Fireflies and fireworks

With my eight year old granddaughter Alexxis riding shotgun, and two sleepy pups in the back seat, we took off for the country.

Or what’s left of it anyway.

I was searching for a simpler, quieter 4th of July weekend. Something akin to the one I enjoyed when I was her age.

A weekend full of front porches, lemonade, ice cream, with plenty of cozy books and crayons came to mind.

And sprinkled lightly with just a spoonful of fireworks.

Hitting the highway out of the city to the south, I noticed the road wasn’t the same as I remembered.

Instead of crops growing tall, it was the Golden Arches of McDonald’s and casinos that now beckoned.

And new treeless housing developments of endless large taupe colored homes. All clustered tightly together, with each house perfectly identical to the one next door.

Yet by the time we took a right to enter the big lot of the state’s largest candy store a half hour later, I noticed the landscape had changed.

Getting out of the car, I could see the corn surrounding me was “knee high by the 4th of July.”

Just as it should be. And maybe even taller.

And off in the distance I spotted grain silos on what seemed be a couple family farms.

At least I hoped they still were.

Alexxis and I smiled as we entered and  then walked through the mammoth isles of the candy shop. Our noses were happy as well as we caught the scent of fresh berry pies from the bakery within.

She picking out her favorite Bazooka gum and gummy bears.

Me selecting the sweet treats of my youth like Sugar Daddys, an apple pie, and root beer candy sticks.

I laughed as the root beer smell brought me back to one particular 4th of July memory when I was a child.

After too many sweets and too many stops at homes of friends and family, the new car smell of my parent’s brand new sedan soon was permanently overtaken with the scent of root beer fizzies mixed with something, well, not quite as pleasant and gifted by me.

Back in my car, Alexxis and I continued our drive through lush valleys until the road evened out some.

Before approaching the small farm where we would be staying, I introduced Alexxis to my favorite books back when I was her age that featured two young girls living in a Midwestern small town in the early 1900s named Betsy and Tacy.

We stopped for a brief tour of each of their original homes and to buy a special book bag for Alexxis’s growing collection of books at the little gift store attached.

After unpacking at the farmhouse, Alexxis rocked in the front porch swing with her new Betsy and Tacy book to the hum of a farmer haying in the field across the road.

And I settled into the rocking chair, dozing for a while.

Then suddenly Alexxis announced, “Fireflies Grandma, Fireflies!”

She’d never seen one before and I haven’t since I was a child.

But she was right.

There they were, dancing brightly near the blooming white snowball bush.

We danced as well, warmed by the light of the fireflies, skipping the fireworks display  in town.

There will be always be fireworks we figured.

But only one chance to be a kid.

Or maybe two, as just for a brief moment I was a kid back in the country once again.

Who you calling Grandma?

I was dozing off in my little house at noon the other day to the lullaby of a train whistle.

The tracks sit just a block and a half away.

When I awoke later, I smiled thinking my Grandma used to do the same thing in her own little white house that rested by the rails eighty miles west of here.

Grandma’s home was directly across the street from the elementary school where she worked as a teacher. I loved playing school while helping Grandma set up her classroom each August for the returning students.

Sharpening yellow No. 2 pencils was my job.

I’ve working now with elementary school kids, too.

Just like Grandma.

And I still love No. 2 pencils.

Grandma’s sweet little house sat two blocks south from the town library where we’d always check out as many hardcover books as we could carry.

My library today is the same short distance from my little white house and I’m still known to take more than a few great reads back home.

Traveling the sidewalks back to my place tonight with my latest bound ‘treasures’, I couldn’t help but think my own home looks just like Grandma’s little white house.

I wondered have I become my grandmother?

Could be.

I am a grandma after all.

Yet I do know for one thing for sure.

Grandma never rocked and rolled down in her basement.

Oh, to be a kid again…

I’m up at 4:40, dodging Bambi in the dark of early morning to get to my desk in the city by 6:45. By the time I return home, it’s dark again but for rush hour’s dingy headlights.

I rarely see December’s light of day, typically a busy time of year for me at work.

But this day a sad, empty wallet coaxes me to put on my tired boots to visit the cash machine across the street.

I soon notice a group of smiling school kids singing “Jingle Bells”. They’re jumping off the steps of a school bus to visit the one department store left in town with its annual Christmas display.

Visions of animated reindeer and Mrs. Claus suddenly dance in my head, so I decide to join in on the fun.

I move quickly in with the line, dancing figure eights around strollers and the students. I stop only long enough to see Santa’s magical elves read the children’s wish lists and watch musical, tall twinkling Christmas trees take their final bows after their performance.

I buy a freshly baked gingerbread man on the way out. I carefully munch around the edges, feet first/head last as I join shoppers back on the busy street below. I stop to look back at the majestic, ornate old building one last time.

For just a moment I am a small child again, dressed as a ‘proper young lady’, visiting the city with Grandma to visit St. Nick and the big display.

I am excited and in awe of the pretty white gloved elevator operators, decked out in blue uniforms, pushing buttons for any floor we might want to see.

I taste the warm chicken pot pie and steaming popovers from the store’s restaurant Grandma would always treat me to once every holiday season.

But my ringing phone suddenly is a wake up call that I need to get back to my desk.

I pick up my pace just as gray skies overhead gift me a spray of gentle white snowflakes.

Beautiful, intricate patterns they land on my lashes, nose, and tongue.

Just like when I was five.

Entering my office building, I hurry back up to my desk.

Stirring the now cold coffee I left 45 minutes ago, with the candy cane Santa had given me.

My coffee has never tasted so good, or as sweet.

Oh what fun……it still is.

Another “Mr. Bean”

Pastel pink, neon green, sunkist orange, midnight black.

Sticky, sugary jelly beans.

Sealed tight in festive plastic bags.

I bought one today. Just like I do every year.

I tucked the goods into the oversized pocket of a tired corduroy jacket bought on a Florida beach with
my folks, many years ago.

Carrying the sweet gems back to work, I thought of how each bean seems to represent another memory of my father.

It turns out food’s always been in the forefront of those memories with Dad:

-The pride he’d take in grilling burgers on the old Weber, as he shared secret barbecue tips while flipping them with his usual flair.
-Heart to heart chats in his T-Bird on drug store runs to collect our weekly half gallon ice cream specials. (With me always praying for chocolate chip).
-Sneaking pieces of hot, moist turkey with bare fingers as we’d pull the big bird from the oven at Thanksgiving time.

Yet Dad’s passion for those jelly beans remains the strongest food memory of them all.

Selecting the best jelly beans became a true spring time ritual for us, warranting yearly debates on the merits of anise flavored black licorice beans versus the classic, sweet and tart orange.

And Dad always insisted one bag would just have be sampled before the actual holiday.

“Just to make sure it’s a good batch,” he’d tell me.

Ripping the bag open, I’d watch him pop the first few beans of the season into his mouth, savoring every last denture busting chew.

The end result, a child like grin of bliss across his face.

Not unlike a Frenchman uncorking his first bottle of Beaujolais Noveau in the fall, a family friend once noted.

Then the really big event.

We’d rise early each Easter Sunday morning to fill our pockets with jelly beans for church and to review the “fake out cough” procedure we’d learned from Dad, “Just in case the sermon is really long:”

1. Grab small handful of beans.
2. Close fist tightly.
3. Slowly raise fist to mouth.
4. Let out discrete cough.
5. Inhale the goods.
6. Smile sweetly at stern faced Lutheran minister.

Dad really had it down. A real pro.

Except for that one chilly Easter when Dad was off his game, and dropped all his beans.

Which noisily rolled down the tile floor.

Toward’s the pastor’s feet.

Everyone thought my brother dropped them.

Including the minister.

We let them.

And then the sermon went on….and on.

Years later, when Alzheimer’s came to visit Dad, my father discovered a bag he’d hidden from us kids years before. He tore the bag open and tried to eat the grossly discolored goods before Mom caught him.

It was likely the same year my parents’ winter visits to their favorite white sand Florida beach stopped after Dad forgot to put the car in reverse when leaving the fish market, resulting in a near miss.

I’ll be visiting the same beach soon. And I’ll pack those jelly beans I bought with my flip flops and sun tan lotion.

I thought I’d toss a few of the bright colored beans up into the blue sky or across the waves of emerald water in memory of Dad.

But knowing it’s really not the best for the gulls or dolphins, I now have another idea.

I’ll stroll the beach arm in arm with my sister, nibbling on our favorite orange jelly beans, sharing more stories of one very sweet man.

Who just loved jelly beans.

Gift of an ornament

It’s old, maybe a little worse for wear. But still colorful and cheery.

I like to think it’s a bit like me, or at least how I try to be.

This red and white felt puppet is one of the oldest ornaments I have, and the first one I didn’t inherit.

I appreciate that it can still warm my hand so many decades later.

The mother of another child in my kindergarten class made them for all of the students

And it’s the first ornament to grace my little tree each year.

What did I like the best about this gift of an ornament when I was five?

That the kind hearted woman spelled my name right!

Loss of Innocence

I still remember the names of my grade school teachers back in Kansas, and also my principal. I’d always wait patiently for the handsome Oscar Swift while seated on the long wooden bench outside his office. I’d be in line often to have Mr. Swift attach a bunny sticker to my spelling test for a perfect score of 100 percent. Some days I’d even run into my brother sitting there for ‘other’ reasons, as I did one fall morning back in third grade. I nodded to him, feeling smug, then left to cross over the creek back home for lunch.

As usual, Mom was down in the basement ironing Dad’s white shirts for work at the ad agency. I loved the smell of the starch, the warmth of the steam, and the hissing sound from the iron as she pressed down hard around the tabs. I squatted cross-legged on the rug in front of the blonde wooden TV cabinet, munching on a tuna sandwich. As usual, Mom was engrossed with the drama of her favorite soap, “As The World Turns.”

Suddenly the dramatic scene before us was cut short. Replaced with one even more intense. A CBS news bulletin with Walter Cronkite’s voice. He sounded distracted and stressed, like Dad after a long day of work.

I heard phrases like, “May be dead.”

Mom put down the iron and sat down numb on the couch. Her ashen face heavy in her hands.

I ran back to school as fast as I could. I told my teacher, Miss Dunham, “Kennedy’s been shot!”

She looked at me, horrified, then tore down the hall to Mr. Swift’s office. I gently sobbed as I sat, wishing I hadn’t told her. I put my head down on my desk.

I wondered if she believed me. I wondered why she was still gone.

She finally returned after what seemed an eternity. It was probably more like a half hour. Her face was red. Her eyes were puffy. She looked as if she’d been crying a long time. And she was silent.

Mr. Swift then came over the PA system to solemnly announce that President Kennedy had passed away.

The next few days were a blur. I read my Kennedy comic books about the idyllic life of Caroline, little John John, and their pony Macaroni. I played with my Kennedy trading cards I’d purchased in the gum machine, next to the baseball cards.

And I colored a portrait of the Kennedy family that I mailed to Jackie Kennedy at the White House.

Finally, Mom encouraged me to go play at my friend Wendy’s house two doors down. But we didn’t. We turned on the TV.

And we watched Lee Harvey Oswald get shot.

I believe my childhood innocence disappeared that November week in 1963.

And fifty years later, I’m still trying to figure out just where it went.