Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Strange World of Facebook

Facebook is even stranger than real life, which is saying a mouthful.  I've been rattling around its environs for years now, and I think I've seen Just.About.Everything.  I realize I'm being silly in even claiming such a thing, however, as there's always something even more mind-blowing around the next corner.  People never fail to amaze.  Most anyone who spends any appreciable amount of time on social media knows it's a distillation of daily life in the world ... every mindset is represented, every problem magnified, every personality laid bare.

Let’s talk about "friending" -- an intriguing concept in every way.  It's hard for me to let people into my life, and yet I've met fabulous individuals from around the globe whom I would never have had the opportunity to know otherwise and we carry on funny, fascinating, engaging conversations nearly every day.  I have a load of family members on my friends list, most of whom rarely talk to me, which I don't take personally -- they're family, after all, and one sticks with family -- at least in ours.  And we share a strong genetic makeup – we tend to be quiet and introspective until you hit the right button, and then just TRY to shut us up.  I've received a lot of friend requests from people I used to know in a passing sort of way.  Sometimes those work out and we strike up a comfortable relationship that's better than we could ever claim in the past.  Sometimes I authorize the request and never hear boo from the person -- not a hello, a comment in a conversation thread, not even a "like."  In those instances, I usually assume the whole thing was motivated by curiosity (have I gotten fat or fallen on hard times??) give it a few weeks, hit the delete button, and move on. 

The first time I was unfriended, it was like a kick to the gut -- it happened to be someone I thought was a close friend, someone who'd been by my side during life-altering events.  I considered myself safe, accepted ... in other words, in my mind it was a true friendship.  Not so -- my political and spiritual leanings, only mildly hinted at during those innocent early days, rendered me unfit for that particular relationship.  Revelation dawned, I tucked it under my belt, and marched on.  I've since been unfriended by a handful of other people for the views I hold, and the only thing that would make that an untenable situation is if I changed my thinking in order to keep people happy and “on my side.” 

Interestingly, Facebook has succeeded in teaching me far more about friendship than I was able to learn in the rest of my life to this point.  In some ways I’ve grown softer toward people – more accepting of personalities and the endlessly varied ways in which they express themselves.  In others, however, I’ve grown very hard-nosed.  I do not tolerate prejudice, especially the kind that’s based on skin color or a person’s status in life, and I do not willingly subject myself to incivility.  I have no trouble these days hitting the “unfriend” button, and in the past week I’ve wreaked havoc on the list.  If you pass me in the grocery store without a glimmer of recognition, I have to assume we aren’t actually friends.   If you take me to task for my convictions and try to shame me into adopting a different mindset, I’m quite sure we’re not friends, as no quality relationship works that way.  If you asked to be on my list and we’ve never had a conversation or any sort of interaction, you’re probably not there anymore ... or won’t be tomorrow.  I’m all about keeping it real these days.

Stay tuned ... Facebook isn’t finished with me yet, nor I with it!  

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Can you hear me now?

Odd how life keeps moving, whether you’re paying attention or not.  Strange things happen, and unless you pause just long enough to catch the blur, you might miss the whole thing entirely.

When my husband was in the hospital recently, I picked up the phone in my hotel room and buzzed the front desk.  There were tiny scratchy-sounding noises on the other end but no voice, so I assumed the phone was out of order.  Not exactly.  The extremely polite young maintenance man who came to my room could hear just fine.  Cue icy fingers of dread on the back of my neck.

Two weeks later Kim and I found ourselves sitting in the office of an Ear, Nose & Throat specialist.  Holding the results of my hearing test in her hand and looking intently at the two of us, she said, “So.  What took you so long?  This is bad.”  To which both of us at the exact same time answered, “Pride.”

Somewhere along the line, in the process of living a full and busy life, and most likely helped along by my years as a tractor jockey, I have lost all of my highs and lows and a considerable amount of what’s supposed to be in between.  It happened so gradually at first, I wasn’t consciously aware of what was taking place, but I knew I was missing things people said and that the problem was growing steadily more frustrating.  I couldn’t figure out why Kim was always deliberately lowering the sound level when we were watching TV, and I uncharacteristically snapped at him for it.  I was irritated that nearly everyone seemed to speak rapidly and in very subdued tones.  It was becoming much more relaxing to stay home rather than to put myself in situations where I had to strain to keep up.  
I knew I was perpetually asking Kim to increase the volume on the TV … but not that I was plastering him against the back wall of the living room ala an old Maxell ad.  Patient loving soul that he is, he never really let on.  He knows I don’t react well to being told what to do, so he was in the process of, in his words, gently “leading me to the proper decision."

The day of my exam, this card-carrying senior citizen (gasp!) became the proud owner of a set of high-dollar, high-tech personal audio enhancement devices.  They’re sweet little triangle-shaped computers about an eighth of an inch thick that nestle behind the top part of my ears, and each one is attached to a tiny almost invisible tube that ends in an extremely small speaker.  Once my hairdresser and I conspire on a slightly modified haircut, no one on God’s green earth would know I wear them.  Except that I just told you.

There’s a reason why I’m breaking my silence (so to speak) about something I was originally very reluctant to admit I needed – life is too brief and too beautiful to miss.  If you suspect that your audio capabilities could use a boost, don’t wait.  What I thought would make me feel older instead makes me feel infinitely younger.  For one thing, constantly saying “What?” does not make you hip.

Suddenly being able to hear again was something of a shock.  The sheer mass and variety of sounds was overwhelming at first.  But it’s been very gratifying to sit back and observe while my brain does what it’s designed to do – delineate and categorize the individual kinds of input, labeling them important, not so important, okay to ignore, and so on.

There are myriad sounds I hadn’t heard in a very long time but didn’t realize I was doing without.  The swish of my own bare feet on our tile floors.  Birds outside my office window.  The tick of my star-shaped clock on the wall.  The rush and patter of rain, with its thunderous applause.  A hundred sweet little accompaniments to the ballet of daily living.  Sometimes it touches me so deeply to be able to hear again, it moves me to tears.  When I take my ears off, my world instantly reverts to mute.  The contrast is staggering.

An audio test is one of the least expensive gifts you could give to yourself and those who love you, and it would be a shame to let pride rob you of some of life’s sweetest joys.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Seriously. I don't get it.

Less than a month from now I will be eligible for Medicare and by that standard I’ve lived long enough to learn a few things, one of which is that it’s counter-productive to fret overly-much about what anybody thinks of me.

I’m well-read.  I’ve ventured outside the confines of the United States.  I am no longer a candidate for having the “Kick Me” sign hung on my back.  But there are any number of things that baffle me, make me shake my head, cause me to say “I don’t get it.”

I don’t get why a friendly conversation is so hard to come by in the public arena these days.

I don’t get how a sweet little girl sacrifices her entire childhood in favor of incredibly rigorous athletic training, rises to the top of her field, and wins gold – twice – at the  Olympics, only to be made the center of controversy over her HAIR, of all things, and the color of her leotard.

I don’t get what people mean when they say we need “a real American” in the White House.  Are they indicating that they want a Native American Indian for president?  Because obviously, the rest of us came from somewhere else and thus are not “real.”

I don’t get why it’s a point of controversy when the First Lady (as is traditional) chooses childhood obesity as her personal cause, since obesity in general is a huge thing in this country (pun definitely intended) and our children are suffering.  Somebody has to care that this is happening.

I don’t get why people continue to insist that the United States is officially a Christian nation, when the framers of the Constitution made it abundantly clear in the First Amendment that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  Free exercise means ANY and ALL religion.

I don’t get why people insist that a single verse from Leviticus must be obeyed to the letter, while totally ignoring the remainder of that particular passage and so many more.

I don’t get how certain things become labeled as being “liberal” or “conservative.”  For example, recycling – why is that seen as an inherently subversive thing to do?  We have just one Earth, and so far no one has discovered a viable alternative, so it seems only wise to take care of this little spot in the universe.  The relatively conservative farm boy with whom I spent 34 years of my life went out and bought Rubbermaid tubs the week the big recycling plant opened in Meade, America, and we faithfully salvaged everything reusable from that point forward.  His vastly more conservative parents did the same in their small town, and proudly delivered their newspapers and other recyclables to the collection shed on a regular basis.  Every time someone looks askance at me for doing my tiny part to help preserve the integrity of the planet, it makes me shake my head.  It doesn’t, however, deter me from what is by now an ingrained habit.

I DON’T get it … but I probably DO get it … and here’s what I think is going on …

I think friendly conversations are becoming fewer and further between because life is all about change, more so now than ever, and people are running scared, which makes them cling ever more desperately to their personal points of view.

I think Gabby Douglas’s hair is considered fair game because it’s somehow “foreign,” “other,” “not like us.”  And I think Fox News gets by with slamming her simply because she’s “that” brand of “different.”

I think our President is threatening for those same reasons, even though he is as much “white like us,” as he is “different.”  He had white grandparents who adored him and a white mother from Kansas, of all places.  An ordinary girl, an ordinary family, an ordinary life, all of which came together to produce an extraordinary man.  But because he lives inside black skin, was given a scary-sounding foreign name through no fault of his own, and was uppity enough to run for president and win, it becomes necessary to invent a “back story” in order to justify why we choose not to like him.

Our First Lady -- scary, other, different?  I think you have to stretch pretty hard to make those labels stick, other than the fact that she, too, resides inside black skin that blessedly doesn’t look like ours.  I think her tremendous education level and innate intelligence, as well as those of the president, are intimidating and threatening to a certain segment of the population.

I think people insist on making this an officially “Christian” nation because that makes it feel safer and more “ours”.  And it makes it acceptable to persecute and call out and label and denigrate … and kill … Sikhs, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, and anyone else who is different … other … thus, somehow threatening.

I think it’s out of ignorance and fear that people carefully extract and selectively interpret the portion of Leviticus that enables and sanctifies their hatred of an entire group of people, while ignoring ALL of the other injunctions, primarily the ones that command us to 
“Love thy neighbor.”

I think that ignorance breeds fear, and fear breeds hatred, and hatred breeds violence.

I think that more than two hundred years of societal evolution, education, and exposure to the way the rest of the civilized world views things have brought us very little in the way of maturity, wisdom, kindness, and human progress in this country.  Willful ignorance and backwardness sadden and trouble me beyond words, and for all the indignant claims on the part of “Christians,” I think we get it wrong on SO many things.  I honestly believed we’d moved past all of this years ago.  Silly me.  Call me naïve and slap the “Kick Me” sign on my backside when I’m not looking.

I think one of the greatest joys of having a personal blog is the freedom to say exactly what I think.  And that the blowback that results from honesty and the willingness to speak up is inevitable and a natural part of the process.   I get that.

Obviously, I think a lot of things.  But if you get why recycling is scorned as an intrinsically “liberal” activity, please give me a call.  I don’t know WHAT to think about that one.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Life. Just life.

In 2003, in what now seems like a different lifetime, my family and I experienced the proverbial – and literal – year from hell.  In an eight-month period from February to October, my father-in-law died after a fall which resulted in a broken shoulder and a massive heart attack; my husband was killed in a horrendous truck rollover during wheat harvest; I moved after 34 years on our farm; and my dad died of a broken shoulder resulting in pneumonia, after a year-long descent into dementia.

As time progressed, I discovered that there is a thing called grief anorexia, but it would be a long time before I could put a name to it.  I did not eat or sleep, except what was necessary to keep me alive, and I steadily lost weight.  My mom, seemingly in excellent shape, had died suddenly of a heart attack eight years earlier at age 67, and from that time forward I was responsible for my dad’s care, as his health was precarious.  After both my father-in-law and my husband were gone, I also assumed full responsibility for my mother-in-law’s well-being.  She too was in the early stages of dementia and lived almost twenty miles away from me.  My dad was thirty miles in the opposite direction, so I burned up the roads checking on both of them every day.  I was simultaneously consumed with the process of settling four separate estates, so I lived with a phone glued to my ear and a FAX machine at my fingertips.  Life was reduced to a test of survival, although I did my best to keep a smile on my face for those who depended on me.
 Cue the knight on the white horse.  Sometime in the month of August that year, I was sitting at the keyboard during band practice at church when I noticed a tall, astoundingly good-looking man at the back of the sanctuary.  Turned out he had been invited by a mutual friend to play bass guitar in the band, and I spent the next eight months virtually ignoring him.  I had plenty to think about and much to do, was still in the throes of overwhelming grief, and was in no mood to make the acquaintance of a dangerous man.  

During those eight months, he and I didn’t exchange more than a quick “Hi, how are you?” as we passed each other in the halls at church.  But a couple of people I trusted were friends with him and despite my resistance I slowly began to take a casual interest in his general welfare.  As a result, on Wednesday night of Holy Week in April of 2004, I detained him outside after band rehearsal because I’d noticed that he had missed a couple of practices and wanted to make sure he was okay.  We ended up sitting in my car and talking – strictly talking – until 4:30 in the morning. 

Two evenings later, on Good Friday, he and another friend attended our Cantata, and afterward I found myself inviting him to my house for Easter dinner on Sunday.  He agreed, but only if I promised to let him do the cooking.

I’ve since heard it said that sometimes, in the middle of an ordinary life, God gives us a fairytale.  Within three hours of his arrival, dinner over, conversation flowing non-stop, we knew we would be getting married, and sooner rather than later. 

There were stipulations.  1) After close to 35 years of cooking for family and farm help, I had reached burnout stage and wasn’t interested in resurrecting the food line.  No problem – having been a foodie most of his life, even making his living at it from time to time, he preferred to handle all kitchen duties himself.  And 2), having lost three key men from my life in a very short time, I was reluctant to give my heart to another, so he solemnly promised not to “die on me.” 

Long sweet story short, on July 25, 2004, I became Mrs. Kim Smith.  He started making wonderful food for me every day, and the 98 pounds I weighed when I met him became ….. well ….... more.  

Fast-forward eight years.  My husband was working in the yard on Saturday morning, July 28, 2012, forcing a root feeder into the rain-deprived soil, when he felt a blow to the middle of his chest as if someone had slugged him.  Chalking it up to a pulled muscle and the 100° temps, he came inside for a rest, a cool shower, and some Tylenol, then proceeded to work at his job as Kitchen & Bar Manager at our local dinner theater for the remainder of the day and evening.  He did the same on Sunday, arriving home after 10:30pm, exhausted, silent, and still in pain.  

A Monday visit to the cardiologist revealed that Kim had suffered a significant heart attack, the upshot of which is that he had bypass surgery on August 2nd and is now recovering at home.  He is rebounding well, thanks to a solid 40 years of racquetball, other physical activity, and good genes, and we are now starting to breathe easier after what was a sobering scare.  He will be off work for at least two months, and he does still require another surgical procedure for an unrelated problem that showed up during the heart cath, but we have crossed a monumental threshold.

My husband is a man of his word.  He has been my personal chef for eight years running and shows no sign of reneging on that bargain, although since I am now retired and he’s still working I step in as much as possible to shoulder that responsibility. 

And he didn’t “die on me.”  Thank you, God, he didn’t die on me.

Sunday, July 15, 2012


My husband and I have been catching some advertising on TV that has us scratching our heads.  The ads are for a well-known outdoor-recreation merchandiser of colossal proportions, touting their store-sponsored summer camps.  The footage shows happy children and their parents sleeping in tents, toasting marshmallows, going fishing, and participating in other fun activities associated with the open-air experience – all of it taking place 

I’m all for exposing kids to new experiences and the joys of outdoor living, but somehow the ads only succeed in making me feel sad.  I grew up camping with my family, so I know it doesn’t have to cost big bucks for the real thing unless you require everything to be first class.

First class we weren’t – more like a band of gypsies – but I wouldn’t trade those summer idylls for anything.  My dad was an irrigation farmer, making it difficult for him to get away during the over-heated summer months; however, where there’s a will, there’s a way.  Three or four times a year, between May and September, my parents, an aunt and uncle, and a raft of kids would load up and go to the lake for several days of sun, swimming, water-skiing, sleeping under the stars, and eating food cooked outdoors.  There was a little fishing here and there, too, and we were usually joined by other relatives and friends at various points during our stay.

My grandpa had stocked up on Army surplus items when the gettin’ was good (and cheap), so we had access to a big green army tent that was hot as blazes after a day in the sun but did a good job of sheltering us from the elements; kerosene lanterns; cots and smelly sleeping bags; portable cook-stoves; ammo boxes for storage; and most anything else a few days without the comforts of home might require.

After loading the station wagon with everything from soup to nuts, the first stop was the grocery store for all the real food – bags upon bags of it.  Then with everyone crammed into the vehicles, we caravanned to the nearest large body of water, an hour and a half away, happy as clams, singing, laughing, and playing travel games, and much "discussion" over who got the spot between Mother and Daddy in the front seat.

We kept a small ski boat and a big old (with the emphasis on old) ramshackle trailer house in a storage area at Cedar Bluff Lake, towing both down to the water upon arrival.  The boat would be launched, the trailer leveled insofar as was possible, the tent(s) set up, the charcoal grills placed on standby, and all things put in order for an extended stay.  We kids, of course, barely noticed that these things were happening.  We’d either worn our swimsuits on the drive up, or shucked into them the minute the wheels stopped rolling, and we were happily jumping off the dock, dunking each other, yelling, running around … and asking what we could have to eat.     

Our mom and aunt seemed to do little besides cook the entire time, when they weren’t busy grabbing a streaking, flailing kid at every opportunity in order to slather him/her with sunscreen, but they were nevertheless visibly more relaxed and laid-back about life than at home.  Everyone who’s experienced it knows there’s something about food cooked and consumed outdoors that enhances its flavor many times over, and we feasted like royalty.  Pancakes, eggs, bacon, sausage and fruit for breakfast, baloney sandwiches, chips and veggies for lunch, grilled hotdogs, hamburgers, steaks or chicken with all the extras in the evenings.  And a steady, day-long supply of cold soda and Black Cow bars, plus anything else we could manage to ferret out of its hiding spot.

The babies played in the sand.  The little kids banded together and pursued their own enterprises of hiking, exploring, sharing secrets, and defending each other from callous onslaughts by the medium-sized kids … who obviously dedicated their time to harassing the little kids.

The bigger kids’ hours were defined by transistor radios, water-skiing, sun-tanning, and keeping a close watch for interesting-looking members of the opposite sex.  The kicker was that our parents preferred going to the lake during the week rather than on weekends in order to avoid the crowds, so the pickings were slim.

Our dads spent their time trying to keep the boat motor running, hot-dogging on slalom skis as a reward for their efforts, and consuming quantities of cold beer.

And our moms, who were known to do a little sun-tanning themselves while catching up on their reading and talking, were no doubt simply thankful to survive it all one more time.

 The time always passed far too quickly, and after three or four days of non-stop sun and water everything would be packed into the cars again for the trip home, each and every item either wet or coated with gritty sand, or both.

Unlike on the drive up, there was no singing; there was barely a word spoken.  We were all sunburned within an inch of our lives, AGAIN, and God help the child who inadvertently touched a sibling on any part of his or her person.  We were well-acquainted with the misery of sun-burnt skin and we swore each time that it would never happen again, but nobody in our acquaintance yet knew how potentially deadly the condition was, so we were not nearly as careful as we should have been.  On the way home, the only reason anybody vied for the middle spot in the front seat was because that’s where the A/C blew the coldest.

It was rude, it was crude, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.  We loved every minute of it, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat … if only to have all those people back with us for one more lazy summer.

Not every child will be lucky enough to experience the kind of summers we did, but I do hope they realize that there’s more to life than a pseudo camp-out in a retail store. 

Saturday, July 14, 2012

My Kingdom for a Voice

A Midwestern upbringing can be a challenge to overcome.  Girls of my era were primarily raised to be amiable and polite at all costs, and there’s nothing much wrong with that except that sometimes you need to take a stand on things and say what you think and it’s frustrating not to have the skills for it.  I never came close to nailing the perfect little lady thing, southern-style; nevertheless, it took me an awfully long time to actually find my voice.

It wasn’t my mother’s intention to saddle me with a timid spirit, it went with the times.  Later on, she waded into the deep end of a heavy-duty education that afforded her a platform for the things she cared about, so I’m fairly certain she’d be happy to know that I hardly ever shut up these days about what matters to me.

It was one of my high school English teachers who initiated the process of dragging me out of my shell.  She knew exactly who she was, she feared no one, and for some inexplicable reason she believed in me.  I instinctively loved her, but she scared the crap out of me.  I wasn’t entirely sure what she wanted from me, she seemed to have come from a world I wasn’t yet acquainted with, and I was deathly afraid I was going to fail her in some fundamental way that would forever seal my fate as a weenie.

College served to further draw me out, but I can’t say that it markedly defined me, nor did a brief stint in the business world before getting married.  Marriage added definition, as did motherhood, but my personal signature on my own life was still largely invisible.

Then, a decade ago, a rapid succession of sudden and unforeseen cataclysmic losses shredded my safety net and thrust me into an entirely new  life.  There was no way to turn back the clock and undo events – the only way open to me was forward.  I was faced with monumental decisions, and I found that as I dispatched them one by one my trust in myself grew exponentially. 

It was around this time that my son introduced me to Facebook, and I suddenly had a built-in forum for my incredibly hilarious stand-up comedy, by which I mean lame graphics and too-cute sayings gleaned from the far recesses of the internet.  But the more I interacted with new friends from around the globe, the more I grew to appreciate myself as a full-fledged human being with valid thoughts and opinions.  It helped that I had recently married a man who loves every square inch of me, exactly as is, and encourages me to always and forever be myself, no matter what. 

It took the economic collapse of November ‘08, however, to firmly kick me into high gear and galvanize my resolve to speak up and to never again stand on the sidelines watching things unravel.  Turns out there’s nothing quite like a damaging financial beating from unethical sources for building backbone.   All at once the confidence I’d gained through forced independence, the empowerment that comes from a truly great relationship and supportive friends, the knowledge I had garnered through reading and research, and my “rage against the machine” came together to not only expose that elusive voice, but make it bold.

I used to be fairly blasé about politics, disengaged and careless about the process, vague as to what impact this or that initiative would have on my life.  No more.  I’m mad as hell and I can’t shut up.  I’ve always been painstakingly careful not to offend, but lately I’ve been struck by the fact that very few people I encounter share that same compunction.  They say exactly what they think, regardless of whether or not they can support it factually.  And if it hurts someone’s feelings, too bad.  

Some people have informed me, in an unmistakably accusatory manner, that I’ve changed.  It’s true, I have.  Crushing grief and overwhelming responsibility will do that to a person.  At the same time, I remain the person I’ve always been.  For one thing … or two … I still try to get the facts straight, and I continue to do my best not to bash innocent people over the head with them.

I have wonderful young friends who are raising their daughters and their sons to own who they are and what they want, from the crib forward.  I watch these young moms with awe, and I silently applaud their delightfully expressive children, especially the girls.  Boys have long been known for their bravado and natural confidence, so it’s those little girls who impress me.  They don’t doubt for a minute that they have something to say and that they’re to be taken seriously in every word of it.  They’ve got the walk and the talk and they’re headed for big stuff.  I have my eye on at least one who, if nobody beats her to it, could very well become our first female president of the United States.  It would not surprise me a bit.

You go, all you moms and daughters.  You make me so proud. 

 A Rose Among Thorns

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Daily Special

My maternal grandparents met when my grandfather, just home from the front during WWI, having fudged on his age in order to enlist, walked into the mercantile store in a tiny southwest Kansas town and encountered my grandmother, who was fifteen years old and working as a sales clerk.  From that moment on, the rest, as they say, is history, as he instantly swept her off her feet.  Or it could have been the other way around, since she sold him a pair of shoes.

Within a short time they were married and raising the first of nine children born to their union.  Theirs was a long and happy love story and they were the initiators of a dynasty large enough to rival that of the Kennedy clan, albeit without the accompanying wealth.
They spent all of their 50-plus years together in that same tidy little town, thirty miles from our farm -- which meant we didn’t get to see them on a daily basis the way we did our paternal grandparents who lived just across the driveway from us.  That made the times we did spend with them seem special and memorable, but I was always more than a little jealous of the cousins who lived in the same town with them – it didn’t seem quite fair somehow.

Grandma and Grandpa made up for it, though, by being some of the most interesting, entertaining people I’ve ever known and by insuring that all of our moments together were happy ones.  Grandma started a home and family in lieu of finishing school, but that lapse in education didn’t keep her from consistently being her refined, gracious, and intriguing self.  Grandpa never really had the opportunity for formal education past the eighth grade because when he should have been starting high school he was homesteading a claim in eastern Colorado at the behest of his step-father, a mean and mentally unbalanced man who left him out in that barren country on his own.  The detour proved no detriment to Grandpa, however, as he eventually became self-taught in several languages, a math whiz, an electronics genius, a man vitally engaged in world events, and a lifelong seeker of knowledge, a mindset that he passed on to his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

 As often as they could, Grandma and Grandpa would come to the farm on Sunday evenings with a big cool jello salad and one of Grandma’s famous sour cream chocolate cakes with caramel icing.  From the moment they stepped through the door, everything changed.  The house felt so light it was almost levitating, filled with laughter and the heady aroma of Grandpa’s pipe and Grandma’s perfume.  The cards and board games would be brought out from their storage spot under the stairs and everyone from little on up got to join in. 

Even better was going to their house, usually on a Sunday afternoon.  It was the height of comfort to walk in and smell Grandpa’s pipe and the lingering aroma of whatever delicious lunch Grandma had cooked that day.  Grandpa would invariably be settled in his recliner with a crossword puzzle, which he worked in ink as a matter of principle, a golf tournament or a baseball game murmuring away on TV, and the smoke from his ever-present pipe wafting through the living room.  The house would be warm and cozy to the point of serving as an instant sedative to restless energetic grandchildren, and on cold winter days we all vied for a spot on the floor furnace while it churned out soothing heat waves.  
 We knew they were glad to have us there because Grandma was all smiles and happy talk, and Grandpa didn’t grouse at us for simply being kids.  If we ever did get too rambunctious, all he had to do to restore order was snap his newspaper and shoot us a look over the top of his glasses.  He was very subtle in his regard for us, but we felt it nonetheless.

Their house was the default site for countless holiday meals, with aunts, uncles, cousins, friends and hangers-on crowding together, laughing, talking, teasing, and enjoying the sumptuous feasts that were laid out on the lonnnnnng table that stretched the length of the dining and living rooms, cobbled together expressly for those celebrations.  The women did the cooking, and after dinner my uncles, whom I adored, went to the kitchen, rolled up their sleeves, and did the mounds of dishes, all the while laughing and talking about things we cousins were not privy to.
What will stay with me forever is how engaged in life Grandpa and Grandma were.  They kept themselves healthy and active and they ate well, but Grandpa refused to allow himself seconds, and never did outgrow his military uniforms.  In fact, he and some combination of his six sons, all of whom served in the various branches of the military, marched in the town Memorial Day parade every year, each wearing their original service garb.  Grandma, to my knowledge, never left the house without her hair and nails up to snuff, enveloped head to toe in some heavenly scent and dressed in something appealing and up-to-date.  They kept up with the times, read voraciously, were interested in everything that came along, thrived on late-night television, and loved to laugh.  Grandma was well known for her refusal to gossip or speak negatively about anyone – it was all about the here, the now, the potential.  Bottom line, they were fun and a joy to be around.  They never thought old and they never seemed old, and they were great role models.  Grandma earned the family nickname "The Queen Bee," and even my boy cousins would say they wanted to be like her when they grew up.

I loved all my grandparents equally but in different ways.  Looking back now, it’s obvious that one set was highly conservative and the other quite liberal in their approach to life, and that being exposed to that dichotomy influenced and shaped my own life in key ways I’m just now happily sorting out.  

Victor E. Reese

Jennie Marie Somerville, age 15

My grandparents with their nine children, plus one granddaughter at center.  My mother, Virginia Wagner, is at the far right.