Snow Reverie

Two days ago it snowed, a light fluffy, non sticky snow, the stuff of bitter cold weather and bright clear skies.  Yesterday it blew, and the crisp edges of the driveway were blurred into little duney drifts.  Around town, those stretches of road with no windbreaks were heaped up with snow.  It was just the like snow on the stretch of County A starting just in front of my parents’ old house and heading east. It was a Bermuda Triangle-esque stretch of country road, where any bit of wind would sweep the snow off of the flat, plowed fields and send it racing across the prairie, to be caught and heaped up on the roadway.  We kids always thought that those swirling eddies of snow across the two lane road looked like the action of hockey players, racing and jostling across the ice.  Every winter, people heading east out of Janesville would be caught unawares by the treacherous stretch of windswept road just past the farmhouse, and they’d end up in the ditch.  Ours was the nearest house, and the drivers would inevitably end up at our back door, asking to use the phone, back in the day when cell phones weren’t a thing.  The kitchen phone was wall-mounted with a curly white cord that cold easily stretch into the unheated “back room” as we called it;  I know because perched on the washing machine was the only place that anyone could have a private conversation in the house. If mom was home alone with us kids, she’d make any single men make the call from the back room, with the door shut firmly between us and them, the white coil of cord mashed in the door jamb.  If there was a woman or kids however, a spot was generally cleared for them at the kitchen table.  One time, dad even gave the mom and kids donuts.  But that was a time that the mom was crying because she’d hit a farm dog in the road further up the way, not because of snow.

 

That swirly, windy, country snow would sometimes appear pink, as the debris from the silos filled with drying soybeans at the farm across the road would dust the top layers of it pink.  One winter the snow heaped up dirty  brown on the bottom, clean white next, and a pinkish layer on the top that looked for all the world like a cross section of the Neopolitan ice cream in the half-gallon box container in the freezer compartment of the house on County A.

A Flame in a Manger

 

For years my parents had been christening our one-acre front lawn with a set of those plastic Nativity figurines frequently seen huddled together during the holiday season.  When I was younger, the novelty of having a complete set—two lambs and a camel along with the full cast of characters including a shepherd—was enough to keep me feeling special.  As I got older I comforted myself that, because ours were vintage, displayed in a tasteful hay bale barn, and illuminated from above with a floodlight rather than garishly from within, my family had narrowly escaped being hopelessly tacky;  we instead rested firmly in the camp of whimsical nostalgia.  Regardless of the taste level, the annual appearance of the gang on the front lawn was something that provided a sense of continuity and, no matter the chaos going on inside, a sense that a certain Christmas serenity still reigned.

manger scene 1

I must have been photographing this particular moment, as only mom, dad, Katie, Louise and Pete are pictured.

manger scene 2

Louise with vintage (read–really old and chipped) Mary and Jesus.

It was my senior year of college that everything changed.  There were only a few days left of the term, and I slogged through finals with the promise that a comfortable, familiar Christmas on County A awaited me in a few short days.  Mom and I were wrapping up our once-weekly call that Sunday night when she offhandedly mentioned,

“Oh, and the Manger Scene burned down the other night.”

Coming as it did, across the phone line to my door room a couple hours’ drive away, my mother’s comment seemed even more incongruous.  True, we certainly did edit our traditional Sunday evening calls down to a skeletal minimum.  On my part, this was to spare her the details of the questionable choices that I was making during my last year of undergrad—a decision that she was more than happy to go along with.  This approach formed the crux of her parenting after age 12:  don’t ask any questions that you don’t want to know the answer to.  On her part, the lack of foreshadowing and leaving out of key details was more routine.  She never has been very good at foreshadowing things.  Dropped in your lap like an unexpected, squirming baby, her pronouncements were often without context and, similarly, without clear instructions on where to proceed next.  Luckily, it took very little to get her going, relating the story that now exists as a legend.

Apparently they’d gotten the manger scene set up a few days before.  It was a typical weekday night, and they were settled down in the family room for the evening.  A bright floodlight swept across the back of the family room as a sheriff’s vehicle swung into the gravel driveway.  They immediately assumed that this had something to do with the family’s newest driver, my sister Louise, who had already had one hit and run incident to her credit since getting her license in September.  (Fear not, the victim was the bumper of another car in the parking lot at dance).  They hustled to the kitchen door and stepped into the crisp, semi darkness of a winter night on the Wisconsin prairie.  The only light came from the manger scene, the dusk to dawn light having been ritually unscrewed to provide center-stage billing to the front lawn tableau.  The light seemed a bit brighter than usual however.  And and it was throwing off heat.  And crackling.

The nativity scene was completely engulfed in flames

The sheriff’s deputy exited his vehicle, glancing perplexedly from the Biblical inferno to my dad in his then-uniform grey hooded Janesville Fire Department sweatshirt.  Oh, have I forgotten to mention that he was the Janesville Fire Marshal at the time?  Must have slipped my mind.  The young deputy glanced nervously between the two and asked the only logical question:

“Sir, are you aware that you Christmas scene is on fire?”

An interesting question.  Perhaps my parents just were tired of that particular decoration and couldn’t see taking a trip to the dump.  Trash burning was not uncommon in the township, and who needs a burn barrel when you have a snow-covered front lawn as a fire ring?

His mind already reeling ahead to the implications of this very public display of the fire dangers inherent in Christmas light displays, dad wearily asked while rubbing at his furrowed brow, “Sheesh, please tell me that this hasn’t been called in.”  He was answered by the crackle of the deputy’s radio coming to life.  Oh, it had been called in.  And heavily discussed by all on duty firefighters that evening.  Dad told the deputy that he had things under control, no a hose truck wasn’t needed, and PLEASE don’t say any more than you need to about this on the radio.

As the deputy pulled away into the quiet night, dad wearily pulled on his barn boots and walked over to the fire.  He unplugged what proved to the be the inciting culprit:  a 50+ year old extension cord festooned at various points along its length with electrical tape.  Using a piece of scrap lumber he knocked the haybales apart, attempting to dissipate the the now roaring blaze.  Haybales really can go to town, once they get started.  They burned for several hours and smoldered into the night, long after my parents went to bed.  In the morning all that remained was a charred circle in the center of the lawn, melted plastic lumps marking the former positions of the holy family and their retinue.  Unfortunately it didn’t snow again for several weeks.  County A is a fairly heavily traveled road, and between the the dispatch radio and the road’s usual traffic, word of the incident spread quickly.  I think that dad took the ribbing in stride, and several poems commemorating the incident were delivered to the house, all set to familiar Christmas tunes.  The best was clearly “A Flame In a Manger.”

I didn’t quite believe my mother until I saw the evidence for myself.  And for those of you who have heard the story before, perhaps you didn’t believe it either.  But while dad put out the flames, mom had the foresight to document the proceedings for posterity.  Thanks mom!

Flame in a Manger

The next Christmas, mom went out and got a new set of figures at the Farm and Fleet, but things were never really the same.  The manger scene’s magical allure was diminished somehow.  One good thing, though, they didn’t need to purchase new wise men.  You see, the year of fire brother Patrick–he would have been around 8 at the time– had added some theatrical flair to the proceedings and was having the magi approach from the east, set to arrive on Epiphany, 12 days after Christmas.  Every morning he trudged across the acre-wide lawn in his boots and hauled the three statues several feet closer to the scene.  At the time of the fire, they were still far enough to the east to have been saved.  It took a couple of days for him to give up on the project, and for awhile the three plastic wise men were seen to be slowly approaching the burned patch of lawn little by little, inching their way through the blowing prairie winds toward the greasy plastic disc on the lawn of my childhood home.

 

Halloween Do’s and Don’ts

I love Halloween.  It’s the beginning of that frantic roller coaster ride that starts mid-October-ish with the need to turn on the furnace and burn apple spice scented things and continues through January 1.  While there are plenty of lists out there about how to make Halloween safer / more nutritious / more crafty / less sexy-costumified, I’m going to focus on how to do Trick or Treating right.  (This is a completely subjective list.  I’m married to someone whose idea of the right way to Trick or Treat involves getting back with the kids ASAP and changing into sweats to watch football).

  • DO yield to your children’s wishes in terms of costume complexity.  Did I really want to make a “tree” costume two weeks before my due date with the second child?  Absolutely not.  Did I do it?  Yes, because Halloween should be associated with fatigue, hot glue gun burns, and insanely cute pictures–not guilt.
    Peri-Evelyn birth 030

    You want to be a tree you say?  No problem.

    Now, the following year she wanted a $9.99 costume from Walgreens and I had to bite my tongue and let it happen.  The kid gets to drive the boat on the costume issue.  Here are a couple more of my greatest hits:

     

    Where did this ridiculous standard come from?  As with most things (at least according to my therapist) the blame lies squarely and wholly on my mother’s shoulders.  While I can sew straight lines from a pattern reasonable well, she can just make stuff up and it comes out looking great.  Mom would routinely wait until a couple of days before Halloween and begin taking requests from the five of us–and she delivered on ANYTHING. Between her mountains of scrap fabric, the refrigerator box housing previous years’ dance and Halloween costumes, and sheer ingenuity she created costumes including:  Minnie Mouse including padded shoe covers, Robin Hood, The Man in Black, Little Bo Peep, and Pepe Le Pew in addition to scores of witches, vampires and ghosts.  So whenever people suggest that I’m creative with costumes, I just roll my eyes.

  • DO dress your infant to toddler age child as a doll.  The caveat to the “kids drive the costume boat” rule outlined above is that this only applies once they are able to form really good full sentences.  Before that–they’re yours!  And kids as dolls are just too cute to pass up.  Their cheeks are so round and translucent for such a short period, that highlighting the fact through a well-timed doll costume is just too deliciously irresistible. 

    Like my mother, I went for Raggedy Ann.  Unlike my mother, I did NOT handmake my own yard wig in the days before You-tube tutorials were a thing.  Guys, she MADE UP her OWN version of a yarn wig.  I remember that she used leftover denim scraps for the underside skeleton of that red yarn wig I’m wearing above.  The woman is a technical genius.

  • If the baby is bald, DO take advantage of this with a costume highlighting the baldness.  We chose Shaolin Monk. 

    There are plenty of options however.  How about a Bruce Willis baby?  Mr. Clean?  Larry David?  Steve Harvey?  Rough time in her life Britney Spears?

  • DO NOT let Wisconsin weather be an excuse for staying inside.  Layer, layer, layer, and make sure that the headpiece at least gives a clue to the costume because chances are good that the rest won’t be seen at all.2011 November 035
  • DO let them trick or treat for as long as they want to.  This applies both to the day (a rule I find easier to apply since Jimmy is inevitably the one traversing the neighborhood in Wisconsin Halloweens) and over the years.  I will give out candy to anyone as long as they say “trick or treat” and are willing to let me identify their costume as “disaffected teenager.”
  • DO encourage a healthy sense of competition by opening a trading floor for the neighborhood children after trick or treating.

    20171029_182204

    Cordani House Trading Floor after the opening bell, Halloween 2017

  • DO NOT insert yourself into this floor.  Despite the fact that my children will literally bicker about anything (example from today’s backseat:  does the “beginning of time” mean the beginning of the universe or when humans started keeping track of time?  Because this affects the argument about “most awesome since the beginning of time.), they will manage to both create and enforce their own set of rules and norms in this bartering system.  DO NOT be tempted to suggest that their trade of 6 fun size Butterfingers for a full size Hershey is dumb because nobody really likes Hershey.  You will be met with a look of utter disdain and exasperation.  Stay upstairs with the adult beverages.
  • DO dress up yourself.  DO NOT worry about how silly you look.  I find great delight in dressing up for Halloween, and  I think I come by this honestly, given my family history.  Check out this snapshot of my Grandma on the right from 1946:
    Halloween 1946

    Ann (Recchia) Yench, Philip Yench, Nell (Yench) Cousin, a.k.a., “Grandma”

    I’m fairly certain that whatever is happening to her right is completely inappropriate by modern standards, but it certainly lends a certain devil-may-care attitude to the whole scene.  My mother also still enjoys dressing up, and 10 points for whoever can name her spirit-animal as whom she dresses every Halloween.  Hint:  she is a teacher, and it’s a book character…

    october-31-2016_untitled_041.jpg

    For those curious, yes, I believe she made this yarn wig too.  If you could see her stockings, they’re striped…

fall 2014-13

Grandma and the girls before getting lost on the way to the school Fall Festival and having to wait for help outside the car in this getup.

  • DO NOT let work keep you from dressing up.  Now, as pediatrician, it was perhaps somewhat easier for me to justify wearing a full costume to work.  However, I did not let concern for my patients’ literary fears affect my choices, as evidenced as two favorites that, yes, I wore to work:  Evil Queen and Dolores Umbridge.

 

Christmas 008

The year that I was senior resident during Halloween and “encouraged” the team to dress up as characters from Grease.  I can’t figure out why the reviews from my students were never higher…

  • DO let them eat the candy til they puke on Trick or Treat night.  It’s one night a year and provides a real sensory lesson on the notion of gluttony.   That whole consume-til-you-puke phenomenon is why I can no longer partake of either banana chips or Bailey’s.

    halloween 2007 029

    Natalie, Halloween 2007.  FYI, no evidence of candy desensitization as of yet

Sixth Grade

Natalie started sixth grade this year.  That feels weird.  Sixth grade is one of the first grades that I can remember with any narrative certainty.  Oh, I have memories before that, but they’re more like snapshots, or maybe little repeating GIF’s.  Sixth grade though, that’s where the narrative arc that continued for some time began.  Or should I say narrative arcs.  I could start any of a number of painful young adult novels with events that occurred in and around sixth grade.

St. Mary's School

St. Mary’s School, on the hill, Janesville, WI

It was the year of Mrs. Neumiller at St. Mary’s K-8 parochial school.  My class had a reputation for being “lively:”  fun for the teachers that still had the energy, hopelessly exhausting for those that didn’t.  Mrs. Neumiller fell into the latter camp, and if memory serves, she quickly retired after our sixth grade year.

st Mary 6th_1

1987, St. Mary’s 6th Grade

She wore a collection of chunky turquoise rings that hung loose on her fingers as she wrote on the board, held in place only by knuckles grown arthritic with age.  She wore a pen on a string around her neck that dangled forward as she distributed communion wine at weekly mass.  And she wore a look of harried concern most of the time.

 

Here’s a sampling of some of my story arcs that got their roots in sixth grade . . .

…Once, while demonstrating how one can perform the Heimlich Maneuver on oneself using the back of a chair, Mrs. Neumiller lost her footing, slipped, landed across the back of the chair and had the wind knocked out of her.  It probably hurt a lot.  I’m pretty sure that most of us either stared or laughed.  Theme:  kids are mean, and it takes awhile to have the human decency knocked into them.

…In sixth grade I started trying to look like other people.  Prior to this, I thought that looking unique was most important.  I sewed some clothes, made some interesting choices at the store for others.  I wore a sweater with sheep on it.  I had my mom put my damp hair in braids so that it would be wavy in the morning.  Then someone called me Tina Turner, and that was the end of that.  Conformity it was.  I tried to figure out how to make my bangs big.  I had a curling iron, but not any of the correct products or a mentor to teach me.  My mother had styled her hair by letting it air dry short for as long as I can remember.  My bangs never achieved the lofty heights of my classmates who had older sisters and ready access to mousse.  Theme:  even a desire to conform isn’t necessarily enough. 

 

Sixth Grade_1

Sixth Grade, before I started to experiment with big bangs.

…I got my period in sixth grade.  Shortly thereafter I was at a pool party at a classmate’s house and, newly menstruating girls being what they are, unpredictably had it arrive.  I had to use feminine hygiene products from her mom’s cupboard.  It was not OK.  Theme:  puberty sucks and I should really have been keeping track of things on a calendar.

…A classmate’s father died that year after a brief battle with brain cancer.  I remember her standing up to offer an intention during morning prayers one day.  She used the word “chemo” in such a familiar way that it still gives me chills.  It was the first funeral that I ever attended.  It rained.  I started to realize that life doesn’t always turn out the way you plan.  Theme:  life doesn’t come with any money back guarantees.  This is hard to learn.

…That year, we participated in a goal-planning activity.  It came with a green, shiny booklet that I’m sure was sponsored by a bank or something. It was the first time I had to answer the question “where do you want to be in 10 years?”  (I still hate that question).  The program also attempted to teach us basic financial skills and boiled money down to understandable facts.  I began to get the idea that maybe finances were a topic that could be discussed rationally and and without all sorts of emotion hanging onto them.   Theme:  there are ways to approach life other than your parents’ way;  this can feel like betrayal at first. 

…I longed to be noticed by boys, but I had absolutely no idea how best to go about it.  Apparently, showing off in class, dressing like a middle aged woman, and laughing painfully loudly was not the correct way.  Theme:  they’re really pretty easy to figure out once you stop trying so hard.

 

I wonder what narrative arcs Natalie will start this year?

I hope that her memories of me are of the patient moments.  I hope that she can avoid some of the embarrassments and that those that are inevitable are quickly blurred by memory.