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
where the love waits
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.


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).



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!

Have You Driven a Ford Lately?

Today “the boys” will come over to pick up our old Ford 8-N tractor. Built in 1952, it has served us well since the fateful day in 1979 when we bought it. I say fateful, because it was a day I’ll never forget.
The owners, back-to-the-land acquaintances not very unlike ourselves, were splitting/divorcing, and the stuff they’d accumulated for working the land had to go. A divorce is divisive in more ways than one, and apparently this divorce was leaving the male half of the sketch – whom I’ll call Exhibit A – with a strong need to show he knew what he was doing.
It was a chilly March day, and we arrived around 10AM with the F-600 flatbed truck we used in our firewood delivery business, expecting, as we’d been led to expect, to back it
up to an embankment or ramp of some kind, but Exhibit A waved off this necessity. He said there wasn’t anyplace we could do that, and he had some planks we could use to drive it up and onto the truck bed.  Keep in mind that this bed was a good four feet off the ground.
He produced the planks: 2x10x12s. (If you can do the math, you find that two planks twelve feet long rising to a height of four feet is… well, pretty damned steep). Exhibit A was very hard to dissuade, but there were three of us telling him it was an extremely bad idea, so he hauled out two more planks and some cement blocks with which to make a longer – and therefore less steep – ramp, and this time there was no dissuading. Finally, anxious to get the thing done and get out of there, we caved, and he mounted the tractor. I tried to get him to wait for us to nail the planks to the truck bed, but he drove on.
Up the ramp he went – the three of us holding our collective breath – past the cement block support and joint between between planks, and about two feet from his destination atop the truck, and to our amazement, it looked as though he’d been right, that he could just drive the 8-N onto the truck.  He stopped…, calling out, “Am I okay?” Collectively we shouted, “KEEP GOING!!!!!”  He yanked down on the throttle, the burst of speed spun the tractor’s back wheels, sending the planks flying backwards and out from under the tractor, and as it fell, it’s bucket-loader caught on the right side rack on the truck! Ford and driver swung back and forth wildly as he tried to jump off, not sure which way it might fall, as we gasped a terrified breath.  Slowly it stopped swinging and was still. Exhibit A stepped gingerly onto the truck bed and then jumped down to Mother Earth.
No one spoke. Silently, we all walked to the house. Tea was made in silence as our minds re-ran the near tragedy we had just witnessed.
Eventually, we returned to the yard and the dangling tractor.  Its rear wheels were nearly three feet off the ground.  We chain-sawed a vertical line down the side rack of the truck, separating the tractor-hanging section from the rest of the rack, and then I took over the engineering. Exhibit A wisely kept his mouth shut.
The task involved a lot of used tires and a rope, and it’s a bit long to describe, but several hours later my husband was driving an empty Ford F-600 and our two kids the 35 miles back home, and I was learning to drive the other Ford.  It had to be that way because my legs weren’t long enough to reach the pedals in the truck.


Our son, whom we named Joseph Whittier, was born in mid-May of 1977.  It was a little less than a year after we had the bright idea, a no-brainer, actually, to buy a used trailer (what is known in more civilized parts of the country as a mobile home) and move from our in-town apartment to the land we had bought.  We wondered why that plan hadn’t come to us sooner than it did, for building a house in one place while living in another some twelve miles away was a pretty ridiculous and unrealistic scheme.
Within a week we had found a trailer.  It was quite an interesting experience.  The thing was 12 x 60′ and had two bedrooms and two baths.  Part of an estate sale, it sold completely furnished. The thing cost around $2,000 – less, at the time, than a late-model used car.
We’d been living in it for a little more than a month when I began experiencing some nausea. Our water was being pumped from a spring about 500′ away, in a pipe laid on top of the ground.  This was a temporary arrangement, as a well would soon be drilled at the actual house site.  We attributed my illness to the water and began boiling it for drinking.  It was now at least mid-September, and in addition to nausea, I began feeling physically exhausted.
Finally, it seemed to me that I had only felt this way twice before:  when pregnant for our daughter, and when pregnant for a baby we lost.  But that couldn’t be.  I had been diagnosed sterile.  I had seen the x-ray of my blocked fallopian tubes.  Not possible.  And yet the signs were there, such that I finally made an appointment with a local doctor.  As the doctor would later say, “Well, if it’s the water, there’s a lot of fertile water around here.”
During the long winter nights of that first year on Orebed Road, as I grew in girth, Bob and I frequently read poems from a collection of John Greenleaf Whittier’s work.  We’d take turns reading aloud just before turning out the lights for the night.  I think it was Whittier’s Snowbound that had spoken to us because of the cold darkness and snow that surrounded us on those nights.
Our due-date was the end of May, and while we had settled on a girl’s name, the right choice for a boy had eluded us.  Two weeks before I was expected to deliver, I felt particularly tired and lay down on our bed with our copy of A Gazillion Names for Your Baby (or whatever it was titled). An idea came to me: Why not Whittier?  But what if the kid didn’t like that?  Well, maybe Joseph Whittier… Joseph is my husband’s middle name, and if the kid didn’t like Whittier, he could choose to be Joe.  I wrote the name Joseph Whittier  on the inside back cover of the book, but I didn’t think to mention my idea to the father-to-be.
The next morning, my water broke and we were hospital-bound.  On the 25 minute drive to town, he spoke.  “What do you think about naming him Joseph Whittier if it’s a boy?”  I replied that he must have seen that I wrote that in the baby names book.  “No, I just thought of it.”  And that was that.  The baby was a boy, and Joseph Whittier has called himself Whit ever since.