Remembering When

Summer Soundtracks

What does summer sound like to you? Think of the sounds that take you back to childhood, when one long summer day blended into the next and the idea of school starting again next fall was too far into the future to even think about.

Does your particular summer soundtrack include the hum of skates or bicycle tires on the pavement? The shrieks and splashing of hordes of little kids at the swimming pool? Or maybe the crack of baseball bats?

None of those sounds evoke childhood summers for me. I didn’t have a bicycle or skates. They wouldn’t have been very usable for kids who lived 15 miles from town at the end of rutted gravel and dirt roads.

I do have a few memories of the swimming pool; they just aren’t happy ones. My introduction to swimming involved chilly June mornings, a gaggle of little kids I didn’t know, and an inexperienced teenaged lifeguard whose theory of discipline was to threaten to dunk anyone who acted up. None of that helped me get past my fear of putting my nose under the water. Most of the time my teeth were chattering as much from terror as temperature, and I was always greatly relieved when it was deemed too cold for us to actually get into the water.

Baseball? It’s not a game you learn when the entire student body of your elementary school consists of five kids. I know that my father sometimes was the umpire for neighborhood baseball games, but that was when I was too little to remember much about the games. My only real baseball-related memory is of driving home from a game once after a heavy rain. The lane between the road and our farm was so muddy that half the time the Jeep was driving sideways, and I was very impressed.

Here are some of the sounds that say “summer” to me:

The strongest one is the clear, melodic trill of a meadowlark. That sound takes me back instantly to being in a car, traveling along a gravel road on a prairie summer day, and the sudden sweetness of the meadowlark song caught through the open window.

Another part of my personal summer soundtrack is the crisp rustling and tearing noises of ears of sweet corn being twisted off the stalks and stripped of their husks. Freezing corn was an all-day project, starting with picking half a pickup load of corn first thing in the morning, then husking it, then blanching the ears, cooling them, and cutting the kernels off the cobs. Which brings back another sound—my grandmother’s knife, the blade worn thin from years of sharpening, scraping along the cob to get every bit of the milky half-cooked kernels.

A summer sound that I heard myself just this morning is the plop-plop-plop of chokecherries hitting the bottom of an ice cream bucket. It took me back decades to chokecherry-picking expeditions with my mother, grandmother, and sisters. I reminisced as I stripped all the berries I could reach off of the tree that stands right outside my own front door. Two ice cream buckets full—Grandma would have been proud. Well, until she saw how many leaves and stems ended up in my buckets along with the fruit.

I greatly enjoyed myself, too, in spite of (or maybe because of) missing two sounds that were definitely part of my childhood chokecherry picking experiences. I didn’t once hear the whine of a mosquito buzzing past my ears. And I didn’t once hear the whine of my hot, bored, little-girl self asking, “Haven’t we picked enough yet?”

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The Green Grass of Home

“Green,” “lush,” and “western South Dakota prairies” are not words you’ll often find in the same sentence, unless there’s a “not” in there somewhere. This year is an exception.

We’ve had thunderstorm after thunderstorm this spring and early summer. Every little stock dam is full to the brim, every little creek and gully has flowing water, and the pastures are thick with rich green grass that ripples temptingly in the wind. It’s enough to make even someone who works at a desk and hasn’t been on a horse in decades indulge in brief wistful thoughts about going into the cow business.

Driving west a few days ago, with the long shadows of early evening showing the prairie at its loveliest, I was simultaneously enjoying the beauty of the present and indulging in thoughts about the past. My nostalgic mood came from the family reunion I had just attended, and it was further fueled by the “classic country” oldies radio station I was listening to.

Somewhere between Kadoka and Wall, a familiar song with an especially apt title came on: “Green, Green Grass of Home.”

The song is a tearjerker that starts with a man going back to his old home to see his parents and his sweetheart Mary, with her “hair of gold and lips like cherries.” Then he wakes up, in his cell on death row, and we realize the only time he’ll “touch the green, green grass of home” is when he’s buried under it. It’s the kind of song you are irresistibly drawn to sing along to, even while you hope no one catches you doing it.

Written by Claude “Curly” Putman, Jr., the song was recorded in the 1960’s by performers as diverse as Porter Wagoner, Johnny Cash, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Joan Baez. Tom Jones’s version became an international hit.

Hearing it this week, I was instantly transported in both time and place. It sent me to 1972 and a location far removed from both green grass and anything that meant home to me: an underground railway car in London.

My then-husband and I were part of a trip to Great Britain organized by the English and drama departments at our small college. The idea was to allow students to experience the culture of Shakespeare, Chaucer, Oscar Wilde, and Sir Laurence Olivier.

Late one night, heading home from an evening at the theatre, our group got onto the tube (the subway to us) and found ourselves in a car crowded with fans heading home from a football match (a soccer game to us).

These fans were a group of Welsh guys whose team had won. They had obviously been celebrating earlier with alcohol, and now they were celebrating with song: “Green, Green Grass of Home.” Just the rousing ditty anyone would choose for an occasion that called for jollity and rejoicing.

One of the singers, spotting me standing with the rest of our group in the crowded car, staggered to his feet. He waved me to his seat with an expansive gesture that almost sent him sprawling.

It was the first time a gentleman had ever made a point of giving me his seat. So I sat. It seemed only polite, even though it felt awkward to take a seat in the middle of someone else’s drunken party. I was much too uncomfortable to join in the singing, even though I did know all the words.

After a few minutes, my husband, who had somewhat more experience with drunken young men than I did, suggested quietly but with a certain urgency that I get up. I stood, with relief, and we sidled a few feet away through the crowd.

Just in time, too. The gallant who had so graciously given up his seat threw up right in front of it. Fortunately, on his own shoes and those of his friends instead of on mine.

To this day, it only takes a few bars of “Green, Green Grass of Home” to take me right back to that London tube car. I realize the melodic voices of drunken football fans and the aroma of regurgitated ale may not be exactly the atmosphere that Curley Putman intended to evoke when he wrote the song. But I can’t help myself. Sometimes you just have to take your nostalgia where you find it.

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You Never Miss the Water Till the Well Runs Dry

There’s nothing like knowing the water is shut off to make you immediately thirsty. Fortunately, today’s shutoff wasn’t an emergency, so we were prepared. The full pitcher, kettle, and assortment of water bottles on the kitchen counter ought to give us more than enough water to drink until the well is back in operation. (Of course, drinking all that water has inevitable consequences, but no worries—we have containers of water for flushing, too.)

Actually, the well hasn’t run dry. The pump has run out of oomph. Not surprising, when you consider that it’s been working away quietly and reliably for four decades. This morning, in a scheduled end-of-life intervention, it pumped its last drop. The well guys are out there right now, pulling pipe and checking for leaks and redoing wiring and whatever else goes along with replacing a pump in a well that nobody has paid much attention to for forty years.

This morning, in the shower where I usually think most of my great thoughts, I was thinking grateful thoughts about the luxury of having water that pours lavishly over my head at the turn of a faucet. Washing the breakfast dishes while the water was still running, I couldn’t help but notice how many times I turned the faucet on and off to rinse each plate and cup and handful of utensils.

I like to think I’m not a water waster. When I was growing up (fair warning: here comes a “walking to school in the snow, uphill, both ways” moment), scrimping on water was a necessary habit. Our farm had plenty of well water, but it was both destructive to pipes and dreadful to taste buds. I used to feel sorry for the cows, who had no choice but to drink the stuff.

In the house, we had water of excellent quality but limited quantity. It was hauled from the town of Winner, 20-odd miles away over first dirt, then gravel, and eventually partly paved roads. As far as I know, the man who delivered it made his living with his water truck. Every so often he would drive into the yard and back up beside the house to refill the cistern.

That cistern was absolutely forbidden territory to us kids. Its round steel top, maybe eight or ten feet in diameter, stuck up a few inches out of the ground, just right for sitting on or walking around the edge of. We were not allowed to do either. This rule was strictly enforced, as we were quick to explain to cousins and other visitors. I remember occasional reminders to “Stay off the cistern!” being shouted out the kitchen window. I don’t think any of us ever even thought about going so far as trying to open the lid.

I found it fascinating, then, that the water guy was so nonchalant about doing exactly that. The lid was a round metal cap perhaps 18 inches across, in the center of the cistern. He would pry it open, plop the end of his hose into it, and open the valve of his water tank. We weren’t allowed close enough to see it—to this day I have no idea how deep that cistern was—but from a safe distance we could hear the water gushing.

While I assume the water guy made deliveries on a regular schedule, every now and then we would run out of water. This meant a phone call and a dry wait until he could make it out with a load. It was always a relief to see his truck coming up the lane.

All these years later, I suppose I take for granted the fresh, pure water that pours out whenever we want it. Today, though, I certainly don’t. With the faucets all dry, and people I don’t know doing things I don’t understand out at the well, it’s a good day to stop and think about what a luxury that water really is.

Categories: Food and Drink, Remembering When | Tags: | 3 Comments

You Can Get Anything You Want . . .

. . . at Alice’s Restaurant. The original restaurant under Alice’s name is long since gone, but the song that made Arlo Guthrie famous in the mid-1960’s is still a satisfying entree. All 18 1/2 minutes of it. It’s actually not a song but a funny, rambling monologue that’s clever satire and wry war protest laced with an irresistible chorus that will lodge itself in the back of your mind and stay there for days.

And it’s a true story. Or at least, as Hollywood might put it, based on true events. “Alice’s Restaurant” starts with Thanksgiving dinner at Alice’s home in a remodeled church in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, wanders off to an escapade of illegal garbage dumping, meanders through a court hearing with “8 x 10 color glossy photographs” of the evidence and a judge who is blind, and ends up with a draft physical where Arlo, with his conviction for littering, is relegated to the “Group W bench” with the other undesirables rejected for military service because of their criminal records.

A brief digression: Until recently the treasurer’s office was on the second floor of our county’s elegant old courthouse building. You could walk up the sweeping, curved marble staircase on either the right or the left side—not without a passing thought of Scarlett O’Hara in a ball gown—to get to the open hallway in front of the office. Opposite the service windows were two long wooden benches like church pews where you could sit while waiting in line to get your license plates or pay your property taxes. As the person at the end of the bench was called up to one of the windows, everyone in line would slide to the right. The benches had to be the most thoroughly polished pieces of furniture in Pennington County.

Once, when it was my turn at the window, I told the clerk I always thought of the waiting line as the “Group W bench.” He was a man about my age; I didn’t have to explain the reference.

Though I wore my hair long and straight and appliqued more than one heart-shaped patch onto more than one pair of bellbottoms, I was never a hippie. I did not protest the Viet Nam War. The only college building I ever occupied was my dorm. I never participated in a sit-in, a love-in, or a be-in. The only mood-altering plant substances that have ever passed my lips are coffee and chocolate.

But I loved the irony and humor of “Alice’s Restaurant.” Still do, actually.

So I was pleased—at first—to see a news item this week announcing a new tour by Arlo Guthrie. He looked good in the accompanying photo, quite familiar in a cowboy hat with his curly hair flowing past his shoulders. It was a bit disturbing to note that the hair was white. The real distress came, however, when I read the full article. This tour is to celebrate the anniversary of “Alice’s Restaurant.”

The 50th anniversary.

Apparently, you can still get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant. You just have to order it off the senior menu.

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Time Travel With a Beat

Bopping back and forth with the preset buttons on my car radio the other day, I switched from classical music on NPR to classic country music on an oldies station just in time to catch a song that transported me back in time.

The song was “Bop,” performed by Dan Seals, written by Paul Davis and Jennifer Kimball. (Here’s a video if you want to hear it. Warning: put your dancing shoes on first.)

This is the song I learned to jitterbug to. Just a few notes of it take me right back to dance classes, circa 1985. Seals and his baby bopped all night long, over and over, while earnest couples practiced on a well-used hardwood floor. First the basic step (one-and, two-and, back-step) and then the spins and twirls and moves—some of which, my late husband and I discovered, are a challenge when one partner is a foot taller than the other.

Music is one of the most powerful evokers of memory that we have. I don’t know enough about the brain to know why this is so, but I know from my own experience how well it works. A song pops up randomly on the radio or TV (or even, with unsettling frequency in recent years, in an elevator), and the memories associated with it promptly unroll with full color and vivid emotion. It happens often, with a great many songs, but here are just a few examples:

“Pomp and Circumstance.” I’m sure I can’t be the only one who responds to its first stately notes with an impulse to stand up straight, make sure our mortarboards are level, and process slowly toward the stage with that step-pause, step-pause gait peculiar to graduates and bridesmaids.

When the long-time band director at my kids’ high school retired, I was disappointed that his final concert didn’t include “Hot Cross Buns.” The simple little tune would have taken every student in the band and every parent in the audience back to those first days of clarinet or flute or oboe lessons. We’d have been hearing it in our minds as it sounded then, played with the hesitant, excruciating exactness of beginners just trying to figure out their instruments. Maybe the band director didn’t want to bring back that much emotion. Or maybe, after 40-some years, he simply couldn’t stand to hear it one more time.

And when I hear “The Marines’ Hymn,” it doesn’t evoke mental images of marching soldiers. Instead, it takes me back to a handful of kids in a one-room country school house, singing with gusto while one of them (me) plunks out the melody on an old upright piano. Most of us had only the vaguest idea where the “shores of Tripoli” were and probably couldn’t have told you whether Montezuma was a person or a place, but the song was in our battered old songbooks and we liked the tune.

Outside of science fiction, no one has been able yet to build a time-travel machine. At least so we think. We don’t realize that most of us already have time machines right in our own homes. They might be mp3 players, sophisticated audio systems, simple CD players, or even outdated tape players. Whatever technology they use, they all have amazing, almost magical power. With them, we can time-travel whenever we want to. All it takes is music.

Categories: Remembering When, Travel | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

Playing With a Full Deck

When we were kids, our family was so frugal . . .

Cue chorus: “How frugal were you?”

We were so frugal, we only had two decks of cards.

At least, that’s how I remember it. They were the classic Bicycle cards, in the original cardboard boxes, which were kept in the top drawer of the china cabinet. They served us kids for countless games of Hearts and Old Maid, both of which left me with a lasting suspicion of the Queen of Spades. The grownups sometimes played Hearts, too, or poker for small change. (Side note to the unwary: keep your wits about you if you ever play poker with my mother.)

We played plenty of games of solitaire as well, which in my experience is a great way for a kid to learn the value of integrity. It may be easy to cheat when you’re the only one playing, but cheating takes all the fun out of winning. The biggest challenge with solitaire was to play a complete game without a sister looking over your shoulder to point out that you could have played that red seven on that black eight.

But no matter who was playing with them, when the games were over, the cards were put back into the boxes and back into the china cabinet. Those decks survived intact, jokers and all, for years. For all I know, the cards in the drawer today are the very same ones.

Another game that’s still in that drawer is the much-used Scrabble set. The box has been held together by a big rubber band for years now, but all the tiles are still there. Possibly because, a long time ago, my mother made a handy little drawstring bag to keep them in.

I’m not sure what my point is here; I certainly don’t want this to be a rant about how kids these days don’t know the value of things, blah, blah, blah. But I am a bit embarrassed to consider how many decks of cards I bought for my kids over the years. True, it was a different time. Cards were cheap, an impulse buy before a road trip or a little gift to drop into a Christmas stocking. But they never lasted long. First the jokers vanished, and then a stray ace or a six got lost, and pretty soon the rest went into the trash because you can’t play games when you’re a few cards short of a full deck.

It is true that the more stuff we have, the harder it is to keep track of it. Which sounds like a very good excuse for being the cheap grandma who doesn’t buy the grandkids a lot of toys.

But at least my Scrabble set, which came with its own bag, still has all the tiles.

Categories: Family, Living Consciously, Remembering When | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

Who Ate My Homework?

At our recent family reunion, several of the kids (whose father says with pride, “Our kids are such nerds.”) discovered some tadpoles at the edge of the lake. They spent half their swimming time on the last afternoon catching the little critters and studying them. I assume the focus of their research was observing the stages tadpoles go through as they change into frogs.

I wasn’t there, but I wish I had been. It might have given me an opportunity to finish something I started a long time ago.

As a freshman in high school, I was much more interested in English and history than in science. So when I needed a project for the science fair, I didn’t exactly embark on any cutting-edge research. My plan was to capture a batch of tadpoles and preserve one in formaldehyde each day to show the progression of steps from tadpole to frog.

The ditch beside the road into our yard, filled with water from the spring rains, was a handy tadpole habitat. I scooped up an assortment of the unsuspecting critters and poured them into a gallon pickle jar. Then I fished out the first victim—er, research subject—and dropped it into a little jar of formaldehyde.

At this point, my Uncle Ernie intervened with a suggestion. Tadpoles kept in a pickle jar might not survive long enough to take their turns being sacrificed on the altar of science. He proposed putting them back out in the ditch in a sort of live trap. He helped me build one by tacking window screening around a peach crate, leaving the top open so I could easily fish out my research subjects. We settled it into the muddy ditch, and I dumped the tadpoles into it.

The next morning I went out to select the second volunteer to give its all to science.

The box was right where we had put it. It was still full of water, the screen around it was secure, and it didn’t appear to have been disturbed. But there wasn’t a single tadpole in it.

Apparently somebody, most likely a raccoon, had discovered the tempting tadpole buffet—not unlike the lobster tank at a seafood restaurant—and enjoyed a feast. My science experiment had turned into somebody else’s fine dining experience. I wonder if Charles Darwin ever had that problem?

I don’t remember why it wasn’t possible to simply catch a new batch of research subjects and start over. Maybe whoever ate my project also wiped out most of the remaining population. At any rate, I had to ditch the tadpole project and find something else for the science fair. Perhaps motivated by a desire to identify the culprit who ate my tadpoles, I did an exhibit on fingerprints instead.

Maybe I should have written up the experiment anyway, displaying the empty box, the one lonely pickled tadpole, and the sad story. After all, there are lessons to be learned from failed experiments as well as successful ones. And I did learn an important scientific principle from this experience. I now understand why, until they are ready to publish, scientists find it so important to keep a lid on their research.

Categories: Remembering When, Wild Things | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

Hair in the Age of Aquarius

The Age of Aquarius? Maybe. But an even better name for the late 1960’s and early 70’s might be the Age of Hairiness. After all, even the song proclaiming “the dawning of the Age of Aquarius” came from the musical “Hair.”

I remember, as a college freshman, walking across the campus one day behind one of the senior girls. One of the campus leaders, she was brisk and pretty, articulate and poised in ways that intimidated shyer girls like me into speechlessness. She was striding along with her usual straight-backed confidence, a cascade of soft brown curls rippling down her back, shining in the sunlight and bouncing with every step.

Those gleaming curls that gave her such an air of confident beauty probably came at a cost. Most likely, she had spent a restless night with her hair wound on huge rollers or juice cans.

Girls lacking the fortitude to torture their skulls with insomnia-inducing rollers sometimes went to the opposite extreme. They spread their long locks across the bed and had them ironed. The goal was a perfectly straight, shining curtain, the longer the better. One girl in my dorm had a glorious fall of red-gold hair that reached past her waist. Vigilant against the deadly threat of split ends, she trimmed a careful fourth of an inch every two weeks with her nail scissors.

All the attention girls paid to their hair was greatly appreciated by makers of shampoo and conditioner, if less so by the declining permanent-wave industry. But the real hair-raising excitement of the 60’s focused on boys. They started—gasp!—letting their hair grow so long it touched their collars.

This was largely blamed on the Beatles, whose outrageous mops struck some shocked observers as the most depraved male attribute to hit American television since Elvis Presley’s swiveling hips. Disgusted fathers issued ultimatums and marched boys into barbershops at the point of a rat-tailed comb. Schools added hair length (short was good) as well as skirt length (short was bad) to their dress codes. Editorials were published. Sermons were preached. A high old dudgeon of a time was had by all.

Looking back, it all seems a bit ridiculous. At the time, I suppose, the larger social upheavals and power struggles that no one knew what to do with were reflected in the smaller battles over boys’ hair.

Now, with those social changes overtaken by even greater ones, at least the matter of hair has largely gone back to being a private rather than a public concern. Nobody seems to care much what boys do to theirs. Girls, of course, still generously support the shampoo/conditioner/hair color sector of the economy, though curling irons have saved them from having to choose between vanity and sleep.

There’s one area, though, where hair still seems to be a concern. The more fundamentalist branches of several religions place an absurd amount of importance on women’s hair. Mostly, it seems to matter very much to God that they keep it covered.

Really? God cares that much about women’s hair? One might think God has more important things to do.

Personally, I doubt that God pays much attention. In support of that belief, here’s just one piece of evidence: I still occasionally see the woman whose hair impressed me so vividly back in college. She is still pretty, still confident and poised and slightly intimidating. But her now-white and now-thin hair is cut into stark stubble about an inch long. Like many of the rest of us, she has reached the age of “This is the first bad hair day of the rest of your life.”

If God really cared about women’s hair, this wouldn’t happen. As a being of great age and wisdom Herself, She surely wouldn’t allow it.

Categories: Odds and Ends, Remembering When | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

Family Heirlooms

What makes something a family heirloom? Age? Value? Ownership? The fact that two or more family members stop speaking to each other because they have a big fight over it?

I hate to say it, but that last reason might be the most valid.

Merriam-Webster defines “heirloom” as “something of special value handed on from one generation to another.” It doesn’t, however, try to define “special value.”

That’s wise of Merriam-Webster, because the value of an heirloom doesn’t necessarily have much to do with how much cash you could get if you sold it on EBay or Craig’s List or at a local antiques shop. The real “special value” that transforms something into an heirloom is the stories around it.

I remember years ago visiting the Pioneer Memorial Museum in Salt Lake City. In one room was a collection of beautiful old pianos. One of them had traveled from England, first by sea and then from St. Louis by wagon. Its owner was a widow with six or seven children, the youngest of whom, if I remember correctly, didn’t survive the voyage.

Another instrument, a square grand piano that would need a sizeable parlor to house it, had an even more interesting history. The wagon train it traveled with apparently started somewhat late in the year and needed to speed up the last part of their journey in order to get across the mountains before snow came. They dug a pit, wrapped the piano in hides (beaver, I think), buried it for the winter, and went back to retrieve it the following year. Since it was in immaculate condition more than a century later, it apparently survived its temporary entombment perfectly well.

I enjoyed seeing the pianos and reading their stories, but it was also a little sad to see them sitting in a museum, unplayed and labeled with “do not touch” sign. These were family heirlooms that were no longer in their families.

One of the heirlooms in my family is a parlor organ. Its history isn’t quite so dramatic as that of the continent-crossing pianos, but it did make its own journey across the prairies by wagon. The trip, from the southeastern corner of South Dakota to the family homestead in the south-central part of the state, took three rainy weeks in the spring of 1905 and included crossing the Missouri River by ferry.

I remember my grandmother playing that organ, which she did by ear because she didn’t read music. My sisters and I—with the benefit of enough piano lessons to make us dangerous—used to play on it, too. We would pull out the various stops to see what differences they made in the sound and pump the pedals until our legs got tired. The collection of old music books and sheet music in the library table was where I discovered a whole new set of verses to “My Darling Clementine.” My favorite, and the only one I still remember, was: “How I missed her, how I missed her, how I missed my Clementine; Till I kissed her little sister, then forgot my Clementine.”

One of my sisters still has the organ. The next time we visit, I might have to introduce my youngest grandchild to it. At age 15 months, he likes music, and I imagine he would have great fun pulling out all the stops. And if we paired him with his slightly older cousin, they could take turns on the pedals.

It would add one more generation of stories to this particular family heirloom. They might even get into a big fight over it. And maybe they would eventually learn to play “My Darling Clementine.”

Categories: Family, Remembering When | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

A Little Too Close and Personal

When I was a kid, going to the circus was a big deal. In Winner, South Dakota, in the 1950’s and 1960’s, the circus wasn’t held in a “big top.” It was in the open air at the baseball field. Since the field was lighted, it was a perfect venue for an outdoor circus, especially at night.

I remember being awed by the elephants striding across the ground with ponderous dignity, carrying beautiful women in splendid clothes. I remember watching the aerialists out over the field, high above our heads. Their costumes glittered in the lights as they swung from trapezes, twisting and twirling and flinging themselves through the air. It was breathtaking. It was beautiful. It was magical.

Then one year, when I was probably ten or eleven, for some reason the circus was held indoors. I remember walking into the Winner city auditorium with my sisters, scurrying through the crowd, almost overwhelmed by the people and the noise, and finally finding room to squeeze into one of the upper rows of the packed bleachers.

In this makeshift space, even our upper bleacher seats were like being in the front row. The elephants were only a few feet away. The aerial acts were almost at eye level. Instead of seeing the performers as remote creatures, way up in the air in the spotlights, we were up close and personal.

And I was shocked.

The elephants were still dignified. But their skin looked worn and rough, their headdresses were a little dingy, and, to put it bluntly, they smelled really awful.

The aerialists were no longer the beautiful, fairy-like flying creatures I expected. They were dreadfully ordinary, even plain. The flowing golden hair on some of the women was clearly dyed. Some of them even looked old—maybe as ancient as 40 or so. Their glamorous costumes, seen that close, didn’t look much different from swim suits. Some of them had obviously been mended. The sequins lost much of their sparkle in the everyday indoor lighting.

Even worse, I started to recognize performers from one act to the next. It was disconcerting to realize that “Madame Yvette” with her dancing poodles was the very same woman I had just seen swinging from a trapeze as part of the “Flying Santorinis.”

Without the lights and the distance, the illusion that helped make the acts so marvelous was destroyed. The reality was such a disappointment that I lost much of my childhood enthusiasm for the circus. I had seen too much of it, too close. The magic was gone.

I’ve been to a few circuses since then. I’ve enjoyed them. But I’ve never recaptured my early awe and wonder. I know too much about the reality behind the illusion.

I clearly remember the last time I went to a circus. Unbelievably, it was 25 years ago. It was the first time I met my soon-to-be stepchildren. Believe me, there were plenty of illusions involved on that occasion.

Thank goodness that, over the years, we’ve grown to know each other well enough to get past most of those illusions. It hasn’t always been an easy process. But the closer we have become, the more we have learned to value reality.

Just think about the distance it takes to maintain our illusions about other people. A couple you know slightly might seem to have a perfect marriage. Unless you get close, you have know way to know what really goes on between them. I used to see other stepfamilies who seemed to be doing everything right. As I got to know them better, I realized most of them had the same struggles and challenges that we did.

This week we enjoyed a performance of “Hairspray” by a local theatre group. The singers and dancers were graceful, energetic, and polished. Whether they were veterans or this was their first time on stage, they all looked confident and comfortable. It wasn’t until after the show, when dozens of cast members surged into the theatre lobby on a wave of adrenaline, that we could feel the nervous energy they must have been feeling. From the audience, we weren’t aware of the sweaty palms and the shaking knees.

There’s a time and place for illusion, and I greatly appreciate the many performers who put so much discipline and practice into creating illusions that we can enjoy. But I have come to appreciate even more the reality behind those illusions. Whether it’s a show, a job, or a family, the most incredible performances are the ones given by people who show up, day after day, and do what they do.

Who have the courage, the grace, and the heart to do what needs to be done—and even to make it look easy. To get up close and personal. To live with reality—even when some of its sequins are missing.

Because reality, I now know, is where the real magic happens.

Categories: Family, Living Consciously, Remembering When | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

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