Rites of passage


My housecoat from my daughter Ruth for Christmas

I packed my suitcase with my winter clothes, red housecoat, and jewelry box. For the first time in my life, I left home in February 1968 to attend Central Michigan University. In retrospect, the day is grounded as a rite of passage.

Never again did I share a bedroom with one of my four sisters. Away from the hub of home, neither did I observe my two younger siblings grow into adolescents and gain their first housecoat. Another rite of passage.

Rather, be it a dorm room on campus, or a rented house in downtown Mt. Pleasant, my roommates and I gathered in our housecoats and hair rollers at day’s end.  

A short-sleeved dress at knee’s length, our attire buttoned, zipped, or snapped from collar down to hem. As Mom preferred snaps, I followed suit.

No self-respecting and frugal college female in the 1960’s and 70’s would be without her favorite, cozy housedress. Relaxed around the television after waiting tables in the Embers restaurant, my roomies and I watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the Moon July 20, 1969. In our rollers and housecoats.

Not to be confused with the long abandoned dressing gown, such as the peony pink taffeta floor-length robe my mother sewed for my wedding trousseau. Her gorgeous, long-sleeved work of art spoke of my mother’s romantic side.

As I never mastered seaming and embroidery, my mother and older sister Linda showed mercy upon my three little girls with robes for Christmas gifts.

Alas, following my mother’s principle “use what you have”, cut off jeans and tee shirts replaced my threadbare housedress for a season. Then along came Mary Lou Retton’s Olympic gold medals and fired up the sweat suit dominating J.C. Penney’s children’s and adult clothing departments.  

After school and church, my three little gymnasts and I lived in sweat pants. They passed their childhoods turning front walkovers and back handsprings—walking their balance beam, a Christmas gift from Uncle Larry.  

We owe the most recent phenomenal fashion shift to the yoga pant. “Athleisure” stretched from the gym/studio to street, shopping malls, and office. Nowadays, a long blouse (or is it a short dress?) with accessories satisfies our “formal events” cultural dress code.

I’m not complaining. As the sweat suits of the 80’s, the selection of black pants riding the yoga wave is endless. I wear them with my winter dresses and skirts. And in this present polar vortex, they’re perfect to layer under ski pants our girls left behind.

That’s if I manage to persuade myself to leave the warmth of the new, wooly housecoat my baby Ruth gifted me Christmas past. Yes, what went around came around at last.

Unlike my style of yesteryear, Wooly’s long sleeves are not meant for a busy housewife in the kitchen and laundry room. Or a college student commiserating with roommates.

Dear Reader, Ruth knew her find is designed with the solitary septuagenarian in mind.

Grateful, I wrap Wooly around a new book of poetry from my middle daughter. Another rite of passage.

The crow's conference caws

Six Isa Browns enjoy their Romaine lettuce breakfast on a frigid morning

Friday, January 29, the sun set while I typed the last line of my second novel. Two hundred and ninety-nine pages. Five hundred and eighty five hours.

Surprised and gratified, I rolled my chair away from my desk, two days before my deadline.

What now?

No, best not open the front door and shout my good news to the birds and neighbors.

So I found my husband relaxing in the living room with Michigan History Magazine. He looked up, my countenance ready to disclose something indiscernible. “What?”

“I just finished the first draft to Matewan Garden Club.”

He left his reading long enough to give a hug. “Are you happy with it?”

“For a first draft. Since you’ve cooked dinner the past two weeks, how about you order Leonard’s pizza?”

His eyes lit up.

I returned to my desk and emailed the breaking story to several fellow writers and readers.

Since Mel balks at tossing salads, I mixed some bib and romaine lettuce with sliced pear and pumpkin seeds, dressed with sea salt, ground pepper, apple cider vinegar, and olive oil.

Why is it a happy occasion enhances the flavor of the simplest meal?

Yesterday, almost two weeks later, the sunny, snowy morning called me downhill to the hens again. This time, I bundled up. In my sprint to the novel’s finish line, I’d neglected our six Isa Browns, and they let me have it.

 “Where’ve you been?” they reprimanded. “You should see the mess inside our house!”

I’d suspected as much. This happens in deep of winter.

“And where’s our greens?” they asked as I opened the pen door.

“I’m sorry, girls. I’ve forgotten my manners.”

In recompense, I turned the straw around and under their roost pole inside the house, uncovering a pile of grain. While they scratched and pecked at leftovers, I secured the heat lamp above their water feeder. “Can’t have your house burning down.”

            They didn’t hear a word.

             “I promise to visit more often,” I said, and closed their yolk-yellow door.

             Warm from exercise, sun, and the ideal winter jacket and boots, I aimed for the double swing uphill.

“Caw! Caw! Caw!”

You hear the bodacious birds before you see them. What were they out to pilfer this morning?

With my arms open to receive all this frigid wonder, I sat on the swing and bathed my face in the sun.

“Caw! Caw! Caw!” Black wings flew above me toward the vegetable garden.

There’s nothing shiny down there, silly crow.

“Caw! Caw! Caw!” came from maple branches high above me.

I recalled my walks years ago in deep snow, the councils of crows held in black walnut trees along our country roads. Yes, I’d missed this amusement our five sunny days in January.

“Caw! Caw! Caw!” they agreed.

Yet, dear Reader, I met a significant goal in January, did what I was sent here to do, I believe.

While Isa Browns laid eggs, and crows held conference caws, whether I showed up or not.

Poetic Jusice

(L-R) Cuddles and Mittens in a quiet moment 

Our kittens, Cuddles and Mittens, chase one another, spat from kitchen to dining room. Their two-ring circus amuses me, unlike PJ and Mo, our beloved and belated tomcats, lone mousers for eight and eighteen years respectively.

Several weeks after we buried Mo, we brought Cuddles and Mittens home. I soon found myself speaking what my mother oft repeated when my sisters and I quarreled and wrestled.

“You girls fight like the gingham dog and calico cat.”

As I separate cloves from a garlic stem, our young cats pouncing upon one another, I ponder again my mother’s meaning. Just what were the gingham dog and calico cat to provoke that inscrutable smile on my mother’s face?

Mind, amply versed in nursery rhymes and children’s literature in school, Mom supplemented our reading with picture books. However, memory will not recall the story or illustrations of a gingham dog and calico cat.

The cat and the fiddle and their allies, yes.

While I chop garlic for spaghetti sauce, it seems fitting for my mother, raised on a farm, to learn a verse casting a dog in gingham and a cat in calico cloth. For she opened our side door to stray toms and doctored them. However, she preferred pups in the house.

Under the influence of poetry and playfulness, I throw the bare garlic stem to the kitchen floor. The girls impulsively paw such things, including spools of thread, and chase them on the wood floors. The sound is soothing, and tells their whereabouts.

The garlic stem barely hits the floor before Mitty, the aggressive sister, bats it down the hall. Then off she goes under a dining room chair.

Cuddy, the compliant one, observes Mitty play with their new toy. Within minutes, Mitty tires and curls up to nap in the kitchen’s sunny corner.

The acrobat of the two, Cuddy enjoys her turn of vicarious exercise. She stands on her hind legs and tosses the garlic stem up.

Who needs a mouse to entertain a cat?

Curious, I seek and find the source of Mom’s gingham dog and calico cat: a poem-limerick by Eugene Field (1850-1895)

The Duel

The gingham dog and the calico cat

Side by side on the table sat.

In the following two stanzas, the dog and cat literally unravel one another by tooth and claw to this last stanza:

Next morning, where the two had sat
They found no trace of dog or cat;
And some folks think unto this day
That burglars stole that pair away!
      But the truth about the cat and pup
      Is this: they ate each other up!
Now what do you really think of that!
            (The old Dutch clock it told me so,
            And that is how I came to know.)

Dear Reader, when my mother proclaimed her daughters fought like the gingham dog and calico cat, I think she foresaw the day we stood in her place.

And so explains the smile upon her face.

Watchful eyes

My maternal grandfather and grandmother's gravestone in Peter Creek's cemetery

My sisters and I spent a few weeks each summer playing in the McCoy Bottom under the watchful eye of our ancestor’s cemetery. A familiar landmark above our portion of Peter Creek and the railroad tracks, I didn’t give my family’s burial grounds much thought.

Dad never drove us across the creek, over the bridge and up the steep runoff to the top of the hill to visit his parents’ graves. Neither did Mom take us to see her father’s tombstone, or Aunt Sarah’s, her younger sister.

Throughout my childhood, repeated family stories without tangible proof our dearly departed once lived and breathed, transfigured them into legend-like characters you find in the Bible and literature.

However, my occasional admittance into Granny’s quilt room where two vintage portraits, one of Grandpa Floyd, the other of Aunt Sarah, confirmed respectively Mom’s witness of her father’s curly hair and her sister’s Debate Club pin on her dress.

My Aunt Sara Jane's gravestone

As a child, the stories of their tragic deaths worried me. Of Scot-Irish descent and superstitions, I suspected if I went to see Aunt Sarah’s grave, I might die at age fourteen as she did.

To fertilize fear, I overheard Mom say to another relative, “Don’t you think Iris looks like Sarah did as a girl?”

When my family celebrated my fifteenth birthday in February 1964, I blew out the candles on my birthday cake with gusto.

By May 1967, a month before my high school graduation, my father no longer lived with us. He called Mom with the tragic news that his nephew, Boonie, serving with the 35th Artillery Regiment in South Vietnam, lost his life while clearing a minefield.

Dad loved Boonie—the first boy I saw boldly smoking a cigarette in his dad’s house.

“He grew up without a mother,” Mom said. “Myrtle died of a cerebral hemorrhage when  Boonie was a baby.”

That explained why Uncle Jay, Boonie’s dad, looked sad. And with age came more genetic revelations. Aunt Myrtle, one of Dad’s five sisters, died of the same malady as their mother.

Dad asked my four sisters and me to ride with him and attend Boonie’s funeral in Peter Creek. I felt compassion for my father, but considering our personal conflicts, I declined.

Memory doesn’t recall my whereabouts in Michigan when the lone bugler played the twenty-four-note salute upon the hill for Boonie’s military memorial.

Yet, our Kinsman-Redeemer works in wondrous ways to restore our waste places. I’ve since stood before my grandparents and Aunt Sarah’s graves. I’ve thanked them for watching over me when I was a carefree child climbing green apple trees.

And some summer, I’ll find cousin Boonie’s stone and thank him for his sacrifice.

Meanwhile, every Sunday after church, my husband drives us up a hill in Addison Township. He turns our car into Lakeville Cemetery.

Amongst ancient white pines and maples, we stand before my father’s gravestone with our firstborn’s beside.

Dear Reader, we cast a watchful eye over our home, and our family’s burial grounds.