The Train

My grandmother, Sarah Maud Andrus, was widowed in 1945, two months after I was born. My parents and I were living in an apartment that had been created in the 2nd floor of my grandparents’ house. We continued to live there until our purchase of a house and 2 acres of land in a small town just east of Rochester, and when we moved there in 1950, Gramma came with us.

It wasn’t long before she was the most sought-after babysitter in the area. Kids loved her, parents loved her,and she drove herself to and from each job.  

On New Year’s Eve in 1958, on her way to a sitting job, Gramma’s car was struck by a freight train and dragged some distance down the tracks. The policeman who arrived on the scene took one look and concluded that there could be no survivors in the car – but when he ran a check of the license plate number, he realized that he knew Maud, and he made the extra effort it took to pry open one door of the car. There, crushed down under the passenger-side dashboard, was my grandmother.    

She was rushed to the nearest hospital, and despite breaking many bones – including many bones in her hands and fingers – and suffering a severe concussion, Maud lived to walk and laugh again.    A few years later, I would practice my driving skills in preparation for the licensing test by driving Maud and a couple of her friends around the countryside east of Rochester. She never drove a car again, but she maintained her sense of humor and was mentally keen until her death in 1966.

Tuberculosis

Recently I told the story of my great grandmother dying of tuberculosis, my grandmother catching it but “curing” herself by moving her bed out onto the porch and taking frequent deep breaths of the fresh air. Grandma survived TB, but if you survived it in those days, you would always be a carrier of the disease.
 
In 1974, my mother became ill. She was exhausted and became weak, yet she showed no other symptoms of anything until she began to run a fever.
 
Eventually she was admitted to Genesee Hospital in Rochester, her illness “TUO” – Temperature of Unknown Origin. Tests of all kinds were administered over the next three weeks, yet none showed any cause for her illness, and as she continued to get weaker and run a higher temperature, a specialist in infectious diseases was called in from Strong Memorial Hospital.
 
Her suspicion was that my mother had tuberculosis that was not in her lungs. Liver, bone, lymph – you name the organ, and they tested it for TB, yet all results were negative. Finally, without any obvious disease to cure, the specialist said, essentially, “If it walks like a duck and if it quacks like a duck, it has to be a duck,” and they decided to treat for TB. The test was to last a week.
 
After six days and no change in my mother’s temperature or overall state, her doc confided in me that if it were up to him, they would stop the TB drugs that night because they weren’t helping, but he couldn’t do that – he would have to wait until the specialist came in the next morning, because only she could order it stopped.
 
That night – and never again for nearly six weeks thereafter – my mother’s temperature dropped to NORMAL for several hours. The specialist concluded that perhaps they were on the right track and ordered the treatment continued.
 
A month after her admission to the hospital, my mother was discharged to go home and continue the treatment for TB, twelve months of taking a combination of powerful drugs. She was finally given a definite diagnosis of TB when, months later, her eyes showed the telltale markings of the disease. She lived another 23 years.
 
Grandma had lived with us until I was in my late teens, so I, like my mother, have been well exposed. So far, so good, with me, but at least I know what could happen.

Chum

Several weeks ago I spent an interesting and enjoyable few days pooting around the Upper Hudson with a Toronto chum. Here, at the site of the Revolutionary War Battle of Saratoga, she gets a better understanding of the lay of the land.

We followed the routes of ancestors, pored over old land records, visited museums and historic sites, stomped through old cemeteries and visited locks along the waterway connecting Lake Champlain and New York City. She taught me the value of “trying on” a locale to better understand one’s ancestors; I taught her that ice cream cones are sold in Stewart’s shops and can be found in nearly every village.

Here’s to fun with a purpose, and here’s to friendship!

Thelma and Louise-in’

After a wonderful weekend with a group of Ontario Friends – more on that later – this wizard is leaving on a road trip with my buddy Louise from Toronto, and the blog will go silent for awhile. I asked her if I could blow up the tanker truck this time, but she reminded me of my non-violent Quaker ancestry.

FINAL SHOOTING SCRIPT, final scene, Thelma and Louise by Callie Khouri:

They [Thelma and Louise] are still looking at each other really hard.

THELMA: You’re a good friend.

LOUISE: You, too, sweetie, the best.

MUSIC: B.B. King song entitled “Better Not Look Down” begins. It is very upbeat.

LOUISE: Are you sure?

[Thelma nods]

THELMA: Hit it.

Louise puts the car in gear and FLOORS it.

Watch for us in the Hudson Valley… Thelma and Louise live!

Outhouse Lady

Photograph courtesy of D. W. Andrus

Just when you think something is over and done with, just when you’re beginning to relax in the belief that you have fixed the problem, stemmed the tide, mended the fence, changed the subject, finalized the divorce, ended the occupation, switched the gears or slain the dragon… your cousin Don surprises you. Well, what ever did I expect, anyway? Don is a wizard too, and – as you must know – wizards never tire of having fun, so why was I surprised to receive a book of poetry entitled, “Muddled Meanderings in an Outhouse?”

You see, my mother was known by many as “The Outhouse Lady.” She was an artist, and her gimmick (the thing that caught the eye of potential buyers of her more serious work) was her display of small outhouse paintings accompanied by a sign which read: Hang an outhouse in your bathroom and count your blessings! $5 She would paint the stand of hollyhocks next to each privy to match the colors of the buyer’s powder room. People loved them, and my mother’s newfound notoriety solved the birthday and Christmas gift-giving problem for all the relatives: They gave my mother’s outhouses to their friends; they gave my mother everything ever produced that immortalized the outhouse.

I thought that part of my life was behind me…

Outhouse Lady (for Don)

She went out back in younger days
The Sears and Roebuck book to read,
Passed some time (if nothing else)
Seated by hollyhocks grown up from seed.

In later years she’d paint that place,
(Not the interior walls as you might assume),
But tiny pictures for five bucks apiece
To hang in modern indoor rooms.

She was dubbed “The Outhouse Lady”
And was known both far and wide;
Her children suffered embarrassment,
As from her fame they tried to hide.

Gifts would come at Christmas
From the painter’s nephews and cousins:
Calendars, puzzles, books of rhyme;
Outhouse pictures by the dozens.

The family bathroom became the repository
For this mounting pile of privy lore,
Until it became so full it was impossible
To use the place for what it was intended for…

What to do? And where to go?
Asked her desperate kids and spouse –
The solution (thanks to Port-a-potty)
Was a modern out-back house!

Through wind and snow we then took the path
To the new bathroom way out back,
(At least there was Scott tissue
Replacing that damned old almanac).

Years later we lost our privy painter,
And her “collection” was garage-saled away,
The bathroom was clear and clean once more –
‘Till your gift arrived today!

How important the inheritance
Of family lore and memories,
But I must scratch my head and wonder
How this mantle has passed to me?!?!

What’s in a Word

Have you noticed what animists young kids are?

When I was little, there were mice and ducks and dogs that talked. We took for granted that a certain yellow canary was verbally sassy: “I tawt I taw a puddy tat! I did! I did taw a puddy tat! Bad old puddy tat! ” and that Sylvester would answer with a salivating, “Sufferin’ succotash!” These days, cars are anthropomorphic.

And so it is that my four-year-old grandson is terrified of … THE BOILER… The boiler “lives” in our mudroom, making vague firing noises when water needs to be heated or if the woodstove goes out. Grandson is absolutely scared to death of the thing. Luckily, there is a door between the “play room” and that mudroom, apparently making the play space safe for four-year-olds (when the door is closed).

Saturday the little guy was here and headed for the play room when he saw that someone had left the protective boiler shield open. I was busy in the kitchen and didn’t notice his distress as he asked – more than once – “Gramma, will you shut the door?”

Finally, in desperation he yelled, “Shut the damned door!!!” which launched me to explain to him that “shut the damned door” isn’t a good way for little boys to talk. He listened, looked at me sweetly and said, “Gramma, please shut the damned door.”

Remembering My Mother


There she is: the redhead in white in the middle of the fun. Behind her, in the white cap, is my father. This was a newspaper photo from the 1930s when she was Rochester, NY, city speed-skating champ and he was the city’s men’s tennis champion.

And here is a poem written by a friend:

A wish

May we all find our
way to our mothers
today, or some day.
May we find
the mothers
we miss,
the mothers we wish we had,
and the grandmothers of our
mothers,
where the love waits
unconditionally.
And may we be wise enough
to say thank you for the gifts
they were able to give.

Written by Becky Harblin,  May 13, 2007, used by permission.

One Singular Sensation

(Begin with the right foot) BRUSH-BACK-STEP,

(now the left) BRUSH-BACK-STEP,

(right) BRUSH-BACK-STEP-(now step on the left!) STEP,

(now right again!) BRUSH-BACK-STEP.

(REPEAT!)


Thus began my dancing lessons, red-haired Miss Byrne calling out the instructions, and an ancient, stooped woman named Sylvia pounding an old, out of tune upright piano.

     (Up a steep and very narrow stairway,
To the voice like a metronome,
Up a steep and very narrow stairway,
It wasn't paradise,
It wasn't paradise,
It wasn't paradise,
But it was home) 

The place was the “Val Mates School of Dance,” up a long and very narrow stairway above a storefront on East Avenue. I was a very pigeon-toed, skinny kid, and my parents were hoping that dancing lessons would straighten out my feet. 

(Dance: ten; Looks: three…)

True, Val Mates wasn’t paradise, but neither was it anything like my home. The man Val Mates, though seldom seen, looked like his painted portrait on the sign that hung in the window, albeit a bit older: an oddly (to me at the time) pretty fellow with very curly hair slightly longer than was the masculine style of that day. The rest of the faculty was made up of women unlike any of my friends’ mothers. Except for Miss Byrne and the grumpy-looking old pianist, they were bleached blondes, noticeably made up and wearing fishnet stockings, low-cut leotards and very short dance skirts. As young as I was (probably about eight), the prevailing lack of wholesomeness made an impression. This was a fascinating place.

(Give me somebody to dance for,
Give me somebody to show.
Let me wake up in the morning to find
I have somewhere exciting to go).

There was a small lobby with a curved black sort of desk/counter where you paid your money. The lights there were dim, and it was where The Blondes hung out when they weren’t teaching in one of the two maple floored, mirrored studios. It didn’t seem to me that pretty, freckle-faced Miss Byrne fit in there, and I must have been right, because one day she was gone. I arrived for my lessons, and she had been replaced by one of The Blondes.

Sylvia disappeared too. Her piano pounding was replaced by a small record player, one of those old 78 rpm portable models that looked like a small suitcase, the top unlatching and opening to expose the turntable and needle arm. Perhaps in boredom, perhaps for the shock value, The Blonde put a vinyl disk in place, turned it on, and proceeded to play the record using her long, red fingernail instead of the needle!!!

(Play me the music! 
Play me the music!
Give me a chance to come through!
All I ever needed was the music and the mirror 
And a chance to dance– )

Not long after that, Miss Byrne called my mother. She had opened her own dance studio in the basement of her home, or more likely, her parents’ home. I left Val Mates and resumed tap, acrobatic and ballet lessons next to a furnace beneath a low ceiling and neon lights, eventually graduating to “toe” (nowadays known as “on point”) and modern jazz. I thought I had talent, and maybe that was why I didn’t feel I needed to practice. (If I’m honest here, I guess I would have to admit to having more laziness than perceived talent). I’d gradually learn the numbers as new steps were added week after week, eventually suffering through each lesson as poor Miss Byrne must have suffered in teaching a student with little motivation. One day she announced that she was going to get married, and her underground dancing school closed.

My mother sought out other studios, and after a nasty encounter with a teacher who used my ponytail to yank me into a back-bend, I gave up all but the tapping and took dance in the home of a young man who was the nephew of our local town druggist. I’d ride my horse to his house for lessons, transforming from Annie Oakley to Bo Jangles and back in the space of an hour.

And then came hormones, Jr. High, and the realization that even if I wanted to be (which I didn’t), I would never be a dancer.

(Hello twelve,
Hello thirteen,
Hello love! )

It was time to let my tap and toe shoes gather dust.

(Everything was beautiful at the ballet.
Graceful men lift lovely girls in white.
Yes, everything was beautiful at the ballet.)
 

Well, not really everything. I had seen that.

I quit.

There was no reason to continue. My pigeon toes (the reason my parents sent me to dancing lessons) had straightened out, maybe (as hoped) from those many weeks of forcing them into first, second, third, fourth and fifth position. Or maybe it just would have happened anyway as I grew.

The many “routines” I’d learned were soon forgotten, but I can still do the steps – and sometimes do. The beauty of having had all those dancing lessons is that to this day I can still punctuate a wise-crack with a shuffle-ball-change.

…..(And I can’t forget, don’t regret, what I did for love pigeon toes).

The Mouse that Roared… or, the story of COLAF, the Coalition On Low Altitude Flights

Never underestimate the power of reason or the strength of small numbers of wise and reasonable people.

In the 1980s, the Air Force hatched a plan to fly B52s at an altitude of 300′ on a racetrack loop over the North Country. About 300 planes/month would have passed directly over my home, emitting a deafening roar and raining down stinking, unburned fuel (because at enough throttle speed to keep them in the air at that altitude, essentially they were flying with the brakes on). We stayed home on the morning of the first three flyovers, and I sat on our front steps and wept.

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Many people gathered to try and find a way to stop this, but ultimately it was the actions of perhaps two dozen who EACH played a role in convincing the Air Force to abandon the plan. A couple gave their savings; one became an expert in plane identification by exact model# and reporting violations to the various military airports and powers – who often didn’t even know what was flying; two traveled to Boston and hired an attorney who had previously done work for the air force; one wrote press releases weekly or more often; someone else figured out that the width of a closed fist held aloft and aligned with the plane’s wingspan could determine its altitude; three dressed in their best and drove a borrowed BMW to a meeting with Gov. Cuomo in Gouverneur, N.Y.; one, a Vietnam vet, stood up for his belief that these flights were wrong; a local pediatrician spoke of the health and safety issues the planes would pose; others researched alternative routes and altitudes the would move the planes higher and away from homes. NEVER DID WE SAY THAT WE DIDN’T WANT THEM TO FLY (well, yes, we certainly all didn’t want them to fly, but we knew it was smarter to say, “All we want is to be certain that this is safe…” because we knew it wasn’t).

On the steps of the county courthouse, following a meeting with Air Force personnel, one, a Major Bravo – yep, that really was his name – admitted that since these planes were designed to fly at extremely high altitudes to carry nuclear weapons, flying them at 300′ was essentially, “Going at full throttle with the brakes on.”

The flights were moved higher and farther away, and you probably never heard or saw them. We – each of us in COLAF – were given the phone number of an A.F. commander whom we could call any time a military plane strayed or was a problem. And Major Bravo was one of the attendees at the beautiful island wedding of one of our mice that roared.

Thank you David, Peter, Margaret, Sue, Ginger, Doug, Paul, John, Bob, (and a few others whose names now escape me).

 

Marilyn

For many years, I thought she might have been Meryl Streep. There was definitely a resemblance. Marilyn was shy and blushed easily. She was blonde and pretty and from the mid-west, and we both spent a year together (with about 50 other college kids) in Bregenz, Austria. The “men” in our group lived with Austrian families, while the women were housed on the top two floors of the town’s finest hotel, floors 4 and 5.

Behind the hotel was a cobblestone courtyard and some buildings that probably were once carriage houses. Also accessible to that courtyard was the back door to the local hofbrau haus or pub.

It was a fine spring evening. Five or six of us were in the courtyard, probably about to enter that back door for a stein of good Austrian bier, when shy, blushing Marilyn called to us from a 5th floor window. Our attention gained, Marilyn turned around and mooned us!

I have many memories of Austria. Being mooned by Marilyn is one I’m not likely to forget!