Thursday, December 19, 2013

How Esther Williams Saved My Life

How Esther Williams Saved My Life

When I was a little girl, I was very good at running, jumping, batting, and all kinds of other Tom-boyish things. In fact, one day on the playground when I was about 10, a boy from my class who had been bullying me regretted his attitude.

He jumped on my back and tried to punch me.  Little did he know that I had watched plenty of wrestling on TV and did what I had seen "The Crusher" do plenty of times.  I grabbed his arm, bent my knees and threw him over my back onto the ground. He lay there gasping for breath and the other kids standing around hoping to see a good fight between a boy and a weakling girl, were in shock.

Nobody bullied me again.

So, it should have come as no surprise that my television watching would also play a big part in my next truly life-threatening event.

Momma and her friend Mrs. Porter took her sons and me to the Holler Park wading pool one hot, summer day. I even have a picture of the three of us sitting in the pool looking like we were having fun.

There were two pools. One was the wading pool, the other was a regular 3' to 6' deep swimming pool.
The boys knew how to swim. Well, they were not going to win any contests, but they had lessons and knew how to flap their arms and kick their feet.  They would sit in the wading pool with me, then run to the big pool and jump in with the rest of the kids.

I would run to the pool with them, but never jumped in.  I could not swim.

Of all the rough-and-ready things I knew how to do, I had never learned how to swim.

EARLY FOOTNOTE: in later years when my sons were 8 and 9 years old, I insisted that they take swimming lessons.  My oldest learned how to swim just enough to have fun in a pool, lake or even the Pacific Ocean during our trip to California.  My youngest, learned so well that he became part of his high school swim team, helped win the City Championship and spent three summers as a lifeguard.

Anyway, the summer that I visited Holler Park Pool I did NOT know how to swim.  It looked like fun, but I could not open my eye in water, was afraid of getting water in my nose and ears and did not know how to breathe. Other than that, I usually had fun at a pool.  I sat on the edge and dangled my feet.

This day, we were running between the wading pool and the big pool and I slipped.  I fell into the big pool at the deep end and immediately sank to the bottom.

I panicked and opened my eyes to see the watery shapes of all the other kids standing around the edge of the pool laughing. Even my friends stood there looking into the water. They thought I could swim.

I was drowning. I swallowed a gulp of water as I tried to call for help. Water squirted up my nose and made my ears hurt. No one was coming in to pull me out.

It was a sunny day, and around the watery shapes of kids watching me drown, I could see blue sky and white clouds.

That's when Esther Williams saved me. I had seen one of her movies on television, recently and she made swimming look easy.  She always went down into the water, splashed around for a while, and emerged with her eyes open and a big smile on her face. She would swim around effortlessly with graceful arm strokes and little paddling feet. She would spin in the water and splash her way to the edge of the pool and bounce up with water dripping from her perfectly- controlled hair, and smile.

So, I figured... do what she did. I started wiggling my feet and grabbing towards the surface of the water... one hand after the other. Within seconds (it seemed like eternity) my face was out of the  water and my head pushed up into the air.

As I sputtered and continued to kick and flap my arms like Esther, the kids realized that I was NOT really swimming and they tried to grab me.  One ran to get my mother.

I paddled my way to the edge of the pool and the kids pulled me out of the water. My mother came yelling something like "she can't swim!"  "how could you let her go in the pool!?" at my friends.

It's all a blur after that,  I never have learned to swim.

But, I will never forget Esther Williams.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013


Everything changes in October. (in Wisconsin)

The trees explode with color... red, orange, yellow, dark red... then the leaves fall or are blown off the trees and bushes by the increasing wind.

October begins in summer. The first two weeks are glorious. Temperatures in the 70's even 80's occasionally. Blue skies. Light winds. Then the bottom drops out.

Around the middle of the month, summer comes to a screeching halt. The sun disappears. The clouds pour- in from the North and West. The breezes stop flowing from the warm Southwest and turn to the frigid North. Our friends in Canada begin sending us the cold weather they have kept hidden from us for 3 or 4 months. Those folks in the Southwest keep their warm temps to themselves, again. They were just teasing us for a few months, anyway.

Oh yes, there will be sunshine again before November, but it won't last long and it won't do much to raise the temperatures above 50. Suddenly, you have to dig into the closet for that coat, hat, gloves and scarf. The boots come out of hiding and the thoughts of snow and slush begin to form in your brain. Winter is coming.

They say Wisconsin only has two seasons: winter and construction.

That's not far from the truth. Spring lasts about a day-and-a-half sometime in late May or early June, then summer runs in with temps up to the high 90's and humidity to match. Autumn sneaks in around the end of September. Then early trees change color, but you can still go out and work- up a serious sweat cutting the grass.

Then it's October.

October smells different from the rest of the year. People burn leaves and that smell reminds me of walking home from grade school and high school and hoping my mother would make Swiss steak for dinner.

I dwell on the weather so much because it is that sudden change from summer- to- autumn- to winter that twirls my emotions around.

For me, October is the most emotionally- packed month of all 12.

I once got married in October. I think I also got divorced in October.

I sat for the entire month of October knowing that I was leaving a job I loved in November and everyday I went to work I got more and more "homesick". Like the leaves that stay green in the middle but turn gold at the edges... the excitement of starting a new career was tinged with the sadness of leaving something I had done for more than 30 years.

Years ago, the impossibly beautiful, sun- kissed days of October were also filled with caring for my mother who was dying of cancer. I would sit in my family's kitchen and look out the window at the blue skies and wonder what I could do to make the situation change. But, my mother, being one of the smartest, kindest women you would ever want to know... made me feel like she was helping me handle the situation. She died in December.

My first son was born in November, so the month of October was a heavy- bellied prelude to his arrival. I carried my cat around in my arms to try to get the feel of carrying a 6 pound baby. It's not the same.

I always feel that I should go back to college in October. There's homecoming and plenty of football games, and other things that college students do in the fall which I won't mention here. They make my memories of college very powerful and very red/orange/yellow. Walking to class through leaves. Wishing I did not have to go to class. Skipping class to walk through the leaves.

Does anybody really remember all the things you were taught in all those college classes? But, I remember October.

October is like that last flash of a really great fireworks display. You know, you see the sparkling colors of all the explosions. Then at the end, there is that last big blast of lots of fireworks going off at once. Lots of color, lots of noise... then it stops... and there is a brief pause while everybody realizes that the show is over. Then applause and everybody goes home. The colors are gone. The warm feelings of sharing a tradition with others are gone and you look back to the sky and see only the smoke blowing away from the launch site and a distant smell of gunpowder if you got a really good seat.

October is that last color-filled flash of the year. That fleeting reminder that another year is ending.

I take lots of walks in October to see the leaves and fight off the suicidal thoughts that crash into my brain when the weather is glorious and I have no one to share it with.

Audrey Hepburn said it best when she said something like ... when things are going badly, go outside and see nature.

It's still October... I think I'll take a walk.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The 1960's

I've been thinking a lot about the 1960's and 1963 specifically, lately.

It began back around April when we started planning for a 50th anniversary special on the March on Washington for "Black Nouveau". That rolled right into my newest television obsession "Mad Men" and now, with the approach of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy looming in 39 days, I am falling deeper and deeper into my teenage past and thinking about events and things I have not resurrected in almost 50 years.

First: It is almost unthinkable that I am now at an age where I can look back 50 years and have a crystal clear memory of the day things happened... right down to the dopey glasses that I wore.

Second: I am not looking back at all these events with nostalgia. The Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962 scared me so badly that I wanted to move into a bomb shelter.

Third: It was the time of only 3 major television networks and as these events unfolded on live TV, we had no choice but to watch. In black and white, of course.  That is important because everything seems so much more urgent when it's not in color.

1960 to 1970 are my middle school, high school and college years.

My family lived in 3 different houses in the 1960's. I can remember 3 family dogs, several cats and a baby alligator in our homes. Not all at the same time!

I will go back into the 1960's now... and let you know how they turn out.

Monday, September 2, 2013

This is why I never bought a dog                                                  September 1, 2013

When my kids were little, they wanted a dog. Actually, so did I. But I had cats.

Nothing wrong with cats. I love cats. I also love dogs.

Before my sons were born, before I was married, I had two cats. They were soft and cuddly and sometimes noisy and they were easy to care for. I could go away on long trips, maybe for a week or so, and come back and the cats would be OK. Of course, they would be mad at me for leaving them and fuss at me for about 20 minutes when I returned, but they forgot about it when I sat down on the couch and offered them a lap to curl- up on. Did you ever notice that the alpha cat always gets the lap first? The other cat circles around and ends- up on your feet or next to you or above your head on the couch cushion.

Anyway, there is nothing wrong with dogs. My family had dogs for as long as I can remember... except that time we got some fish. They were pretty to look at but boring. They don't chase tennis balls, or anything. Then there was the time a friend of my mother's sent me a baby alligator from Florida. We had a dog then and he tried to bite it, but the alligator wanted to bite back. We kept that alligator until it was not such a baby. When it got bigger than my father's hand, he put it in the bathtub thinking we could give it some water to lie in and it could not get out because the sides were too slippery.

One day when I came home from school, I tried to feed the alligator in the bathtub. It opened it's mouth... which by this time was pretty big and filled with some mean- looking teeth. It held it's mouth open a followed my hand holding the piece of hamburger, with it's evil- looking eyes.

After several minutes of wondering if I should drop the hamburger and growing more and more concerned that the slippery bathtub was not going to hold the alligator. I dropped the meat onto his nose. You have never seen something move that fast in your life! His head snapped up, tossing the meat into his mouth and it clamped shut. I jumped back!

Later I told my father and he grabbed the alligator right behind it's eyes while I distracted it, put it in a box and took it to the zoo. I never found out what happened to that alligator, but the we were able to take a bath, again.

But, back to the dog thing. The suburban house I bought was going to be my personal remodeling project. It was not a fixer-upper, you know the kind that has lots of problems. It was in pretty good shape, except for the beer can in the master bathroom toilet. But that's another story.

Since my plan was to change it to my "dream" house, I didn't want to deal with a messy, slobbery, mud- filled- paws, shedding- on-the couch dog. It would just get in the way! Then, when my plans to remodel the house didn't work out, I decided to move. I decided to build my "dream" house, not re- arrange somebody else's dream.

Well then, we couldn't get a dog because how was I going to sell the ranch house with dog smells and slobber and hair all over the place?

These are the reasons I kept giving my sons when they would ask about a dog. They loved the cats anyway and since they knew no other pets, they were content. I hoped.

When the next house was finished and I stood in my brand- new, hard wood floor front hallway I had a feeling I had never had before. This was MY house! From the ground up, I helped design this house. It was brand, spanking new! I knew this house from the inside- out! Every corner, every step, every light fixture, every wall was perfect! The boys and I would come to the construction site almost every day and watch the builders put my house together. They even helped the builders put up the outside kitchen wall and hammered the nails into the studs. This was OUR house from top to bottom!

The cats were not thrilled about moving into a new house, but cats adapt as long as you feed them. If they get too unhappy with you, they just leave. Both of the cats stayed, so I guess they liked the new house, too. It was a two-story and they could chase each other up and down the stairs. They could roam around the unfinished basement (my dream is still not complete) and make it their own.

But, how could I bring a dog into this perfect building? It's claws would scratch the beautiful hard wood floor. If it was not house- broken I could only imagine what it would do and where it would do it!

The years went by and one of the cats died. He curled- up way back inside my perfect walk- in closet and it took me almost a day to find him. He was purring when he saw me, but not really able to walk. I gently picked him up and put him on my lap. He was the alpha cat and expected to be there, anyway. The other cat came over to sniff him. Animals can tell when another one is sick and I believe they can tell when another animal is dying. He looked up at me as if to say, "put me down, now there is nothing more you can do." He crawled off my lap and under a chair. His eyes looked glazed, but he kept purring.

The boys understood what was happening since a kitten we had in the ranch house died before he could grow up to be a cat. They began to cry. They said "Mommy, let's take him to the vet... he can help him." Everyone, except their father, was crying at this point and I said "Yes, we will take him to the vet". I wrapped him in a towel and the boys kissed him and rubbed him behind the ears. That was his favorite thing.

When we came back without the cat, the boys knew he was gone. We all hugged and cried. The other cat sniffed the last spot where his friend had laid, then curled up on the couch and didn't move much for the rest of the day. He didn't even eat his dinner when I put it next to the empty second food dish.

Time went on, the other cat began eating again, the boys went to school everyday and the house was quieter. But there was a small, yellow- striped hole in my heart where my kitty had lived. And, truthfully, I did not want to create another one.

But, the boys said "we need another cat to keep this one company." So, we got a new kitten. Black and white with white whiskers against his black eyes and mouth. He looked like he was wearing a mask, so the boys name him "Batman".

The boys are in college now, one in another state and one still at home. They don't ask about getting a dog, anymore. But, I keep bringing it up. I would be good for my son to have the responsibility of a dog. Take it for walks, clean-up after it, play with it,love it.

I know how the cats would react to a dog! It would rock their world! And, I know there would be plently of "messes" to clean- up between three animals. The oldest cat may even decide he doesn't want to live with two other species in the house, and strike- out on his own in the backyard. Batman won't go anywhere. He will tolerate anything as long as his food dish is full.

The house is not "new" anymore. I learned that once you move into a brand, new building it just becomes... another building that you fill with too much stuff and have to clean and fix the toilets when they don't flush. I'm still proud of my house. It's inside condition says a lot about it's owner.. "not a great housekeeper". The hardwood floor still shines and the longer we live here, the more I feel that it is "home". But there is something missing. And when both my sons are off on their own and I am left alone, night after night with only the cats, I think there will be another hole in my heart that only a slobbery, so- glad- to- see- you, have- to- take- for- walks, tail- wagging, furry, funny- face- with- a- wet- nose, can fill.

Maybe, I'll get a dog.




Monday, July 29, 2013

Gone Fishin'

Gone Fishin'

I just read one of those advice columns on dating and it listed several unusual first date ideas.  That got me thinking about one of the best dates I ever had... we went fishing.

As it turns out, I did not know a lot about fishing before my date (who turned out to be my future husband) took me to a pond in Northern Illinois.  It was called Wadsworth Lake, although it was nothing like a lake by my standards... I'm from Wisconsin!  But, it was a nice pond and had plenty of blue gills, perch and other pan fish swimming around waiting to be caught.

He taught me how to bait the hook, cast the line, be patient waiting for a fish to bite and lure the fish onto the hook.  At first I caught nothing.  The day was pretty warm and sunny, so I loved being outdoors.  Then, I began to catch fish.  It was great!  We tossed the little ones back, but kept the hand-size or bigger fish and I ended up with a bucket full!

The nice part of the date was that we were alone and could talk about everything without the pressure of sitting in a restaurant and knowing other people could hear our conversations. 

It was also a great date because we were sharing an activity. He was the teacher and I was the student, but I am a fast learner so we ended- up with more fish in my bucket than in his.

He even taught me how to clean a fish and prepare then for the frying pan.  All skills I have to this day and try to share with my sons.

It was a great date.  Too bad the marriage didn't last as long as my love for fishing.