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June Column Michiana House & Home Magazine: Making a joyful noise

My grandmother was a unique woman. I don’t know if she didn’t get the memo about spoiling grandkids rotten, never enjoyed entertaining children or if I simply came along too late to experience her hosting skills in their prime but no one could describe her home as “kid friendly” and it wasn’t a place I liked to spend a lot of time.

organ

Note: This was not the organ at my grandmother’s house.

Her toy selection was limited to a deck of Uno cards; a few back issues of Highlights Magazine, a box of die cast cars, and exactly one doll. When she acquired a VCR she added a videotape of Peter Pan to the cache, but that was it. Our conversations centered on her inquires into my personal health and the status of my education and she never had normal snack foods such as Oreos or Ding Dongs on hand to placate the under 10 set. Instead she offered up oatmeal cookies with macadamia nuts and Town House Crackers topped with Philadelphia Cream Cheese (aka Old Lady Food.)

However, she did have one thing no one else in the family had and that one item was enough to make up for an otherwise lack of amenities in her abode: a Hammond Organ.

It was a glorious instrument with two rows of keys, a recording device, a host of orchestral effects that could be summoned at the flip of a lever, and additional pedal accouterments that my legs weren’t long enough to reach. (No one was sad about that, I assure you.) While the grown-ups chatted in the living room, I gave grand concerts in the den, making up songs as I went along and trying to teach myself how to play using a cardboard guide to tell me one note from another.

My show stopping number, and the only song I could actually play was “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” which I performed in oboe mode and paired with a jaunty little backbeat. It didn’t sound very patriotic. In fact it was off key and full of mistakes, but no one ever mentioned it to me. Either the adults in my life were tone deaf, happy to have me out of their hair, possessed an unusual affinity for creative expression or realized I was six and were willing to blame it on the Bossa Nova.

Unfortunately, the good times couldn’t last forever. When I was 12, Grandma decided she wanted more space rather than stuff and sold her precious organ. I was devastated. Not only did this thwart my music career for the time being, but horror of horrors, it actually meant that I would have to find something else to do whenever we visited. I tried not to take her move personally, but it did occur to me that the timing coincided with my growth spurt. My grandma was a very smart woman. Perhaps she noticed my feet were getting closer and closer to those “power pedals” and what was once a joyful noise was about to become a terrible racket.

Of course, I’ll never know for sure.

 

 

 

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May Column Michiana House & Home Magazine A “Fowl” Situation

NOTE: I recently received an e-mail from someone who pointed out that I had not kept up with posting my monthly columns on my blog. They were correct and so I hope to remedy this today. My apologies for my tardiness. -J

Dear Readers,
If you are reading this message, please know that I am currently a prisoner in my own home. My captors are a diminutive husband and wife team who flew into my life out of nowhere, have usurped my authority and have taken over my property in less time than it took Castro to conquer Cuba.

bird nest            Unfazed by the fact that I was here first, the pair set up their command center on my front porch and seemingly overnight has rearranged my entire lifestyle. Thanks to their pluck and moxie, I am no longer allowed to use the front door, all trips that pass through the entryway have become covert operations and even the daily mail collection is conducted under their watchful eye to insure I don’t do something rebellious to ruffle their feathers and arouse their wrath.

“You do understand I could just get rid of that nest and our lives could go back to normal, right?” My husband offered as we listened to our uninvited jailers chirp merrily from their post, conveniently wedged between our front door and Easter wreath.

“Are you kidding me? There are three eggs in that nest the last time I checked. Are you really going to tell an expectant mother there is no room in the inn?” I replied. “As a friend I must tell you, historically that speech has never played well.”

“Well then, what are we going to do about them?” He wanted to know.

I don’t know about him, but I gave them some birdseed, a bowl of water and loudly assured them both that I have no plans to disrupt the Missus’ labor, delivery and recovery period. My husband pointed out that our captors are not people but birds, do not speak English and can only see us as a threat despite my grandiose declaration to the contrary.

“Oh for heaven’s sake, stop hollering at them. The neighbors are going to think you are a nutcase,” he added.

“Like they don’t already?” I countered. In my defense I had to yell in order to be heard over the birds’ rather screechy protests that I was standing too close to their humble abode.

Look, I am not particularly fond of being incarcerated like this, but since I am stuck, I might as well give it the old “glass half full” treatment, unlike one of my fellow inmates who constantly bemoans the fact that we are in for a long haul with this pair as they feed and hatch their young, launch them from the nest and teach them to fly.

“Look on the bright side, will you?” I commented. “At least we are only looking at a few weeks time. It’s not like they are waiting on an acceptance letter from Harvard.”

“No, but I doubt you’ll be feeling as chipper about this if one of them gets into the house and leaves their mark all over your Martha Stewart sofa,” he said.

“Now that would be fowl,” I agreed.

(NOTE: Unfortunately this story had an unhappy ending. A house wren decided to take over the nest and destroy 2 of the five eggs that ultimately were laid. This caused the original birds to abandon their other three eggs and I ultimately buried the whole contraption. I also cried a little. Don’t judge me.)

 

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July Column for MHH: May The Round-Up be With You

thistle            Every protagonist has his or her archenemy, that person or situation that accents the story and provides the conflict necessary to keep the plotline moving forward. Superman has Lex Luthor. Batman has the Joker. Luke Skywalker has Darth Vader and even Bugs Bunny has Elmer Fudd.

I have thistles.

While they may not be quite as dangerous as a mad billionaire, disfigured clowns, sith lords or a speech-impaired hunter who can’t pronounce the letter R, make no mistake about it; these prickly little buggers are on the Dark Side of the Force. They are the super villains of the landscape world, the bane of the growing season and no matter what I do or how hard I try to eliminate them, they keep coming back for more. If I didn’t hate them so much, I would almost admire their perseverance. If you have them, then I know you feel my pain.

I don’t know what I am doing wrong. My parents’ yard was never plagued with thistles the way mine is. Their weeds were limited to dandelions and the occasional maple sprout that showed up after the trees dropped their “helicopters” each spring. The only occasion in which I stepped on something sticky when running barefoot across the lawn occurred when I was six and landed on an upturned thorn from a nearby rose bush. My mother took me onto the bathroom, cleaned the wound, slapped a bandage on it, had my father dig up all of the rose bushes and get rid of them. It seemed like a harsh punishment to me, but it sent a clear message to the ecosystem and nothing stepped out of line again.

I wish I had her panache for making an example out of an untoward plant that would cause the thistles to go away and never come back. Lord knows I have tried everything short of a light saber over the years to get rid of them, but to no avail. I have “whacked” them, cut them, dug them up, poisoned them, covered them, and hired a lawn service to eliminate them, but they have the uncanny ability to hang tough. They have roots deeper than Kunta Kinte and even when I do take the time to get rid of each and every one of them, they possess the power to regenerate and reclaim my property overnight. It’s a little scary. They are a real life equivalent to the hydra, gremlins, tribbles or any other phenomena that threatens to spawn, multiply and take over.

Still, I have to hand it to them. Thistles are a hardy band of rebels with the will to survive. They are the underdogs who stand strong in the face of annihilation, believe there is power in numbers and draw strength from the frustration of their adversary. It is a never-ending battle between good and evil and if you are fighting the same war as I am this summer, then I wish you nothing but the best.

May the Round Up be with you!

 

 

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April Column for MHH- An “Eggceptional” Hunt

EasterEggHunt-main_Full             Easter has always been one of my favorite holidays and I never miss a    chance to break out the baskets, color eggs and watch The Ten    Commandments (now that I am old enough to stay up for all of it.) However, few holiday activities in childhood are as much fun (or as memorable) as an Easter Egg Hunt. Over the years, I had my fair share of backyard expeditions in search of brightly colored dairy products, but none can compare to the great egg hunt of 1982 that had my cousin and I “scrambling” over the same 12 eggs for more than an hour.

When I think back on it, we had to be the two most naïve pre-teens on the planet not to catch on to what was happening around us. We were at our grandmother’s house that Easter enjoying a traditional dinner of ham, spinach salad, green beans and my mother’s famous cheese potatoes when someone decided it would be fun to hide the hard boiled eggs for us to find.

Sure we were a little old for such an activity, but we didn’t care. We trooped out to the yard to scour every bush and blade of grass that might have an egg hidden within. With each discovery, we placed the egg in our baskets and ran off in search of the next prize. It never occurred to us that one of the big kids, my cousin’s college-aged brother to be exact, was removing the eggs from our baskets and re-hiding them when we weren’t looking.

We hunted more eggs than I have colored in my whole life! We found eggs on the fire hydrant at the edge of the property. We located them up in the trees. They were in the mailbox, on the bumpers of cars, in the rose bushes, on the windowsills and on the hose reel. No matter how many eggs we found, there was always one or two more we had passed over. We found eggs two feet from where we found the last one, but we never questioned why we didn’t see it before. We never stopped to count the eggs or wonder how so few became so many, we just kept searching while everyone snickered good-naturedly behind our backs. (I have the slides to prove it.)

I don’t know how long it took us to catch on to the joke, but it seemed like forever. It wasn’t something that was planned ahead of time, but one of those magical moments that was never to be repeated.

To this day, that event represents the meaning of Easter for me. We went out in search of something exciting and what we found kept on giving and giving. Those in on the game reveled in our innocence and delighted in the joy of our discovery. And even though I am sure he never planned on teaching a spiritual lesson with his practical joke, the one responsible for the quest showed us that the mission doesn’t end when something is uncovered, but leads to a new life of revelation waiting to be renewed over and over again.

Happy Easter, everyone!

 

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March Article for MHH- Unhand me!

100_9548         Over the years, my office has become the place where “stuff” comes to die. My desktop is laden with things that need to be filed, a DVD that hasn’t been opened, bills that need to be paid, books that I optimistically hope to read and a few empty soda cans that have not made their way to the recycling bin yet. It wasn’t like this yesterday. Yesterday morning I woke up bright and early to clean the space, shutting down my computer, dusting my desktop and organizing everything into one neat pile before beginning my workday

It lasted for five whole minutes.

“I got the paper for you. I put it on your desk,” my son tells me when I pass him in the hallway.

“The mail came,” my co-parenting partner announces, handing me a swath of advertisements, bills and correspondence.

“I’m not sure where these books go,” Boy Wonder shrugs, balancing a pile of paperbacks on top of the Leaning Tower of Whatnot.

Has he not lived here for five years? We have a library for Heaven’s sake. Books go in the library! Seriously, I would think at the age of 17 he could draw that conclusion if he wanted to.

A few hours later, my man walks in to drop off a bag from Target, a handful of pennies and a few coupons he received with his receipt. Before I can protest, he informs me that the item in the bag was on sale, that he cleaned out the change from the console of his car and that the $.50 off a bag of kitty litter was a bonus. (Did I mention that I don’t have a cat?)

I’m not sure why my family thinks that I need all of these things on my desk and in my life at the exact moment, but they do and they genuinely think they are doing me a favor. They claim they don’t want to throw something away that might be important, don’t want to mess up my system and a host of other excuses, but bottom line I think their little “hand off” serves a dual purpose. It enables them to pass the buck while still appearing that they have done something productive. It never once occurs to anyone that they haven’t helped me out at all, but rather-given me one more thing to do.

Still, I shove some things aside, watch as books topple to the floor, and move the newspaper under my right leg while they walk off satisfied in the knowledge that I am keeping the whirling vortex of our lives in motion on a 2’x3’ surface.

“I got some pizza as well. I’ll bring some up to you in a little bit,” he adds, walking out the door. “You may want to clear a space for it.”

I bite my tongue to refrain from saying something I might regret but you can be sure I have a pretty good idea of where I would like to put it.

 

 

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Out on a Limb- January 2014 Michiana House & Home Magazine

IMG_8036        My parents were not what you would call “art connoisseurs.” Their private collection consisted of school portraits, a few paint-by-number efforts and a handful of prints straight out of the Home Interiors catalogue featuring plastic frames and coordinating wall sconces. Needless to say, they didn’t know Pollack from Picasso and they couldn’t tell a Vermeer from a Van Gogh so you can imagine my surprise when they announced that they were looking for a new “piece” to add ambiance to their bedroom.

I was excited. I imagined Mom and Dad going to a local art auction where they would invest in a charming, but fairly cheap painting signed by a complete unknown that would later reveal a hidden masterpiece worth millions. (I really watched too much television as a kid.) However, I was not prepared for the item they ultimately carried in the front door with pride.

They brought home a tree branch, ladies and gentlemen.

I could not make this up if I tried. My otherwise normal parents drove to the park and brought back a giant tree branch that they found lying on the ground. They told me it had personality. I told them it was dead. They called it sculpture. I called it firewood. I’m telling you, these people did not have a handle on “art.”

In an effort to improve their find, Dad used clippers to trim a few strategic twigs from the masterpiece and centered a couple of hooks in the plaster above their headboard upon which to install the limb. Afterward, they stared at their handicraft like they were studying the Mona Lisa at the Louvre and I suspected that I had been Punk’d.

“You guys are kidding, right?” I asked, still convinced this was some kind of joke.

My father shook his head. “Not at all. I saw it on a TV show. It gives the room a rustic look, don’t you think?”

A rustic look? Seriously? We lived in a 1950’s post-war bungalow, not a log cabin! My parents were strictly the pre-Martha Stewart K-Mart kitsch types, not Nate Burkus. We had green and gold shag carpeting for crying out loud! We had macramé plant holders suspended from the ceiling, an orange-striped sofa and a wallpaper print in the kitchen that can only be described as “overwhelming.” This man was out of his mind to think that Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree was going to somehow give the place “atmosphere.”

Evidently I was in the minority on this assessment. Most people who saw the branch applauded my parents’ ingenuity and thought it was a clever way to bring the outdoors inside. They liked the concept of using natural materials to create conversation pieces and if you take a look around today’s home furnishing showrooms, it would appear that my parents were visionaries ahead of their time.

Still, I doubt that even Nate would have approved the red string of twinkle lights they added to the branch later that year to create a romantic mood during the festive holiday season.

Sigh…sometimes my parents were so far out on a limb…even I couldn’t reach them.

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MHH November Column- You spin me right ’round

Lazy_Susan           It was called a Lazy Susan and for the 20-plus years it sat atop my mother’s dining room table, it lived up to its name. In theory, it was a handy gizmo designed to give families and guests easy access to food. In practice, it was a stationary centerpiece whose sole purpose was to hold fake fruit that no one was allowed to touch.

The Lazy Susan was only one of a handful of items around the house that seemed to lack identity and purpose. We had a spice rack that sat empty above the cooktop (and ironically below the place where Mom kept the spices.) We had chairs no one sat on; appliances that were inconvenient to operate and towels that my mother insisted were “too pretty to use.”

When my mother passed in 2008, I became the owner of these items…none of which had any sentimental value to me. I kept the towels. After all they were in better shape than the ones I had at home (and this explains why I dry dishes with Frosty the Snowman towel in July) but everything else was set aside for the estate sale. It wasn’t personal. I just believe that family heirlooms should be something that has an interesting backstory, has monetary value, or is inextricably linked to one’s childhood. Not something that did nothing but collect dust for three decades.

So you can imagine my surprise as I watched folks come by and purchase these fun (if not overly functional) items. I was pleased that this lot of miscellaneous would have a second chance to make memories with a family in a home that would appreciate them.

“Look at this vanity chair,” a friend of my son’s called out. “It’s practically new!”

Well of course it was new. No one was allowed to sit on it. Mom said it was too fragile and for the life of me, I never understood why we had it in the first place. Our bathroom only held one person comfortably, so it wasn’t like we were holding monthly meetings in there and needed additional seating. I shook my head at her enthusiasm but said nothing until she spotted the Lazy Suzan sitting on a table, lifted it like Kunte Kinte and proclaimed it the coolest thing she’d ever seen.

“You’re kidding right?” I asked.

“No! This is awesome! I’ll use it when I have parties and game nights. It will be the perfect thing for chips and dip and other finger foods!” She seemed genuinely thrilled with the vintage find and I didn’t have the heart to tell her that it really didn’t have much experience in practical application. I wrapped up the colorful wedge shaped dishes and wooden pedestal in a paper bag and hoped that it didn’t fall apart under the pressure of having to perform.

“Just do me one favor,” I requested as I handed it over. “Give it a good, hard spin for me and never, EVER fill it with fake fruit.”

“You got it,” she promised with a grin.

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October Column for MHH- Until Further Notice

Family           It’s the last thing anyone wants to see in the wee hours of the morning when they tiptoe into the house: a lone figure sitting in the middle of the sofa, wearing a scowl and tapping her foot demanding to know one’s whereabouts.

“Do you know what time it is?” She asks the unlikely party animals who are undoubtedly aware of the hour hence why they are creeping around in the first place.

My parents started at me with a mixture of bewilderment and disbelief. Was this their daughter accosting them like they were a couple of teenagers who broke curfew?

clock            Few nights in my life stand out as much in my mind as that Friday in October 1985 when I grounded my parents. It started out to be such a festive occasion. My homebody parents announced that they were meeting some friends for a late dinner, dancing and drinks at a nearby restaurant and I was thrilled. At 13, I was content to have the house to myself where I could blast music on my stereo, eat pizza, pop popcorn in the microwave and, if they stayed out late enough, catch the entire Top 20 Video Countdown on MTV.

Then something went wrong. I went to bed around 11 o’clock and had just fallen asleep when I heard the phone ring in the dining room. It was my mother telling me that some other friends joined them and that they would be home “after a while.”

“When?” I asked.

“Oh I don’t know, after a while,” she replied. “You’re not scared to be alone are you?”

poltergeist-original            Well I wasn’t until she brought it up, but not two seconds after I hung up the phone, the house starting rocking and moaning…making those noises houses NEVER make in the daytime. I willed myself to go to sleep, but I was distracted by the things that go bump in the night. I got up to watch some TV but cable decided to have a glitch in their system and I was left with nothing but a static-filled screen. They’re Heeeeere, I thought to myself.

Midnight rolled into one o’clock with no sign of my parents anywhere and my imagination running wild. At 2 a.m., I was standing at the kitchen window staring down the street when I saw familiar headlights swing into view. I bolted over to the couch to take my place, determined to bust them both when they came inside.

“Julie, what are you still doing up?” My father asked in surprise.

“Don’t turn this around on me,” I shot back defensively. “I’m not the one who stayed out all night.”

“But we called,” my mother reasoned. “You never mentioned that you were scared.”

“Oh, I wasn’t scared, just worried about you, that’s all,” I clarified, crossing my fingers behind my back.

My parents hid knowing grins and apologized contritely for their behavior. Satisfied that they would never stay out so late again, I sent them to bed and told them we’d talk about it in the morning. “However, consider yourselves grounded until further notice.”

 

 

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