow into butter. She had a finely-carved old square butter-mold hung over the kitchen sink that I think Grandpop, George Dangler, had made for Gramma. It had a tiny man and woman on it, and some other figures. This was much bigger than the "pat" mold she had. It was wooden too, bell-shaped with a handle; you positioned the mold over a pat of butter, pushed down on the handle, and a smaller piece would be pressed down to  imprint a small bee on the butter, to look pretty--and if you were selling it, to show that it was yours.

By the time Sunday arrived, our foremothers had earned a day of rest! The strict Protestant insistance of no work on that day was rooted in the Bible, but also a way of setting the day of worship aside from the rest of the week. This idea may seem strange to many younger folk today, but although my family wasn’t strict, I can remember the Sunday hush. Fewer stores were open (Daddy used to gas up the car on Saturdays), and it was a special day. Sunday meant we had coffeecake instead of cereal, and the Sunday Newark Evening News with its colored comics, magazine and weekly TV listings. I’d dress in my Sunday dress, and if it was cold, my Sunday coat and hat, and walk to Sunday School before church. In the afternoon, while Mother did the dishes from a hot dinner (the rest of the week we had sandwiches for lunch), Daddy would read the Bible and the paper. Then we’d go for a hike in a state park and come home to a lighter supper.

I still don’t like doing housework, but I’m grateful for all the devices we have which make it easier and faster to do, even while I question the casual attitude we have that we’re justified in using more electricity than many other countries, and our dependence on the kind of energy we use to fuel that electricity.

Thousands of women in other countries are still walking miles to fetch water (not all of it clean), laboring to keep their families clothed and fed, their homes whole, clean and welcoming. Like us, they do these things day after day, with patience and impatience, with pride and annoyance, with frustration and satisfaction. In peace and war, in flood, famine and fire, women build and rebuild, and we all have this in common in whatever time or place:

We are more than housekeepers.

We make the homes and our families’ memories of them as we keep them.

We bless our homes and those within with the work we do.

Another old saying, “Many hands make light work,” originating in a time of large families, applies in a different way now. As I clean and cook, wash and mend, the kinship I have with my foremothers and other women strengthens me.

Is housework as onerous if we think of it as blessing those we love?

Similar, if a bit simpler than Mother's