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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Bringing Home the Duncan Phyfe: Chapter 11

"Saving Up"

When I taught English (a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away), I sometimes used "what ifs" to help students start creative assignments. All fantasy and science fiction starts with a magic "what if?"

There is a huge “what if” that recent generations seldom imagine. This “what if” was very vivid to my parents and to their parents and grandparents. It goes something like this:
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“What if… everything you've used as collateral for a loan or anything you have in your possession that's not yet fully paid for... had to be put in your front yard and a collection agency came and said, ‘Pay off this debt now or we take it away?’” This “what if” could be about mortgages on farms or homes, loans on cars—anything purchased on credit. Baby Boomers and all the generations to follow are thinking, "Wait a minute. That can’t happen. They can’t do that.” But those who lived through the Great Depression are thinking, “That’s not a ‘what if.’ That’s an ‘I remember when.’”

Take, for instance, that new Firestone refrigerator my parents bought in April of 1951. Today's consumer would pull out the plastic and rationalize using the credit card this way: "If I'm confident that can save enough money to buy this unit in six months, why not take it home now and pay it off over time?" People with good credit do this all the time, and it makes sense in many cases--especially on necessities (like a refrigerator) or items that hold their value.
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My father, however, and many people of his generation, did not want to owe anybody anything. For some, it was a matter of pride. To Dad it was also a matter of fear. The kind of fear you don't talk about. The kind based on experiences you'd rather forget...
like walking home from school as a small boy to see all of your household furniture on the front lawn and your mother and older sister sitting on the front porch crying and your mom looking up and saying, "We lost the house." You don't talk about things like that. You just look for the box that has your stuff in it and ask, "Do I get to keep this?" And deep down inside, you begin to hate not knowing when something is really yours.
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So Dad and Mom were big on saving up to buy things, and in time they passed it on to us kids. "It's half the fun of owning something," Dad once told me. "If we could just go out and buy anything we want whenever we want it, we'd never learn to choose between things that matter and things we'd tire of in a week. Think of it like this, Tom. If you start saving for something and a month later decide to save for something else...that's okay. At least you didn't waste your money on something you really didn't want that much. That's one of the best things about 'saving up.' The other good thing is the feeling you get when you pay for what you've saved for and know it's yours."
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For my folks in that first year, "Paying as you go" meant driving a '39 Ford with "round" lines and dull paint while some friends were driving the flashiest new car designs ever to roll off a Detroit assembly line. It meant a wedding night at Aunt Edith's house; coming home to tiny upstairs flat and a bed bought from Dad's third grade teacher; laughing with friends when the spring popped through the center cushion of the couch from Dad's cousin. It meant talking about hamburger as if it were a fine cut of steak... it meant a wooden ice box on the apartment stoop until the day they walked into Star Oil with all the cash in hand. But it also meant feeling rich enough to have a butler as Dad poured "M'lady" a glass of milk from their new, paid-for refrigerator.
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Saving up is a lot like the joy and intimacy of marriage itself. It's not just the getting of something that matters; it's the wanting it enough to sacrifice for it and wait 'til it's rightly yours.
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During this frugal time of life, however, Dad had a secret. From the day he started working at Bell Telephone (two years before their wedding), he was doing two things on a regular basis: (1)he was buying shares of AT&T stock and (2) putting money into the Telephone Employees Credit Union. They had a regular banking account, too, but he started a nest egg where all the pole climbers, and wire pullers, and phone repairmen, and switchboard operators put their savings. He liked what the pamphlet said when he made his first deposit:
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“The purpose of this credit union shall be to encourage thrift among its members…and provide an opportunity for its members to use and control their own money on a democratic basis in order to improve their economic and social condition.”
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Dad liked the sound of that. He was "saving up" for a dream.
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Note: It is sheer coincidence that this is Chapter 11, a term used to describe a bankrupt business that is allowed to continue operating in spite of failed credit and unpaid debts.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Gallery

I stepped in a gallery
(just opened to all
not many years ago)
and followed soft-lit walls
of painted answers
down endless halls
of questions no one asked
but me
(or so I thought ‘til then).
Searching for
a single piece of straw
among the stacks of needles there,
strolling, scrolling past the posts
and columns
framed to fix the eye
or gain a glance,
I stopped perchance amazed
to gaze upon our words,
the notes we’d passed
some time ago
like kids on scraps at school,
now opened up, pressed out
and plastered to the wall
for all to see.
Who knew
that such a sight was art
to anyone but me?
© Copyright 2007, TK, Patterns of Ink

Blame it on the cold medicine I’ve been taking for three days, but these random lines made sense to me early this morning when I scribbled them down. Here's a hint: the gallery was not the Guggenheim but GOOGLEheim, and the hallway that I happened on last night was here which led to here.
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At the risk of sounding "internet illiterate," I'll confess that I did not know until yesterday that things we little "unknown" bloggers write are displayed in Google searches. Out of curiosity I typed this "Duncan Phyfe" title and was surprised to see these chapters as well as your comments listed there. They're not displayed in full on a wall--just introduced and "linked" somehow--but opening them there felt strangely public compared to sitting at my quiet little blog to write or read.
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Like the photo above, Google is an amazing "gallery" with posts and columns (of the written sort, the kind we "scroll" rather than stroll through). The endless compilation is mind-boggling (and a bit unnerving), but it serves as a reminder that the columns of minutia we post may be hung for all in the gallery to see. Anyway, that's what triggered these lines.
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You'll notice that a similar search prompted me to add an update to the end of Chapter 9-b. I Googled "Hamburger Gravy" and got 714,000 references--including one called hamburgergravy.com, a site you can buy for $500. Who knew we were discussing such a hot topic?

Monday, September 24, 2007

Bringing Home the Duncan Phyfe: Chapter 10

I mentioned that the apartment had a cast iron tub, an old stove, and a wall-mounted kitchen sink. It had no radio (though Dad would soon build one out of spare parts, no phonograph player, and no television. (In 1951, many people did not yet have televisions. That would change in the decades ahead. There are now 2.73 televisions per household. The average number of people per household is 2.55—that means TVs now outnumber the people watching them!)

More importantly, the apartment lacked two appliances that today would be considered "must have." First of all, it did not have a washing machine. Mom did small amounts of laundry in the kitchen sink with a washboard, but when she had a lot of laundry to do, she'd load up a basket and haul it over to her parents' house to use the old wringer washer in their basement.

In the 50's, washing machines as we now know them were just being introduced in advertisements, but in the years following World War II, the vast majority of homes that had a "machine" still used something like this old Maytag. It's hard to imagine something getting "clean" in that contraption. (My grandmother once got her hand stuck in the wringer part of the machine, a common hazard of the day.) You may be thinking that the other missing appliance was a clothes drier, but those were not yet popular. Most people considered them a waste of electricity compared to a clothesline. [Even after my Mom had a drier, she preferred hanging clothes on a line, weather permitting, for as long as I can remember.]
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The other missing appliance was introduced before WWII but did not go into major mass production and "must have" status until after the war. It changed human life more than we could have imagined. Mom and Dad’s apartment had no refrigerator.

The glass of milk Mom poured for Dad before unveiling her no-gravy meal had been kept cold in a wooden box on the stoop outside the apartment door. The idea worked fine in the winter, but it was early April and daytime temps were beginning to reach the fifties, which meant Dad had to buy a block of ice for his “ice box" and cover the whole thing with an old blanket.

Mom now laughs about their porch “ice box,” but at the time it didn’t strike her as strange or even nostalgic. She knew it was only temporary, and the arrangement was not far removed from their not-so-distant childhoods.

Like many children of the Great Depression Mom remembered having ice delivered each week to their old oak ice box in the kitchen. These were not bags of machine-made cubes (like the kind we buy today for picnics and parties); they were twenty-five pound blocks of ice cut from the frozen river in winter and stored in the ice house beneath a mountain of sawdust through the rest of the year. It had worked that way for centuries. No electricity required.


The ice man would drive a horse-drawn wagon (and later an old truck) down the streets looking for "ICE TODAY" signs in the front window. Mom says on hot summer days she and her friends would wait for the heavy cart, dripping from slowly melting ice, and the ice man would chip off of chunk with an ice pick, wipe off the sawdust and give it to them like a popsicle. Then he'd clamp the block with his big ice tongs and carry it with one arm up to the house and right into the kitchen ice box.

It was not until the late 30's that my mother's home saw its first electric "ice box" with the compressor on the top. As a kid visiting the same house in the 60's, they had a slightly newer model with all the round lines and chrome accents of Studebaker. Even then Grandma still called it an "ice box." She'd say things like “Here, Deary, put this left-over coleslaw in the ice box for me.” And I’d say, “Sure, Grandma. Do you mean in the fridge?” Then I would walk to their small refrigerator and open it to see it packed with fowl smelling things like Limburger cheese and countless clumps of tinfoil holding who knows what from who knows when. I remember that anything we ate from Grandma’s “ice box” had a unique osmosis flavor of everything else stashed in there.

But I digress… I say all this to say that the practice of keeping things cold with a block of ice was not primitive—it was the way Mom and Dad remembered doing it as kids. In 1951, up to 20% of the homes in Port Huron still had ice delivered to their old oak “ice box.” Or in my mom and dad’s case, a wooden box outside their apartment door.
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For several months now Mom and Dad had been putting aside part of their paychecks to buy the new Firestone refrigerator in the showroom of Star Oil, where Mom worked. It would take another couple weeks to have the cash in hand.

Mom’s boss offered to sell it “on credit,” but Dad was firmly against debt and would not let the fridge be delivered until they could pay for it in full.
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Just in time for Mom's birthday on April 24, the new refrigerator was delivered to the apartment. It was their first major purchase as a young couple, and Mom got absolutely giddy each time she put something in it. Even Dad couldn't help but smile when he saw it. Opening the door, he'd say things like, "May I pour you a spot of milk, M'lady?" as if he were a butler. Brand new things bring out the child in all of us.
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There was only one minor problem: the kitchen outlets had been wired before electric refrigerators were common, so where they had to plug in the fridge left it as conspicuous in their little kitchen as it had been in the window at Star Oil.... It did not quite look at home.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Last Day of Summer...

Today was the last official full day of summer. In fact, we watched it end at 7:42 PM EST as the sun set on the far side of Lake Michigan. I took a picture on my cell phone, but don't quite know how to get it on my computer. =)

We were camping at Holland State Park. I had an administrator’s conference near there on Friday, so I set up the camper Thursday night and went to the conference from there. Then after my daughter’s volleyball game on Friday (in Holland), the family joined me. It worked out great.

It’s been in the upper 80’s all week, and I hadn’t been swimming since Labor Day. So when the girls went shopping, I rode my bike to one of the largest fresh water beaches in the world to take one last dip.

Since it’s nearly October, I was surprised a few hundred other people had the same idea. Don’t get me wrong, there were acres and acres of empty sand, but down along the water’s edge were scores of people basking in the sun like beached sea lions and walruses (as the case may be). With my grey mustache and beard, I may have looked more like the latter.

After a refreshing swim in the chilly waves, I came in and stretched out on my towel. I thought back to that post I wrote in May about the bright sun and eyelashes. Wow! That was over four months ago? Where did the summer go? When I’m the only person on a beach, it’s a great place for contemplation, but when I’m surrounded by people who are with friends and family, and I’m alone with that Beatle’s nonsensical refrain “I am the eggman. I am the eggman. I am the walrus! goo goo g'joob!” going over and over in my head… it was kind of depressing. [Until a moment ago I thought that lyric was 'ku-ku-ka-chew!' not 'goo goo g'joob!'
Funny how you can spend your whole life singing a song wrong.]

The Holland Beach is so wide that the bike rack was a blur from the shore. I began wishing I had locked my bike since there’s a growing market for “retro” 10-speeds.

At the risk of sounding weird, I’ll tell you that this bike is kind of special to me. It’s the old Schwinn Continental I bought in 1971. I had just finished 9th grade, and had been saving my hard-earned paper route money for about a year. That particular bike was so popular back then that the Schwinn plant in Chicago could not keep up with demand. I had to wait two extra months for the bike to be made and delivered.

It was my bike in high school, college, and all the years afterwards until about ten years ago when I put it storage after buying an 18-speed mountain bike with all the bells and whistles. [Actually, there are many features on my other bike, but there are no bells and no whistles ... you knew what I meant.]

Then last summer I got out the old Schwinn, tuned it up, and when I rode it, I swear I felt like a kid again. I like the hard ride of the thin tires. I like the feel of the handle bars. I like the Tweedy Bird sticker I put on the gooseneck the summer I bought it. I like the click of the gears when I coast. But mostly, I like the memories that come up through my arms with every vibration of the road. Like the time my brother Dave and I rode over the Blue Water Bridge to Canada. They don’t allow it anymore, but in ’71 we just rode across, no questions asked. Coasting the long mile and a half down the other side we flew at 35 to 40 miles an hour on a sidewalk three feet wide with traffic two feet to our left and the blue water of the St. Clair River on the right (about 200 feet below). It was a rush to say the least. [Dave is still an avid goal-setting cyclist who thinks nothing of riding 80 to 100 miles a day.]

All these thoughts were going through my head as I walked the cool sand toward the parking lot. As I got closer I could see my blue bike standing out among the others there. I was relieved. I think if someone stole my more expensive 18-speed, I’d say, “Rats! Someone took my bike,” but losing this bike would be like losing an old friend. It's a functioning part of my past. It's not the continental part I like... it's the continuity.

I rode back to the campsite and started a fire early so the coals would be just right for "hobo pie." I bought a hinged skillet last year at an antique shop, and this would be a good excuse to use it. There's no real recipe for “hobo pie.” You just throw together things you like and cook it. This one had crumbled ground beef, sautéed onions and fresh mushrooms, and “smashed” baked potatoes. It’s good comfort food, sort of like Dad’s favorite hamburger gravy meal, but cooking it on a campfire adds a little smoke and ash for that "manly" flavor. =)

Sorry this is so random, but hey... it was the last day of summer! I did do some writing last night. I'll try to post the next chapter Monday evening.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Bringing Home the Duncan Phyfe: Chapter 9b
Hamburger Gravy

Who sat where at the small kitchen table had never been discussed. It happened naturally, as it had at all such tables for generations. Mom sat nearest the stove and sink to better serve the meal and clear the table, and Dad took the other end where he could watch, eyes wide, as the meal covered the tablecloth one pot or hot dish at a time.

He pressed the blue gingham with both his open palms and smiled, "You really did a nice job with this, Honey."

"It was nothing really--just a few hems. Can you take this hot pad and put it under the skillet? I'll put the potatoes over here and get the milk."

Mom grabbed a quart of milk from the box outside the door and poured Dad a tall glass, removing the lid from the hamburger dish as she left. She did not see it, but Dad looked into the pan as if something was missing. Mom sat down and handed Dad the mashed potatoes. He took a hefty serving and pressed the back of the serving spoon in the clump to make a "lake" for the gravy. He then put two palm-pressed hamburger patties beside the potatoes, and looked around the table and then at the stove.

"Where's the gravy?" he asked innocently enough.

"Very funny." Mom said, through a small bite of food. "Whoever heard of hamburger gravy?"

Mom did not mean to sound sarcastic. She really thought Dad was joking. He wasn't, and without thinking he mimicked her lightly dismissive tone.

"Whoever heard of hamburger and onions without gravy?"

"I make gravy with a roast, but I've never made it with hamburger. Why do you need gravy?"

He pointed at the hole in his potatoes. "What do you think that's for."

She pointed at her potatoes, which were oozing melted margarine. "I've seen you use butter on your potatoes."

"Only if there's no gravy."

"Well, there's no gravy so here." She handed him the butter dish.

Dad sliced a small raft of butter to cast off in his mashed-potato lake. Staring down, fork poised, he waited for the yellow square to melt. Mom had not yet learned that there are worse things in a conversation than gaps of silence, and she spoke again in a tone that could... well... melt butter, which was not a bad idea.

"Honestly, Don, I'm sorry, but I've never even heard of hamburger gravy. My mom never made it."

They sat in silence. Gaps in conversation are one thing... silence that can't be cut by words is another. Dad just sat there watching his butter melt. To this day, Mom doesn't know what he was thinking, but her brother-in-law, my Uncle Jack, later told her that Dad didn't know much about "handling a woman." Jack warned her that it took his brother a long time to think of the right things to say or do. Maybe this was one of those times. Maybe not. Maybe he was thinking with his disappointed taste buds. If so, he got over it, and finally spoke up.

"It's no big deal, Honey. Everyone has their own way of doing things. That's what recipes are for. It's not like there's a right or wrong way." There. Textbook tact right out of Beginner Husband 101. In fact, it sounded so good as he said it that Dad saw no harm in adding, "Why don't you call my mom and ask her for her hamburger gravy recipe. I think she just adds water and flour and lets it simmer. It's delicious."

"I never said I could cook as well as your mother."

"I'm not saying you don't."

"Well, why did you bring her up?"

"I didn't. You said your mother never made hamburger gravy, and I said my mom does."

"And then you said 'It's delicious' so I guess this isn't."

"I didn't say that," Dad bit a quick forkful of the muffin-like patty and pointed at his chewing mouth. "This is very good hamburger. I said her hamburger gravy was good."

"Not good. You said it was delicious..."

"Fine, but I did not say your meal was not delicious."

"You might as well have."

"Honey, the world is full of delicious things, and they can all be delicious at the same time-- completely independent of each other. I simply suggested that you call her and ask how to make it. I'm not saying call her right now... it's too late this time. Call her next time."

"Too late, huh? So this meal is... just beyond hope."

"I meant too late to make gravy. You can't make gravy now."

"I'm never making this again with or without gravy," Mom said stabbing her fork in the clump of round meat, "It's dry."

"Well, that's where the gravy helps." Dad said with another bite.

"So you think it's dry?" Mom challenged.

"I did not say it was dry. You said that." He quickly chomped another large bite from his fork, pointing at his chewing mouth. "See. I didn't say it was dry."

Dad had, however, overplayed the moment. His mouth was too full. His cheek and tongue and teeth which had worked together as a chewing team for 21 years could barely manage the double load, and his face contorted slightly as he reached for his glass of milk.

"See! It is dry!" Mom wailed.

"Only because there's no gravy. Just call my Mom. It can't be that hard to make."

"Ohhhh.... It's so simple even I can make it, eh?" She burst into tears and ran into their room, slamming the door behind her.

The silence that went unnoticed earlier when Mom wondered what he was thinking…now rang in his ears. He looked at his watch. About two minutes had passed since he sat down to the new gingham tablecloth. "How did this happen?" he thought, taking a bite of buttered potatoes. "See. I don't mind butter on my potatoes," he said out loud. He took another forkful of hamburger. "I'm still eating. It's very good." he said toward the bedroom.

On the other side of the door. Mom was also talking out loud to herself. "It can't be that hard," she said in a belittling tone Dad hadn't used. "Booshwa!" she muttered, which throughout her life was her pet and ultimate expletive. She went to the closet, pulled out the suitcase she hadn't touched since returning from Washington DC, and threw it on the bed.

Back at the table, Dad reviewed his afternoon at work. His boss, Jim Curley, had taken a moment to show him a better way to coil a 100’ extension cord so it wouldn't tangle as he unwound it at the next job. Dad thanked him for the tip and laughed, "I wish Ida known this when I started climbing poles." He'd already practiced the technique twice. Dad took a deep breath and let it out through his nose. "Show a women a better way to coil a cord," he thought, "and she’ll say, ‘I thought you liked the way I tied my extension cords.' Then she'll throw it to the ground and run off crying."

The bedroom door opened wide. With her head held high Mom crossed the kitchen as if it were a stage. At the top of the apartment entry stairs was a coat closet where she kept the dresses that would not fit in the small bedroom closet. In her heart she knew these were the least essential things to throw into a suitcase, but when you're playing to an audience of one, you sometimes have to improvise. She gently slipped each dress from the old wooden hangers and carried them back to their room. An awkward flick of her foot shut the door, but it did not stay closed.

Dad shook his head at the empty hangers then stared at open the door. He put down his fork, and slowly walked across the worn linoleum. There would come a time when he would know true anger. There would come a time when it would show. There would come time, he knew, when he would clearly be wrong, but in this moment he felt nothing but confused. He leaned against the door jamb without stepping into the room.

"Bev, I don't know what's going on here. I know we're going to have fights sometimes, but I'm just not ready for our first big fight to be about hamburger gravy."

"Well, you picked the topic. I never even heard of it." Mom pulled a handful of wadded hankies from a drawer and blew her nose loudly. "I just want to go home." She pressed the little suitcase buttons outward with her thumbs, and the brass clasps sprang up with a dull rattle.

“First of all... You are home, but if you’re going back to your parent's house, you'd better have a lot better story than this. You can't run home over hamburger gravy. This isn't even a good fight. I don't know what this is, but we've got to agree that when it happens we're not going to start pulling out suitcases."

"Is it, Don? Is this home, because it doesn't feel like home no matter what I do."

Those were the first words in this exchange that hurt him.

"Well, if that's how you feel, Bev. Don't let me stop you, but so help me...if that's all it takes to send you packing, don't bother coming back." The last four words fell like tossed change on the floor. There was no more heart in them than there was in the packing charade that Mom had begun, but neither of them made another sound until Mom plopped on the side of the bed and bawled.

"Don, I don't want to go home. I want to be home. It's not you; it's me. I feel like we're just playing house, and I'm not very good at it. I'm no good at decorating. I'm no good at cooking. I'm no good at..."

"Shhhhh...." Dad put his finger on her lips. "Stop talking like that. You're doing just fine in all departments."

"I wanted everything to be perfect..." she smiled still sniffling.

"Perfect? Hmmm. Let me see... I remember the part about 'for better or worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health'... but I don't remember anything about perfect. If it helps any... I miss that home feeling, too, sometimes... it'll come. It's like love... it takes time."

He began to close the suitcase, but saw something in the side pocket. It was one of the extra toothbrushes he purchased while trying to buy something else before the honeymoon.

"We keep finding those in the strangest places," Mom laughed.

Dad put the suitcase back in the closet. "How 'bout if you hang up those dresses while I start the dishes?"

"Okay," Mom used the hanky again, but her eyes smiled above it.

Dad cleared the table and washed the dishes, but Mom was still in the bedroom, talking out loud again. "Now what?" Dad thought as he towel-dried the last plate and walked to the bedroom door where he saw Mom talking on the phone. She had a pen and paper in her hands, and she seemed to be repeating what was told to her.

"Oh...green peppers, too, or mushrooms if I have 'em. That does sound good. No...not a cold. Just the sniffles. Thanks for asking. I'm fine. One more thing. After you add the water, do you turn up the heat?... Low and slow. Don't scald. No rush. Keep lid on. Stir occasionally... And how long does it cook?... Long as it takes to come together... then simmer 'til served... Got it."

Mom jotted down every word.

(Hamburger Gravy Update 9-26-07: Out of curiosity, I Googled "Hamburger Gravy" and got 714,000 references--including hamburgergravy.com (a domain that's for sale the low, low price of $500).This post is among those listed there. I had no idea I was writing on such a popular topic with so many recipes--or that Patterns of Ink posts could be Googled. Just think, if the internet had been there for Mom, she wouldn't have called her mother-in-law, and she could have had hundreds of recipes to choose from.... I'm glad the internet was not there. Anything that helps bridge the gap between newlyweds and in-laws is a good thing! =)

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Bringing Home the Duncan Phyfe: Chapter 9a

The bed Dad bought from his 3rd grade teacher had been stored in a basement, and one of the sideboards was slightly warped, just enough that the center two slats sometimes fell out at the least convenient times. It happened about once a week, and it was always on Mom's warped side of the bed. KERPLUNK! Down would go the center slats like a slide and the bedsprings would droop down to the floor while the other slats usually stayed in place. Notice I said usually.

One night the landlord and his wife (who lived on the main floor below them) had someone staying in the guestroom, which was directly under Mom and Dad's bedroom. They could hear voices coming up through the floor. "That explains the extra car parked out front," Dad whispered as he turned out the light.

Around midnight, Mom rolled over in bed and KERPLUNK! went the slats, dropping the mattress down like a hammock on her side.

"Don. Don. Wake up. The bed's caving in again."

"Just go back to sleep. I'll finish him in round three and fix the bed in the morning," Dad mumbled and slipped back into oblivion.

"That's easy for you to say. You're side's still up. Come over here and see how this feels." But Dad was sound asleep. "Don. Don..."

Mom started bouncing her rear end against the bed to wake Dad up. She knew not to hit him in his sleep.
The summer before they married, he had a successful run at boxing in the Golden Gloves and sometimes dreamt he was in the ring again. His "round three" non sequitur was a hint that this was one of those nights. [That's Dad on the right delivering a left.]

"Don!" She whispered loudly, pulling far arm toward her. He rolled with a groan down into the crater with her, but he was still sound asleep. "Don, I can't wait till the morning!" She bounced in place again. He mumbled something about an uppercut, but was not awake.

"I'll never get to sleep," she thought then blurted out, "Don, I can't go all night like this!"

Frustrated, she now gave the bed one big bounce, and WHAM! the other slats fell with a loud smack. The metal bedsprings slammed the wooden floor. Mom screamed and Dad jumped up in his boxing stance ready to fight. He evidently thought he'd fallen to the canvas, and sprang up to avoid the count.

"That was a slip. Let's keep going!" Dad shouted.

Mom turned on the light and laughed at him standing there in his boxers ready to box beside the collapsed bed.

Dad blinked and looked around the room. His rigid arms went limp. "What happened?"

"Shhhhhh... people are down there," she reminded pointing at the floor. "The bed slats fell out again--this time they all fell out." She didn't bother to mention that she had been bouncing to wake him up.

That night, Dad did what he should have done in the first place and screwed the slats in place, and the bed worked fine after that.

The next morning, as Dad walked out to his Bell truck, a man was getting into the strange car he'd seen the night before. The house guest smiled and gave Dad a thumbs up. Dad waved back slightly puzzled. It wasn't until Dad put the key in the ignition that he realized what the man's gesture implied, and he glanced back red faced, but the man was gone. The young husband looked up at the apartment window and slowly turned the corner of the driveway as a boyish grin turned the corner of his mouth.
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My parents had been married for about two months, but to Mom the apartment still didn't feel like home despite her efforts. It's not that she felt uncomfortable or unwelcome or unloved in the surroundings. She had feathered the nest with enough touches to make it look a little more homey... but when she dusted the things or looked at the rooms before turning out the lights at night... something was missing.
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A few weeks before, she bought the Sunday paper to read together on the floor. Propped up on their elbows, side by side, they laughed at the funnies and read tidbits of news to each other. For a moment, it felt like a regular Sunday afternoon at home. Mom could almost hear the voices of her parents and grandparents and siblings in the background. When they were done, she deliberately left the paper stacked beside the couch to make the third of three rooms feel like a living room, as if living happened there, as if others may plop down on the couch to catch up on the news. Several days past before she threw the untouched paper away.
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Today she would try something else. Almost all of the wedding presents were already in use, but still the scant furnishings of the apartment looked forlorn. Mom finally had some ideas that might help. This was her regular day off, and she planned to spend it decorating. The weekend before she bought as many things as she dared without including Dad who ran the household budget. This would all be a surprise to him. It was somewhat of a surprise to her as well, since she had never decorated a thing in her life—not even the bedroom she shared with her sister. The truth is her ideas were less about decorating than disguising, creatively hiding the most unsightly things about the small apartment.
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Let's face it... depending on where a couple starts in life, decorating is more about covering up than showing off. (Sort of like Adam and Eve's first attempt at fashion a la fig leaves.) We've all done it: …placed a throw rug over the warn part of the linoleum or carpet... placed a centerpiece over the stain in the table cloth... hung a picture over a hole we don't take the time to patch... put a doily over the scratch on the end table. Only the first occupants of a new home, have a truly blank slate to work with. To varying degrees, everyone after that is covering something up. It was this pragmatic decorating that my mom was especially good at throughout life, and it all started in their first apartment.

Because the old cast iron tub with the lion claw feet could be seen from the kitchen, she put a shower curtain around it, even though the tub had no shower. It hid the awful rusted feet and stained floor below.

Just when she thought she'd finished that room, she noticed the medicine cabinet was empty and it gave her a strange sense of abandonment.
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Her parents' medicine cabinet was full of tonics and tubes and boxes and bottles, most of which were rarely used, but there was something very comforting in knowing all those things had been there whenever the grown ups in her life had to make something better. So she walked to the drug store (she did not yet have her driver's license) and bought bottles and tubes of everything she could remember from her parent's cabinet. In a sense she had merely decorated the cabinet. The things inside were not yet needed, and some had no real medicinal value, but they were remedies nonetheless, cure-alls for a greater need: they helped hide a niche of emptiness and made Mom feel more at home.
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The old kitchen sink that was bolted to the wall had been skirted round with what looked like flower sacks that doubled as hand towels. Mom took some blue gingham and sewed a new skirt for the sink, a curtain and valance for the window, and a matching tablecloth. She was done just in time to begin making dinner. It was only hamburger and onions (not hamburgers on a bun, this was more like meatloaf patties). Since she had extra time, she decided to make this ordinary meal as nice as possible to show off that day's handiwork. The table was set perfectly, meal simmering, when Dad came home from climbing telephone poles.

Mom met him at the top of the stairs and made him close his eyes as she walked him to the bathroom. She showed him the shower curtain and the medicine cabinet and the receipt for all the items. He was impressed. "There's more. Wash up and meet me in the kitchen."

The nervous homemaker touched the silverware one more time but didn't move a thing. Dad came in and smiled. "Wow! This looks great. You've been busy today."

Pointing at the sink, Mom announced, "This is a curtain not a towel."

"Then I guess I'll just have to dry my hands off on you." Mom turned to close the window curtains. He kissed her on the back of her neck and pretended to dry his hands in the pleats of her cotton dress.

"One of these day's you're going to leave hand prints back there--and people will think I'm a floozy."

"I promise to never leave hand prints, and there's nothing floozy about it when you're married." Dad laughed. He kissed her softly and punctuated his low embrace with a pat on her rump. The look in his eye had nothing to do with handprints or hamburger.

Mom took his hand and pulled him to the table.

"Let's eat. It's all ready. The only thing missing was you."

To be continued:

Monday, September 03, 2007

Bringing Home the Duncan Phyfe: Chapter 8

When Separate Roles Were the Norm

Some may find it hard to imagine. Others think it's unthinkable, but there was a time when a young woman’s dream was to fall in love and get married…SO THAT… she could stay at home, “feather the nest,” clean clothes, plan menus, set the table, and eventually [ready or not] add little mouths to feed around that table…just as her mother had done (and her grandmother and great grandmother and great, great grandmother had before that). These were dedicated not "desperate" housewives.

Sound chauvinistic? Sorry, but that word was not yet known by most men or women in 1951 when Mom brought home her Duncan Phyfe. In fact, all her friends were stay-at-home moms doing all those things and none of them felt put upon, hard-used, or unappreciated. For the most part, they were truly happy. Dad’s goal was to climb enough telephone poles to make a good impression at Bell to get a promotion and a raise SO THAT… Mom could quit her job at Star Oil and they could start a family.

It may be hard for 21st Century readers to grasp these distinct and cherished roles, but this social reality was neither a throwback to Amish culture nor a precursor to The Stepford Wives. It was simply the norm. If you doubt it, think for a moment about the post-war era first called the “Baby Boom” in 1951 (though it stretched from 1946 to 1964). By its end, 40% of Americans were age 20 or younger. Could such a thing have happen in one generation if the wives and mothers of that generation were far removed from the "dream" described in the opening two paragraphs?

Bringing Home the Duncan Phyfe is the story of that one year of my parent's married life before they started their family... so I know I'm really messing with the time-line to show you the following picture, but I want to for two reasons: first, to clarify that the ladies in the above flickr.com photos are not my mom; and second, to show you my parent's eventual contribution to the Baby Boom. This picture was taken seven short years after the wedding. My big sister Kathy [she was actually petite, both then and now, but always a great big sister] was born in March of '52, and all four of us were born by April of '56. Boom-boom-boom-boom. See how it got the name?

That's me with the gun. (My little brother Jim was not born yet.) Speaking from personal experience, my family was not considered "large" with four kids (and later five). We could see a half dozen homes from our porch with that many or more kids pouring out the front door after supper… we were all Boomers but didn’t know it.
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Now... back to the point of this chapter. I’m not saying this is how it should be now—I’m just reminding us how it was then. Here’s another way to look at it: Burt Bacharach wrote this hit song, Wives and Lovers, at the end of the baby boom, just before the norm changed.
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"Hey, little girl, comb your hair, fix your make-up
Soon he will open the door.
Don't think because there's a ring on your finger,
You needn't try any more
For wives should always be lovers, too.
Run to his arms the moment he comes home to you...."

If you want to hear the original song here’s the recording [just ignore the meaningless Youtube footage]. Can you imagine such lyrics today? While it's good advice for married couples to remember the importance of "romance," the song puts the burden on the woman. To me it seems equally important for the man to remember it (instead of "men will always be men" in the second verse).

If you click on this facsimile from a 1955 women’s magazine, you'll see the kind of attitudes that were the straw that broke the camel's back (not that women are like camels in any way) and why the pendulum swing of the Feminist Movement that would begin in the 60's may have thrown the baby boom out with the bath water. Who knows? Maybe the future holds a balance where the marital roles are again more distinct, gender respectful, equal in the "side-by-side" sense rather than the "no difference" sense, mutually serving, and uplifting for both husbands and wives.

My point is... unless we remember that these very distinct husband/wife roles were the norm in 1951, these next few chapters may mischaracterize the couple we’ve thus far enjoyed peeking in on. Worse yet, it may prompt female readers to mutter unthinkable things as they read and leave comments. =) ... Okay. Enough social "op ed." Chapter 9 picks up where we left off in that stark empty apartment we saw at the top of the stairs in Chapter 7.
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Sunday, September 02, 2007

Just Got Back from Campin'

We just got back from a three-day, Labor Day camping trip not too far north of here. We were able to get one of our favorite sites that backs right up into a woods with some great trails. (Same spot we had a month ago.)
At the end of one of them is this view of Lake Michigan.
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We swam there and up the beach where Duck Lake connects to the big lake and the water temp is always warmer. We had sunny days and "smoky" nights 'round the campfire.
Later that night, around 8:15, the sun set as a perfect red ball on this horizon. It takes about four minutes for that red circle to disappear once it hits the water. (We forgot the camera that time.)

Kip (our Westie whose full name is Rudyard Kipling) came along. He just watches all the fun from inside. One night we had four extra friends for dinner; and we even had the newlyweds with us all night. That was a first since the wedding.
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It was a fun little get-away. I did do some writing one morning. The next two chapters are in draft form. I'll try to get one posted before Wednesday morning, but in the meantime...
that's my excuse!

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