Remembering When

Sugar Cubes, Syringes, and Sweet Relief

Mary Poppins was right: a spoonful of sugar does help the medicine go down. Even when it’s a sugar cube, decorated with a bright pink splotch of some suspicious substance.

I remember those sugar cubes in tiny paper cups, arrayed on tables in the Winner, South Dakota, city auditorium and handed out to a crowd of chattering children that included my sisters and me. It was the late 1950s or early 1960s, and we were among the many kids who received the much-welcome polio vaccine at immunization events all across the country.

I’m a little vague on the year, and I’m making an educated guess on the location. But I have no doubt about the bright pink color—or the awful taste. Even with the help of the sugar, it was bitter. Mary Poppins would have thought so, too.

In fact, without those vaccine-soaked sugar cubes, Julie Andrews might never have sung “A Spoonful of Sugar” in the 1964 Disney movie version of Mary Poppins. Robert Sherman, who with his brother Richard wrote the songs for the movie, came up with the lyrics for “A Spoonful of Sugar” after his son Jeffrey told him about getting the polio vaccine.

Back when I was dutifully crunching down my bittersweet pink cube, I didn’t know much about polio. I had seen photos of people in iron lungs. I knew of a handful of people in our community left handicapped by polio. I knew that my mother’s oldest brother, who died as a toddler decades before I was born, may have been a victim of polio. But as a child, I wasn’t really aware of the widespread fear of this disease or the deep relief that came with the polio vaccine.

Today, I know a lot more about our current pandemic. When, last week, I went to another vaccine clinic, it was with a feeling of relief that bordered on giddiness. This time, I wasn’t one of a crowd of fidgety children being herded into lines. I was one of a quiet group of adults, mostly over a certain age, respectfully masked and seated on folding chairs too far apart for chattering. If some of us felt fidgety during the brief wait for our turns, we kept it to our socially distanced selves.

There was no bright pink stuff on sugar cubes this time. Just a quick, painless jab in the arm from a nurse with beautiful warm eyes above her mask, who was friendly and gentle and clearly delighted with her pandemic-ending assignment.

I waited (patiently, since of course I had a book with me) in another folding chair for the required post-inoculation 15 minutes. During that time I developed a headache, which lasted for the rest of the day. It’s the only side effect I had, and it’s possible that part of it resulted from hearing Julie Andrews singing “A Spoonful of Sugar” in my head for several hours.

But this time, Mary Poppins notwithstanding, no sugar was needed to help the medicine go down. After this past year of isolation, fear, and sadness, the relief and joy of receiving a COVID vaccine was sweet enough all by itself.

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Seeing Red and Feeling Green

One of the many consequences of COVID-19, medical precautions, and self-quarantining is a shortage of blood donations. Some regular donors, bless them, are still giving. Like the man who made our local news this week for giving 20 gallons of blood over the past 33 years. He is 89.

I’ve been donating blood for more than three decades, too—just not quite as successfully.

It isn’t that I’m squeamish about the sight of blood. Really. As a kid, I could eat fried chicken with great pleasure even after watching my mother kill that same bird by chopping off its head with a hatchet. As an adult, I’ve dealt at least adequately with kids’ cuts, scrapes, and nosebleeds.

But things do get shaky if I’m faced with a combination of blood and needles. Especially when it’s my own blood. Whenever someone, even a trained medical professional, needs to take some of it by piercing me with a sharp object, I feel—uncomfortable.

I cope with routine blood draws at the doctor’s office by averting my eyes from what the technician is doing, gazing at some object elsewhere in the room, humming to myself, and thinking beautiful thoughts. Even with this approach, the world sometimes gets a little fuzzy around the edges. Especially if it’s one of those fasting blood tests where you have to show up before breakfast.

In spite of this little weakness, I am also a public-spirited person who wants to do the right thing. Which is why, years ago, I decided I should donate blood. Continue reading

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Paper Reindeer at the Ladies’ Aid

One of the skills in the “things I never particularly wanted to know” category that I’ve learned over this cold, snowy winter is the art of building fires in the wood-burning stove. Among the refinements I’ve figured out is that when you use old paper bags, tax returns, and bank statements for fire-starting, they ignite more readily if you first tear them into pieces.

The other day, as I squatted in front of the stove solemnly tearing paper with utterly irrelevant precision into halves and quarters and eighths, I was reminded of my mother.

What I remembered was a specific occasion, possibly a baby shower but more likely a meeting of our Methodist Church Ladies’ Aid Society. In either case, it was a sedate afternoon party for women, with a few little girls along by default. We were expected to remain quiet, well-behaved, and in the background. In exchange we got refreshments—most likely watery punch and homemade cake—and the chance to listen in on grownup conversations. Continue reading

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Deciding Made Easy, In One Easy Lesson

For two or three months now, a green plastic bottle cap has been collecting dust in my car. Along with a few pennies and a couple of mints, it sits in the flat little compartment by the cup holder that is probably meant to hold parking-meter change.

The cap is from a bottle of Sprite, I think. Since as an infrequent soda-sipper I don’t pay much attention to the finer points of bottle cap design, I’m not sure about this. Besides, I didn’t get this cap by personally emptying the bottle it came from. It’s in my car because it was a gift.

I received it from my five-year-old grandson when he taught me how to flip a bottle cap so he could defeat me in—er, challenge me to a cap-flipping contest. He demonstrated exactly how to tuck the end of your thumb under your curled forefinger, balance the cap on top, and flick up your thumb to send the cap into the air. It also would work with a coin, he explained.

How, you may or may not wonder, does a person get to a grandparentish stage in life without ever having learned the proper way to flip a coin? Continue reading

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Required Reading

I am always baffled by articles suggesting ways parents can encourage their children to read more: Designate a family reading period and set a timer. Enroll in library summer reading programs. Have them tell you about what they read. Read the same books you want them to read and then discuss them.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. I think encouraging children to read is wonderful. If more people spent more time reading more books, the world would be a better place. Especially for authors and optometrists. But in my family, the challenge wasn’t to get children to read, it was to get them to stop reading long enough to do other stuff like chores and homework and practicing the piano.

So it isn’t the goal of encouraging reading that I don’t understand; just the strategies. Continue reading

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Missed Congeniality

“It’s a relief to have a meal with a young woman who isn’t scared to death,” the Very Minor Celebrity who was visiting our very small college told me. “The girl I sat beside at lunch was so nervous her hands were shaking, and the peas kept falling off her fork.”

It’s not that the Very Minor Celebrity was such a scary guy. True, his self-assured presence and trained actor’s voice, not to mention his advanced age (he had to be almost 30) gave him a sophistication that was more than a little intimidating. But the real reason the poor girl couldn’t eat her peas wasn’t his presence but the reason for his visit. She was one of the contestants hoping to be chosen to represent our school in the Miss South Dakota pageant and potentially have a shot at becoming Miss America 1970. He was one of the judges.

Even though I was perfectly calm enough to eat my peas in peace, I was also participating in the pageant. Continue reading

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Washboard Abs

 

The washboard hanging on the wall of our laundry room is no reproduction, artistically distressed to look pseudo-authentic. It’s just plain old. It’s been used. The wood is unevenly bleached and stained from standing in tubs of hard water laced with harsh soap. At the bottom of the ridged glass surface, the frame is worn away in the middle, no doubt from years of scrubbing dirty overalls.

I even know whose hands must have done that scrubbing. Not my grandmother (one of my sisters has her washboard), but my grandmother’s neighbor and close friend.

But let’s not wander too far into “olden days” stories about my grandmother scrubbing clothes on a washboard for a family of 12. At least by the time my mother was old enough to notice, in the early 1930’s, washboards may have been still used for extra scrubbing, but the bulk of the laundry was done with a washing machine. First they had one with a wringer that was turned by hand—a perfect chore to assign to kids (in rotation, of course). The next one had an agitator and a wringer powered by a small gasoline engine. You can see one like it in action here.

Continue reading

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Write This Way

We were traveling, so I almost missed it. Yesterday, January 23, was National Handwriting Day. Given the current trend away from teaching cursive writing in schools, it would be easy to assume this is a new observance, started by concerned calligraphers, Palmer Method purists, and letter-writing grandparents who are afraid their grandkids won’t be able to read anything sent to them except the numbers on their birthday checks.

Nope. National Handwriting Day has been around since 1977. It is observed, not by accident, on the birthday of John Hancock. (You remember him, right? He’s the Founding Father whose elegant, oversized signature is front and center on the Declaration of Independence. Unfortunately, the story that he said something like, “King George will be able to read that without his spectacles” turns out not to be true. But his name is still used as a synonym for “signature”—as in “Put your John Hancock right here on this line.”)

Appropriately, then, I wrote the first draft of this post with a pen, on the wide-lined notebook paper that I stock up on every fall during back-to-school sales. I can’t say I did so in honor of John Hancock or National Handwriting Day. Nor as some sort of statement in favor of cursive writing. I just prefer to write that way.

Continue reading

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Person to Person

Way, way back in the olden days, when telephones had rotary dials, making a call meant putting one finger (or, for those with thick fingers or manicured nails, the end of a pencil) into the hole by the appropriate number, rotating the dial all the way to the right, letting it spin back to the left, and repeating for each number. Which is why we still often say we “dial” phone numbers, even though touch-tone phones with buttons started replacing rotary phones in the 1960’s.

Back when long-distance phone calls were expensive and not to be made thoughtlessly, you could dial “O,” get an operator, and place a person-to-person call. Not just to a given number, but to a specific person at that number: Mr. Jones in the purchasing department, or Uncle Albert, or your mother. Such a call cost more than a talk-to-anyone call you placed yourself, but if the person you asked for wasn’t in, the call wasn’t completed and there was no charge. A whole generation of college students found this useful. After a holiday or weekend visit home, placing a person-to-person call to themselves at the home number was a free way to let Mom and Dad know they had arrived safely back at school.

Today, the Internet allows us to communicate freely, easily, and almost instantaneously with vast numbers of people all over the world. The very idea of placing a phone call with the help of a human operator—and paying by the minute for it—seems almost as cumbersome and outdated as sending a telegram or writing a letter with a quill pen dipped in ink.

But one thing hasn’t changed. Every electronic communication we send out—an email, a text, a tweet, a blog post, a shared photo or video, a comment on social media—every single one is still a person-to-person message. Thousands of people might see or read or share it, but each one is a separate human being responding in an individual way. Even an automated robo-call or bot that targets huge numbers of random recipients originates from some real live person somewhere. And all that spam is received by separate people whose irritation and inconvenience is downright personal.

So, on the outgoing side, before you post or text or send any other kind of communication, it might be helpful to stop and consider whether it’s worth sending. I doubt that many of us would go to the trouble and expense of placing an expensive person-to-person long-distance call just to yell at someone or call them an idiot. Maybe it’s not a good idea to do essentially the same thing just because the Internet makes it easy.

And on the incoming side, we can take advantage of one very useful feature of the person-to-person call: If you are the one it comes to, you don’t have to accept it. You don’t have to participate in divisive or insulting messages, crude jokes, drama-stirring incitements to indignation, pseudo-sentimental appeals, unsolicited ads, or anything else you don’t want in your life. Every incoming communication comes with a choice to take it in or ignore it. You can read or view it or not, respond to it or not, disconnect from its sender as much as possible, make liberal use of spam filters, and choose not to waste time and energy on junk. No person-to-person message can be completed unless you say yes to it. You don’t have to be “in” to every piece of spam that comes your way.

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Hollyhock Dolls

Hollyhocks are weeds. Or so I’ve been told by several “real” gardeners. The kind of gardeners who know the proper temperature for compost, whose tomatoes flourish, and whose gladiolus (gladioluses? gladioli?) win awards at county fairs. The kind of gardener that I definitely am not.

Maybe feeling intimidated by those experts is the reason I never got around to planting hollyhocks, even though I always wanted some in my yard. Even though I carried a secret stash of hollyhock seeds in a little plastic bag through six moves. Both their identity and their provenance were definite, because in the bag with them was a scrap of cardboard torn from the top of a cereal box. Written on it, in my Uncle Ernie’s careful handwriting, was “Hollyhock seeds from the Smith place, 1983.”

Three years ago, I finally planted those seeds, along with some others scavenged with permission from the garden of an old mansion-turned-museum in Trinidad, Colorado. Amazingly, some of them sprouted. Some of them grew. Some of them even thrived.

This year, despite drought and heat, they and their descendants have taken over half of one bed in our flower garden and are blooming vigorously. I have to admit that they have spread like, well, weeds. And that with their huge leaves and tall stems they do look a bit, well, weedy. I might even acknowledge that I would be wise to cut some of them back this fall before all those seeds mature.

But in the meantime, I can show my grandkids how to make hollyhock dolls the way my sisters and I used to do.

Here’s how: You pick a few blossoms that are fully open, plus a matching number of half-open buds or smaller blossoms. You strip the stem off of the buds, along with the green leaves that support the bottom of the flower. (A real gardener, no doubt, would know what those are called.) This reveals a little eye-shaped opening between each partially furled petal. Carefully slide the stem of one of the open flowers into one of those openings as far as it will go. The larger open blossom, upside down, becomes the long, full skirt of a gown. The white bottom part of the half-open bud becomes the doll’s face, adorned with a frilly hat.

 

Okay, maybe the faces are a little rabbity, the hats a bit crooked, and the gowns a trifle uneven. But they’re fun. And, given the generous abundance of hollyhocks, nobody cares that you pick them.

The other day, as we passed on our daily walks, one of my neighbors said, “I just love your hollyhocks. They remind me of my grandmother.” She asked if she could harvest some seeds, which I’ll be happy to share.

So it isn’t just me who understands what’s going on here. It doesn’t matter that, to some gardeners, hollyhocks look like weeds. To some of us, they look like memories.

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