The Shark in the Driveway

I had loved him from the beginning; the Shark was a handsome, loving, big brother type guy who always had a hug and smile for me.  I would forever be the little flower girl who lived next door.  I can still remember studying in my room and hearing the squeaking brakes come to a stop in the driveway.

He knew how long it took him to get back to the store, and used his lunch breaks to the fullest.  His mother-in-law often made him a special sandwich or something particularly delicious; of course, these lunches were not without cost.  He often had to endure another round of on-going reminders and messages; didn’t matter that he’d already heard them earlier that day.  The lunchtime reminders were just an insurance program so, once on the road and through the tunnel toward home, he’d have remembered to pick up and or bring everything home.  Like clockwork, I’d hear him leave; he was the only one I ever knew that could backup a car before the engine was fully started!

On occasion, he’d stop by after a day’s work and, finding my retired father at home, goad him into walking down the street for a game of pool.  Truth be told, Daddy enjoyed the Shark’s company; as Daddy would remark, “He’s just a big kid– what the hell – I can still beat the pants off him!”  And each time they returned, the young Shark would comment, “Man, your dad is really good. Tough to beat, Man…I almost broke my back beating him on that last game.”

Daddy understood the younger Shark better than most, because he understood what it was like to be underestimated at a young age.  Daddy had an uncanny sense when it came to summing up a person’s character; the Shark had at once passed Daddy’s litmus test with flying colors.  So, though the Shark liked to toot his own horn, Daddy would simply explain, “Hell, the kid gets no credit; I remember what that was like…”

Despite the talk and exaggerated highlights, each enjoyed the other’s company; indeed, sometimes it was difficult to tell who enjoyed it more! Those of us watching the antics and listening to the B.S. that accompanied this spar fest very soon understood all was harmless if not actually therapeutic for them both.

A common foe didn’t hurt, either.  Each had a bone to pick with the neighbor; truth be told, one could afford to be harsher than the other… The Shark had to mind his Ps and Qs as he had married the neighbor’s daughter.  Daddy didn’t have to mind anything or anybody, so he kept up his playful harassment at the neighbor’s expense and Shark the Son-in-Law’s delight.

In the entirety of Rubberneck Avenue dynamics, this was normally a non-eventful exchange; it was, however, great fun and entertainment for those of us on either side of the driveway.

 

When Healthier Roots Prevailed

The American Dream was the prevailing mindset:  there were opportunities for those who sought them and a political system that – in its purest sense – erased social classes via the ballot box.  Thus had the quintessential republic become a world beacon for opportunity, not opportunists; and this young country flourished as long as those tasked with governing maintained the disciplined checks and balances needed for a healthy milieu to support free enterprise.

Some old country practices and expectations naturally slipped right on through Ellis Island into the new country.  A family member contributed to support of the entire household, sometimes at the expense of a shortened, formal education.  Daddy was one of nine who had grown and matured, understanding full well the responsibilities of earning one’s keep as part of the workforce in the family’s laundry business.  As one of the babies, my father was lucky enough to finish high school, and then enter a trade school.  Not so the older daughters; many of them married early and became homemakers themselves; more often than not they, too, worked outside the home.  Two of my aunts had married foreigners who became naturalized citizens.   In keeping with another customary practice, my father and mother were married only six months when they moved “back home” to take care of his aging parents.

My father had his dreams like any young man of his generation.  He’d had the chance to tour the Orpheum Circuit.  As one of a barbershop quartet, he lost the big chance when one of the four decided he couldn’t commit to traveling the country, so went into hiding for several days; his action was long enough to permanently break off any remaining ties of a permanent contract with the entertainment circuit.

A marriage and two children later, Daddy was too old to enlist for WWII, so worked for the war effort at home.  After the war, he and Mom opened up a floor covering business.  Daddy understood the labor movement from both sides now, and was reforming his previous union mindset.  My father changed his voter registration to vote for Ike.  Eventually, my uncle joined as a full partner. By the mid-fifties, the linoleum shop was supporting two families and growing.

While not easily fooled by smooth-talking orators, Daddy liked men who told it like it is (and touched his own emotions).  Spiro Agnew was a particular favorite.  I can remember my father chuckling at Spiro’s deft handling of the press; that is, until the first American Vice President with a Greek lineage was exposed for federal tax evasion, then struck from the nation’s memory in quick form!  Daddy had voted for the Nixon-Agnew ticket.  We’d never let Daddy forget it.

The Brat and I guaranteed old Spiro would forever remain in our father’s conscience; a metal trashcan with Spiro’s cartoon image would ensure the proper place for additional garbage – political and otherwise.  We presented it to him for Father’s Day.  It stayed – well hidden but serviceable – under the shop’s main desk for many years.

When the Vietnam War was aired on nightly television, Daddy insisted that we watch Cronkite’s coverage each evening.  My brother had already received an honorary discharge, but others’ sons were fighting; thus, my father insisted that we remember the toll being carried by our fellow Americans. This was difficult for us around the table; several times, we asked if we couldn’t dispense with the war coverage just for one night.

My father was insistent: our young men were fighting in a terribly difficult terrain and under very divisive circumstances here at home; the least we could do was stay informed.  The news would stay on during dinner.  End of subject.

A Fork in the Road

I wanted the silverware more than I ever imagined, and they have proven to be magical wands full of memories.  I do not mix a can of tuna or turn a slice of meat in the pan without remembering the mannerism that I watched and absorbed all those years in the kitchen next door.  Our Italian neighbor could cook an entire meal and never have one dirty dish or pot left to show for it!  She was incredibly clever at keeping the counter clear and clean.  Unfortunately, neither her daughter nor I picked up that particular good habit.

But there is not a time that I pick up one of the forks that I don’t recall the tuna and red onion, or the breaded zucchini in the sizzling olive oil; or brains breaded and slowly browned on top of the stove; or anchovy paste, rubbed into the bottom of the salad bowl; or the celery sticks laced with her special cheese spread that decked the holiday table year after year.

Picking up a piece of the old silverware has nurtured my heart and comforted me when money was tight; I could always mix a can of tuna and smile. With a bit of luck and planning,  I can even go out into my own summer garden and cut fresh chard with the well worn, mis-sharpened blade of their old kitchen knife…and once again, transport myself next door…

Political Passionist

My principal in elementary school must be rolling over in his grave.  Today, the Pledge of Allegiance is not necessarily a daily routine; few school children across our nation can recite it.  Some districts suggest that replacing older, thread-worn flags isn’t in the budget, so they do not exist in all classrooms.

But for the children attending Laurel Elementary in the fifties and sixties, the Pledge was recited daily and immediately followed by our principal Mr. K’s favorite song, “I Love You, California” at each and every assembly.  We all groaned but we sang it loud and clear, never once realizing what made this song so great.  It was years later before I fully realized the song’s importance.  Mr. K was a veteran of World War II; in his eyes, we children had good reason to sing about the wonders and fullness of our Golden State.

FOOTNOTE; MAY 2017

Dear Readers:

These are two veterans’ organizations that serve our military families past and present that I am particularly fond of!  One is Honor Flight which transports WWII,  Korean and now also Vietnam Vets  to Washington D.C. to visit their respective war memorials.  The other is Veterans Airlift Command, a group of volunteer pilots who transports our current wounded military members’  families to the hospital (often several hundred miles from home) in fully modified planes to accommodate the loved ones and, upon release, their very own hero or heroine in perfect comfort!

Our service men and women serve year round and their needs are greater than the traditional May and November months in which they are traditionally remembered; please give WHATEVER you can, WHENEVER you can, to an organization of your choice.  Remember that within any gift in any form you share, the smiles are free…

the FrogHavenLady xoxox

Loaves and Stripes

Having been raised by older parents who lived through the Great Depression and WWII,  I was keenly aware what America and its values and opportunities had afforded them and their immigrant parents.  Lessons were repeated year-round, during big and small occasions, on everything from soup to nuts or, in the case of our home, from bread to uniforms.

I was very young and had helped Mommy carry home some of the groceries that day.  I was tall enough now to help unload the items, so she instructed me to put the fresh loaf of French bread on top of the washer, a surface that was often used for spillover storage in our kitchen.  So, I pulled out the long loaf and plopped it down.  Mommy immediately picked up the loaf and, turning the label and bread right-side up, gently replaced it back onto the washer’s surface, explaining to me as she did:

We never put a loaf of bread upside down or treat it roughly, Annette.  You should always lay it down with its top crust facing up; this is a matter of showing the proper respect and thanks for the food we have on our table. We need to appreciate all we have, Honey…

That made quite an impression on me; but the story wasn’t finished.  Mommy shared how when my grandfather had first come to America, he tasted the soft white bread and thought it was cake.  Throughout my growing years, Mom’s grocery lists always differentiated between French bread and American Bread, i.e. normally either Roman Meal or Wonder Bread.

Testimonials from Hollywood stars were in full swing; commercials first appeared in black and white on families’ original round screen televisions; those families who didn’t yet have their own TV could congregate down on the boulevard and watch the exciting new technology through Uncle Al’s TV Sales and Repair shop window.   Even Annie Oakley solemnly stood there and, with conviction, promised the parents just how good Wonder Bread could be for their children; it helped build strong bodies in eight ways!  What parent could dispute that?

Many years later, I married a man eight years older than I; one of my more enjoyable one-liners was reminding him in front of others that by the time I was born, food science had advanced so much that Wonder Bread now promised to build strong bodies twelve ways!   The line was simple but effective.

Then of course there were the men who wore uniforms – police, military, didn’t matter.  We were to address them with absolute respect.    Regarding the veterans around us, I was instructed by both parents not to ask any questions about their war years.  Daddy would later clarify:

The ones that seem to talk a lot are usually the ones that saw the least; don’t believe everything you hear.  Learn to watch who the quiet ones are, Annette; they are most likely the men who experienced the horrors of war and saw the most hell.  You’ll never hear them admit how bad it was, or even talk about their experiences, not even after years have passed…

Most of Daddy’s peers had either served in the war or had worn a uniform in some capacity.  Daddy was too old to enlist, but it didn’t mean he couldn’t serve in some capacity, so he left his pattern-making job and helped build semis for the war effort.  I grew up hearing stories of how my family and others learned to live with rationing of such things as sugar, meat, fuel,  ladies hosiery…nothing that I would ever really comprehend well, since Mommy and I just walked down the boulevard to pick up sugar when we needed it.

The war may have ended, but the life style habits were deeply rooted and affected our upbringing.  We wasted little in our home, and we were grateful for everything, no matter how minor the item might be in the greater scheme of things.  Whether in private or in public view, we children were expected to behave at all times, which included please, thank you, and responding when spoken to.  We celebrated Thanksgiving and all American holidays, flying the flag on each day that the local merchant’s calendar instructed us to do so!

Our American Flag even flew from our front window sill on July 20th, 1969, when man first walked on the moon.  Mom and Dad insisted and I obliged, as it was easier now for me to reach the holder fastened above shoulder level.  Among that summer’s snapshots is a photo of our flag on display in front of our home; there are no markings on the back, but I know it was taken on that same day because it meant so much for our family to share in our country’s pride and greatness.

 

 

Did You Have History When You Were Little?

My daughter was learning her manners and just barely past two years old at the time of this conversation:

Mommy, tie shoes PLEASE?

Okay, Honey.  And what is the nice word you are going to say to Mommy when she is finished tying your shoes?

DONE, Mommy?

When she had reached fourth grade and was learning about US History (or some of the highlights), she came home one afternoon and asked me:

Mommy, who was president first… Lincoln or Kennedy?

BOING!!!!  Help me, God…I’m becoming my mother….

History is REAL.  As I learned too quickly, it is REAL for those who lived through the headlines; it only STAYS REAL if SHARED…   SO?  What to do this Memorial Day?

JUST BE AVAILABLE.  While military tributes are on-going across this great land of ours during Memorial Day Weekend, recall that Veterans from  WWII, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Afghanistan and Iraq War will be in attendance; and some of these survivors are not completely healed themselves, yet are there to honor their fallen comrades.

Hence, it is incumbent upon us all to stop and reflect upon the ones who grieve among us.  Don’t underestimate the value conveyed in the simplest expressions of a supportive arm or a respectful nod… or a sincerely expressed “Thank you for your service.”

 

Sense of Recall

This year, I am recalling all the construction heart valentines I brought home as a child; and the woven May baskets that we filled each year from home gardens. I am literally recalling them, playfully distributing my own child-like creations to a flock of individuals whose smiles and services have touched my life here in Frog Haven territory.

I am basking in the memories of great teachers, loving neighbors, caring mentors, dedicated medical staffers, and fellow Rotarians who have welcomed me here and proved to me the old adage that everyone does indeed have a twin; I have recognized enough smiles to believe with my whole mind and heart:  I have been placed here for a purpose.  God has once again transported me into a land five decades removed.

The names have changed, but I am, nonetheless, in an amusement wonderland of Fifties Americana, where customs and culture are unabashedly civil and painted with heavy layers of sentimentality and pride.  Libraries and museums thrive here, greatly cherished; their atmospheric oxygen is infectious! Even the shops along the historic downtown corridors evoke a time when destination was as much a part of the shopping experience as the items looked for; before “to shop” became an addictive “to have”.

In this time zone, there breathes community: and the wave of a hand from one driver to the next continually works the ground for the next generations; with enough left over that even an occasional transplant might digest a bit of local soil and comfortably take root.