May Visit

You enter by the unlocked side door, and see her there on the couch. She is expecting you and the fruit bread you carry. She does not rise to greet you; it’s an effort for her.  You hug and cheek kiss, offer to take the bread to the kitchen. It is 1:30 p.m. and she has already eaten lunch, she says.

You sit near her, examine her closely. Her face has thinned, she is a little pale, but her eyes are clear and bright. You comment on how good she looks. She says her son has just said the same thing. The conversation follows its usual path: catch-up on husbands and children and grandchildren, birthdays and Mother’s Day with (and without) children. There is no judgement on anything that is said. Or felt.

There are pauses in the conversation, but it doesn’t matter. Before long she expresses the desire to go outside to sit for a while. She can make it with a walker. Your only worry is that she will be cold. The sun is out, the sky is clear, but there is a breeze. You tell her all of that and then help her on with her woolen poncho.

She makes her way with her walker through the kitchen to the door leading to the yard. While she is doing that, you retrieve a metal folding chair that is leaning on the outside of the house, then set it up out by the picnic table. You help her down the stone steps, settle her into the metal chair and turn her walker into a footstool. You have to go back inside to get the navy pillows to support her back and legs. She looks fairly comfortable. There is nowhere for you to sit.

You remember seeing an old metal step stool by the back of the house. You imagine it is used to reach high-growing lilacs or later in the season, raspberries. You retrieve it, place it next to her chair, and sit. The air is clean and cool and you both sit in dappled sunlight under the hemlock.  It is next to the twisted catalpa tree. You pick up one of the spent pods and say aloud what it might be like to soak and weave those pods. She points out the herb and lettuce garden her husband planted by the back door. Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. You say it is her Simon and Garfunkel garden. She smiles.

There is a lot to observe and you do it mostly in silence. Before long she asks if maybe you are bored (you are not) and if you maybe want to go get your book. Funny, you say, you have no desire to read. You were just thinking about how you once kept a field journal, went out into the yard each day at the same time and recorded in sketches and words what you saw. Remarkably, you tracked some very subtle changes in the environment. You tell her that, acknowledging that there is so much to wonder about and behold. She knows that instinctively. You first knew it from reading Emily Dickinson, a master of observation.

Suddenly, you are alerted by the buzzing of bees. That seems out of synch as it is quite early (and cool) for bees, but you hear it nevertheless. But before you have time to remark upon it, you know that it is not bees at all, but rather a hummingbird, incessantly flapping its tiny wings, flying among the hemlock branches. You see it as does she. You both wait in anticipation for him to find the feeder she has placed by the kitchen door.  She made the nectar herself (one cup sugar to four cups water she says, no red dye, she emphasizes). The feeder hangs from a large pot of red and orange “million bells.”

You question whether she heard the buzzing/flapping sound but she says no, and then you remember she is due to be fitted for hearing aids the next day, or is it the day after. It doesn’t matter.  You both see the tiny creature, and when she whispers there it is, there is delight in her voice, and a deep satisfaction seems to come over her. You ask at one point how big she thinks a hummingbird egg is. She indicates with her fingers she thinks it is about the size of a navy bean. You make a mental note to look it up later. You stay awhile, watching the ruby-throats come and go. You don’t talk as the experience is saying it all.

Before long, she grows tired, indicates she wants to go in. You help her get her feet back on the ground. You note her ankles are swollen; this is something new. As you help her navigate the stone path and steps, she asks you to leave the folding chair where it is, facing the hummingbird feeder. You decide to leave the step stool there, as well, a silent invitation to witness small miracles.

Housekeeping!

Cover of the 1961 Girl Scout Handbook, Intermediate Program

When I was a kid, I was a Girl Scout. One of the attractions of that for me was earning badges. I guess that fits my personality. Earning badges involved completing various tasks: some required, others self-selected from a list of options. Once you completed the required number of activities, you qualified for a particular badge. For me this was perfect: there was a goal and a path to the goal, and in the end there was a reward.

There were several categories of badges that girls could earn. These included “Adventuring in the Arts,” “Citizens Here and Abroad,” “Fun and Exploration in the Out-of-Doors” and “You and Your Home.” They sometimes added new badges, too, such as “Pen Pal.” Scouts could earn some badges on their own, but oftentimes an entire Girl Scout troop would work together to fulfill the requirements. Then everyone in the troop would receive a badge that they (or their mother or grandmother) would sew on their official Girl Scout sash.

We worked on badges in the library at Noah Webster School, which was our regular meeting place, but once in a while we completed some of the activities at the home of one of our leaders, Mrs. G. What I remember most about Mrs. G was her enthusiasm. She was bound and determined that our troop was going to earn a great many badges under her direction. One particular year, she got it into her head that we were going to earn the Housekeeper Badge.  It was either April or early May, and the school year (and thus Girl Scout meeting time) was winding down. There was just enough time to earn another badge, and we all going to become expert housekeepers!

In order to earn the badge, we had to complete ten activities, including two starred items.  The starred items were: “Discuss in troop meeting what a good housekeeper does and choose which of the jobs [we could each] do daily, weekly, or occasionally to help at home.” Then we had to report back to the troop. The second was to “help give a thorough cleaning to a room at home or your troop meeting place.”  I know I met the two starred requirements (I have the badge), but I don’t remember which eight of the remaining fourteen I completed. I doubt if I helped “protect family clothing and household goods from moths and other pests,” but I may have reorganized “a clothes closet or kitchen closet  . . . so that everything [was] arranged for greater convenience.”

In retrospect, this doesn’t sound at all appealing, but when you are a girl with a large green sash just waiting to be filled up with badges, and someone is willing to help you do just that, it sounds pretty good.  After all, what was so bad about housekeeping? We dove right in, matching our enthusiasm with that of our leader’s, and what we did was above and beyond the requirements.  We didn’t just clean a room, we cleaned most of Mrs. G’s house, and we did it under the guise of “Spring Cleaning.”

Mrs. G was thorough. We stripped every bed, turned and vacuumed every mattress, washed every inch of painted woodwork, and dusted every wall.  We mopped and polished floors. We mixed vinegar and water to wash windows (and then washed them). We swept the porch and beat the doormat. And as much as I would (and do) dislike doing all of that now, I remember it as being sort of fun! It was win, win, win! The troop members learned some important skills, the troop members got their badges, and Mrs. G got a clean house. All good.

Just for your information, there is no longer a Girl Scout Housekeeper Badge. In fact, after much research, I was not able to find a current badge dealing exclusively with housekeepers or housekeeping. The closest thing I could find was the Girl Scout Junior Independence Badge, which deals with learning the importance of life skills. These skills include “getting transportation smart” (you have to understand what is under the hood of a car), making your clothes look great (basic laundry and sewing skills), breaking a bad habit (trying to break a bad habit and charting the progress), helping around the house (tidying and cleaning a room) and showing off your independence (ordering a meal at a restaurant, for example).

Girl Scouting has changed with the times, and that’s a good thing. Badge categories include STEM, Outdoors, Life Skills, and Entrepreneurship.  Scouts can earn badges in such things as digital movie making, primitive camping, netiquette, and budgeting.  Newer badges of interest encompass subjects such as robotics, “college knowledge,” mechanical engineering, and environmental stewardship.  It sounds like tons of fun. But just in case you are considering doing some spring cleaning, my advice is to approach it as Mrs. G did: with much enthusiasm. I think that’s the key.

Many thanks to Melissa Ilies, Program Coordinator-Service Unit/Troop Support, Girl Scouts of Connecticut, Inc., for help in securing research materials  and for the tour of the Girl Scout Museum.
Reference: Girl Scout Handbook: Intermediate Program. Girl Scouts of the U. S. A. New York: 1961.
Photo (cropped cover, Girl Scout Handbook, 1961) 2019 ©Denise Kennedy

What are the Chances?

Dictionary.com defines a coincidence as “a striking occurrence of two or more events at one time apparently by mere chance.”  All of us have had experiences with coincidence: the chance meeting of a neighbor in a foreign country, the phone call from a childhood friend you were just thinking about yesterday. Coincidences are funny things, and they give us a great deal to consider. Why do they happen? Do they carry meaning?  I’ve been thinking about these questions in relation to the following happenstance for a long time.

Many years ago, when our kids were preteens, we took a summer day trip to Hammonassett State Park by the shore. It was a great day: a blanket on the beach and a dip in the sea. We dug for treasure and built a sand castle or two, as well.  I remember the warmth of the sun and the sound of the waves; I was happy that the kids still enjoyed these simple pleasures. Suddenly, our eldest daughter came running over to the blanket, treasure in hand.  She had found a jeweled class ring. It was too big for even her thumb.

After close examination, we determined the school of origin, year of graduation, and the initials of the owner (engraved on the inside of the ring). After a few weeks and a fair amount of encouragement, our daughter wrote a letter to the high school, describing what she had found and asking if perhaps they could identify the owner of the ring. They could and they did. In short order, the ring was returned to its rightful owner. He sent a very nice note of thanks, along with a very appropriate thank-you gift: a large blue and green striped beach towel.

About seven or eight years after the beach towel thank you arrived, my husband was dead-heading the marigolds in the front yard. As the mail carrier approached the front door, he stopped, and then turned toward my husband. “Does someone named “M” live here?” he asked, as he stared at an envelope in his hand.

“Yes, but she’s away at college. Why?”

The mail carrier went on to explain that a long time ago, a girl named “M” had returned to him a class ring that she had found on the beach. He related that soon after he had purchased the ring, he gave it to his then-girlfriend, who promptly lost it while at Hammonassett.  By the time our daughter found and returned the ring to him, it had been missing for many years, and the girlfriend had become a thing of the past.

My husband asked how it was that the ring owner put the ring story and our daughter together. He explained that he remembered her somewhat unusual first name as well as our street name, and in his words, “it was just too much of a coincidence.”  I must add here that this man was not our usual mail carrier. He was substituting that week for our regular delivery person. He said he had never been on our street before. 

It seems there were quite a few things at play.  My daughter found the ring; it was returned and acknowledged.  Many years later, the owner of the ring, who still remembered the story, happened to have been temporarily assigned to our street where my husband, who also remembered the story, happened to be outside, available for conversation. That is quite a set of circumstances.

Had the two men not recalled the event and conversed, the coincidence still would have occurred, physically anyway. They would have had the same connection, but they wouldn’t have realized it. We know about the coincidence because the two men remembered and talked and listened. So maybe it is that the remarkable thing about a coincidence is not that it happens, but that we perceive it. We take note. We listen. We share. 

There may be coincidences everywhere, just waiting for us to find them.  What are the chances? I think the chances are quite good.

Photograph ©2019 Denise Kennedy

A Childhood Memory

Some Old-time Valentines


I loved Valentine’s Day when I was a kid. I loved those little pastel hearts that declared “BE MINE” or “CUTIE”, and  I looked forward to delving into that heart-shaped box of chocolates that sometimes appeared out of nowhere on our dining room table. My best memory, though, isn’t about sweets at all. My fondest memory involves the exchange of Valentine’s Day cards

In elementary school, we always had a Valentine’s Day party. Part of the festivities involved giving and receiving cards, and there were explicit rules about the exchange. If you were participating in the exchange, you had to include everyone in the class. The teacher underscored this mandate numerous times, and pretty much everyone complied.  I don’t remember anyone expressing hurt or sorrow over having been left out. We spent an afternoon or so decorating small brown paper bags using crayons and (depending on the teacher) small bits of ribbon or paper doilies that we could attach with a brush full of thick school paste. Some kids actually ate that stuff. But that’s a whole other story.

The final part of school Valentine’s Day preparation involved writing our names on the bags and lining them up on the window sill. When the special day arrived, we would bring our cards to school and put one card in each classmate’s bag. It would have taken some time to choose or make just the right Valentine for our pals and for the boys (!) and especially for the teacher. Then we had to wait the whole day to open our bags and look over all of the greetings we had received. 

The real fun was at home, though. Sometime on February 14th or maybe, if we were really organized, the day before, one of my sisters or perhaps my mother would dig out an old shoebox from an unvisited closet corner. She would cover the box in red or pink construction paper, top on, and then decorate the box with “love” sentiments or hearts or lips or some other holiday-appropriate design. Finally, she would cut a slit into the top of the box into which all members of the household—grandmother, parents, and all five kids—would slip little notes or cards, one for each family member.

After dinner on Valentine’s Day, my grandmother would surprise us with a special dessert. It would most likely be something like heart-shaped sugar cookies from Viking Bakery, the ones sprinkled with red-colored sugar, or maybe cupcakes with swirls of sweet, pink frosting. Then Mom would open the Valentine’s Day box and distribute the cards and notes, proof positive that we all loved one another. 

May you revisit or make some lovely Valentine’s Day memories this year!

photo 2019 by dfskennedy

The Story of Bonnie and More

TORN SCREEN OHIO

I attended a small college in Ohio, one historically affiliated with the United Church of Christ (UCC). As part of the school’s mission, students were encouraged to demonstrate engagement with the local community in order to improve understanding of diverse cultures, religions, and lifestyles. We had opportunities to do this through clubs, Greek life, and with our dorms under the direction of our dorm councils. There were no co-ed dorms, and all women’s dormitories had “house mothers.” Sophomore year, my housemother was Phyllis Millspaugh, a perfect combination of friend and grandmother, who brought out the best in everyone. I am not sure if it was because of Mrs. Millspaugh, but that year my dorm “adopted” a family who lived on the outskirts of town.

The dorm was paired with the family through the college, the UCC, and the town social services department. Mostly, we collected money for food and then shopped for groceries for the family, which were delivered by various women of the dorm and Mrs. Millspaugh, who drove out to the country in her ten-year-old sedan. The family was poor: a single mother and four kids, the oldest being an eight-year-old named Bonnie, and the youngest, a four-month-old named, interestingly, Hope. The mother would accept the groceries with thanks, but it was clear that she didn’t want a real relationship, and no one ever hung around for more than a few minutes.

I am not sure how involved I was in this, but I vaguely remember that we bought the family some special things for Christmas, including, I believe, a canned ham and some toys. In the spring, the dorm council had the idea of maybe inviting the oldest child, Bonnie, to spend a night with us at the dorm. The plan would be to deliver groceries, pick up Bonnie, and take her back to campus with us. We might buy her some clothes, play games with her, and maybe pick up some extra treats. With a solid plan made, we secured permission in all the necessary places, and Mrs. Millspaugh agreed to do the transporting. As it turned out, Bonnie was to stay in my room with me and my roommate, Linda.

I had grown up in the city, and I went to an inner city high school. We weren’t poor, but I did go to school with kids who lived in poverty. My roommate lived in a university town in Michigan. I still remember how she didn’t believe that my stepfather drove me to the junior prom because my date’s family didn’t have a car. She lived near the motor city, after all, and had never heard of such a thing. I was pretty sure she didn’t know much about real city living. In all fairness, I really didn’t know a thing about suburban or rural life. As it turned out, we both had a lot to learn.

Bonnie and her family were rural poor. They lived in a run-down house in Northwestern Ohio. People who lived out that way were farmers. They grew soybeans or tomatoes that were sent out to Hunts for canning. I was to learn, in my senior year while student teaching, that kids who lived on the farms got out of school early during certain times of the year so they could go home to help with the harvest.  When you drove out into the countryside, you could see shacks and even chicken coops that were occupied by humans. Bonnie’s place was a real house, though it was dilapidated: peeling paint, sagging windows, and what can only be described as a hen-scratched front yard.

On the day of Bonnie’s planned overnight, Mrs. Millspaugh drove Linda and me all the way out of town onto a winding rural route whose number I do not remember. We traded multiple bags of groceries for a cute little girl named Bonnie. She had a paper bag with her. Inside she had tossed a dingy undershirt and a pair of underwear.  When we walked out to the car, Bonnie grasped a faded, plastic geranium in her hand. She held it out, an offering.

“Pretty,” Linda commented. “Where did you get it?”

“Oh, we get them from the graves, over the road there,” she said, gesturing towards a small cemetery.

Silence followed. No one knew what to say.

I honestly don’t remember a lot about the rest of that day or the ride back to the dorm. But I think we ate with Bonnie in the dining hall, and I remember that when it was time to go to bed, Linda and I suggested that Bonnie take a shower. She was excited because we had lotion and powder and hair ribbons and she was going to get to use them. What I wasn’t prepared for was the fact that she had never taken a shower before. Right.  No running water at her house.

My dorm had community bathrooms, and I distinctly recall that as we walked down the long hall, the closer we got to the bathrooms, the more slowly Bonnie walked.  She waited patiently as I fiddled with the water, trying to get it to the perfect temperature for her. Then, when I encouraged her to step in, she just wouldn’t budge.  Bonnie was afraid of that splashing torrent of water that was about to rain down on her head.  She wouldn’t get into the shower.

I cajoled. I coaxed. I told her how great it would feel.  But as it turned out, I had to strip down and shower with Bonnie, remarking all the while how nice and soothing and warm the water was. Bonnie finally relaxed and enjoyed the experience. She liked my shampoo and the smooth bar of Ivory soap. When we got back to the room she told me she was happy to have me wash and comb through her hair because the kids at school always called her “Cootie Kid.”

That night, Bonnie told my roommate and me that if she could have anything in the world, it would be a pair of bell bottoms. While I am not altogether sure about this, I think we bought them for her, although I am not sure when or where. We brought her home the next day, transported once again by Mrs. Millspaugh.  We brought more bags of groceries along, too.  Bonnie’s mother blandly thanked us and then shouted to Bonnie, “You’ve had your fun, now, so go get some wood. RIGHT. NOW.”

Having told this story on numerous occasions in the past, I have always focused on how naïve I was or how one can find poverty in various forms and places in a land of great abundance. But now, many years later, it is in the writing of the story that I see that Mrs. Millspaugh is one of its main characters. I may have forgotten many of the details of her involvement, but I know that she drove, she shopped, and she quietly guided us.  If she ever felt inconvenienced by the project, she certainly never showed it, and she always modeled caring beyond self. In this telling, I realize that whatever good came out of the relationship between Bonnie’s family and the young women in my dorm would not have happened without Mrs. Millspaugh, and I have a much greater sense of appreciation for all that she did for all of us.

 

 

 

Author’s note: Bonnie’s name has been changed

Artwork: “Torn Screen,” by Mariana Palmer

The Bitter Side of Sweet

M&M

It’s October.  The stores are filled with chocolate, everything from fun size-bars to jumbo-size bags of assorted milk and dark chocolate goodies. Yes, there are the requisite bags of candy corn and gumdrop pumpkins, but the shelves in every grocery or drug store nearly groan under the weight of pounds and pounds of delectable chocolate treats. That’s the sweet part.

Today I finished reading The Bitter Side of Sweet by Tara Sullivan. The book is a well-researched work of fiction that chronicles the lives of children who work the cacao farms of the Ivory Coast, a country from which 40 per cent of the world’s cocoa is derived. There, thousands of children work on farms in deplorable conditions without pay.  In essence, the children slave to help produce treats for other children who live in far-away places. That’s the bitter.

The narrative chronicles the experiences of two brothers who agree to leave their home in Mali to help harvest cacao pods. They expect to get paid and hope to earn enough money to send home to their poverty-stricken grandparents, who are their guardians. When the boys arrive, they find that they must work to fill quotas and are severely punished if they do not meet them. The children are barely fed and are locked in a shed at night.  They are never paid. They are slaves.

The story gets a little more complicated when a lone girl is brought to the compound. She is a kidnapping victim, and her defiance and a terrible accident bring the story to a head when the children decide that no matter what the consequences, they must escape. Without food, clothing, or money, they try to find their way back to their respective homes. It is a harrowing experience for them and for the reader who lives through it with them.

The issue of child slavery and its relation to the production of chocolate is not a problem with a simple solution. Many cacao growers are small farmers living in poverty themselves, and many large-scale chocolate producers insist that they are not involved in any way with child slavery in far-away Africa.  Economic problems involving workers rarely have simple solutions . . .

On her web page, Sullivan asserts, “In The Bitter Side of Sweet, [the characters] are forced to work as slaves on a cacao farm in the Ivory Coast. Sadly, this is reflective of the reality of how most mainstream chocolate in the world today is grown.”  She thanks readers for taking the time to inform themselves.

Please know, however, that the narrative itself is not preachy or political. The author allows the reader to come to his or her own determination about what to feel or do about the situation presented by the story of the three main characters in the book. The Bitter Side of Sweet is nominated for the 2019 Connecticut Nutmeg Award, Teen Division.  Recommended for ages 12 and up.

For more information about chocolate production and what you can do, click HERE

To read “How Harry Potter Fans Won a Four-year Fight against Childhood Slavery,” click HERE

 

Author’s note: I took the picture above at a local drug store. I do not know the sourcing of any of the products pictured or named in the photograph.

Bread

bread rising

Most people know me as a teacher or a librarian or as the newest title insists: a teacher-librarian. But before all of that, before our kids were in school all day, before even that one year when our youngest was in half-day kindergarten and I was substituting at the local elementary school, I was actually a professional baker.

As newlyweds, my husband and I had dreamed of being “urban homesteaders.” We would teach one another everything we knew how to do. He would show me how to skim-coat walls and change tires, and I would teach him how to hem pants and can tomatoes. That kind of stuff. We had to alter our plans a bit though, because we ended up buying a tall house on a double lot in Manchester, Connecticut, and guess what  . . . we had a mortgage.  Somebody had to get a real, paying job. That somebody turned out to be my husband, who had training as a health professional.

We tried to hang on to part of the dream. We built some passive solar units that fit nicely into our huge, south-facing windows. We constructed an in-ground composting system. But best of all, we planted a huge garden, mostly fruits and vegetables and herbs, with a few flowers thrown in for good measure. I learned a great deal about gardening, joined a food co-op, had two kids, two cats, and a cellar full of canned goods. I quilted and sewed clothes and curtains. My favorite place to be was in the kitchen, and I made everything from scratch: yogurt, yogurt cheese, herb mixes, cookies, cakes, jams, breads, biscuits, you name it.

There was no Betty Crocker or Duncan Hines for my kids. I was an Earth Mother—no artificial anything. But the best part and my favorite part of all of those kitchen-centered years, was the baking of the bread: the measuring, the kneading, the rising. And there was the yeasty smell, the warm loaves on the counter, begging for a serrated knife and a spread of softened butter (not homemade) or jam (berries handpicked, jam homemade and home canned). When we were invited to friends’ homes, I brought a loaf of multi-grained “Pilgrim Bread” or pumpernickel.  You could tap on the crusts of the bread and get that just-right sound, and the soft, evenly-textured middle was delicious, if I do say so myself.

Word spread. People started asking me to bring loaves to all kinds of events, and quite frankly, it got to be a bit of a burden. Bread making took hours. True, it wasn’t all “active” time, but there was prep and there was rising time (two risings) and I could only bake off so many loaves at once in my standard-sized oven. That led me to start spreading the word quietly among my friends that I was thinking about actually charging real money for requested loaves. My two running partners, who were in the same food co-op I was in, said they would help get the “news” out, and I thought that would be the end of it.

I was wrong. Orders starting coming in: some nice whole wheat for Thursday, pita for Sunday, old-fashioned oatmeal (two loaves, please) for Tuesday. I branched out into making some quick breads, too: lemon and zucchini and pumpkin.  Those were popular and not as time consuming as yeast breads, and I was feeling pretty good about things.  I was actually making a little money in my small kitchen in the tall red house. I was doing something I loved: baking bread and muffins and cookies, too.  I was busy and I was happy.

There were looming problems, however. I was having trouble keeping up with the orders. I needed more time and space and help. I didn’t have a baking license and my kitchen had not been inspected for commercial use. My growing little “business” had gotten the better of me, and I realized I had to slow things down if I didn’t want to rock the bureaucratic boat.  I didn’t have money to sink into new equipment or licenses, and I found myself standing in front of my oven wondering what to do. Crunch time.

Our kids were getting bigger.  Our tall red house needed painting. There were other things to pay for, too: oil changes and hygienist visits and gymnastic lessons. Reality was setting in, and I had to make some decisions and some plans for the future.  In the end I gave up my little unauthorized business.  I took a few night classes and updated my teaching certificate. Three years later our kids were in school all day, and I was in the classroom writing lesson plans for “Survey of American Literature,”  correcting papers, and hoping for a snow day so I could get out the mixing bowls.

 

Author’s note: Some of this story is true. A friend challenged me to write an elaborate lie that was somewhat believable, which I tried to do here. I never became a professional baker when our children were young; however, I have thought about it on occasion since then.