I never did find that darned bedpan

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‘More Memories of my dear funny Aunt Marilyn’

I’ve been feeling a tad emptied out these last few weeks. And not only because our home is, bit by bit, quite literally being emptied of virtually all our favorite possessions. (The Gods of Staging decree it thus.)

Living room with piano and cat bed, on its way to being “staged” for sale

No, I’m feeling empty because my life is being emptied, bit by bit (or soul by soul), of many of my favorite people. (In this case, it’s the Guy — or Gal — Upstairs who decrees it.) A few weeks ago, it was my Mom’s sister, my dear funny idiosyncratic Aunt Marilyn.

Aunt Marilyn in a rare formal portrait. I used to stare at this photo (framed, on a shelf in my Gramma’s house), wishing I owned that fabulous fur neck thing

True, I already wrote a piece about Marilyn. A couple of pieces, in fact. (See “Hey, Aunt Marilyn! Everybody’s up!”  and “A Very Marilyn Christmas” for some nice reminiscences.) But, trust me, she was such fun and so, well, unique in her enthusiasms, that she deserves another few words.

I already mentioned that, when I was very small, my Dad went off to serve in Korea and Mom and I went back to her parents’ farm to live for the duration. (See “Kissing Daddy Good-night” for poignant details.) Marilyn was a teenager at the time, so she, of course, was in residence.

That’s Teen Aunt Marilyn next to the woman with me on her lap (my Mom). That’s Gramma P in back

Aunt M had a cat at the time named Herkimer. (Aunt M was one of the all-time great Namers.) Later on, she had a cat named Dino whose back feet my Grampa P would tickle, making them both (Dino and Marilyn) howl in protest. (Her naming extended to me, whom she dubbed “Lishkabib”, which was a distortion of “Ish Kabibble”, some obscure cornet-playing comedian.)

But back to cats. According to Marilyn, I used to “thread” (her word) poor Herkimer through the slats of my little wicker rocker. After that, the poor cat would climb the curtains in the living room to get out of my way.

That’s me with Herkimer. I’m thinking this was before the Threading Incident

Some of her naming talents must have rubbed off on me, because I famously had a doll (probably the one I’m holding in the photo at the top of this post) named Mrs. Parasott. No one could figure out the whys and wherefors of this name. Not until many years later at my Gramma’s funeral. I was in the receiving line accepting condolences, when a woman introduced herself as my Gramma’s ex-neighbor — Mrs. Parasott.

Anyway. A few more choice bits before I get to the Bedpan Story of the title.

Thats Aunt Marilyn, in front of my Mom, with the rest of the Peterson Kids

Cool stuff, in no particular order: Aunt Marilyn drove a ’65 Mustang and later a car she called the “Al Camino”, kept a stuffed Fighting Illini Rooster on her bed and a framed photo of Dwight Eisenhower on her wall, and greeted every one of her adoring nieces and nephews with an enormous hug she called the “Squeeze”.

Aunt Marilyn the only time she was ever to the far left: in this photo with her many adoring nieces and nephews

She was also an excellent kidder. Marilyn, like my Mom, was a nurse. She worked at the Chrysler plant in Belvidere, Illinois; the same plant where she met her husband Arlyn. He worked there too, custom-mixing paint for, like, the pink cars Mary Kay ladies drove around in. (If you think that’s odd, my Mom once worked as a prison nurse. But that’s a story for another time.)

Once when Marilyn was drawing blood from this big Chrysler-plant guy, she started singing, apropos of nothing, “Blood on the saddle, blood on the ground, there ain’t nothin’ but blood all around…” The guy fainted.

That’s me (with Oldest Younger Brother Scott) at about Find the Bedpan Age

So okay, I could go on and on. But here’s the Bedpan Story. I was sevenish and sharing a bed with the unmarried-because-she-hadn’t-met-Arlyn-yet Marilyn. One morning she woke up, stretched, and said, “Oh my. I really have to go to the bathroom,” (she would never ever say “pee”) but I’m too lazy to get up. Could you please get me the bedpan?”

Eager to be of help, I asked my Favorite Aunt what was a “bedpan” and where could I find it? Well. I looked and looked for that thing. Aunt Marilyn told me later that she laughed so hard she actually needed that bedpan.

New York City. November 2019

 

“Hey, Aunt Marilyn! Everybody’s up!”

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‘Missing the Most Marvelous Aunt the World Has Ever Known’

The quote serving as title of this story came from the wee toddler lips of my Oldest Younger Brother Scott. When he was very small he would march into our Aunt Marilyn’s room very early in the morning and announce that “everybody” was up — “everybody” meaning him.

That’s my Aunt Marilyn standing in front of my Mom. She wasn’t much more than a toddler herself in this photo. But I bet she was a lot of fun, even then

See, when Aunt Marilyn was in the house you wanted her up and around and with you at all times. She was that much fun. So much fun to be around that we kids would actually fight over who got to sit next to her at family dinners. (I only realized years later that we were unintentionally hurting our other perfectly-good aunts’ feelings — not to mention our very fun mother’s — by doing this.)

Two sisters and their mom, my Gramma P

But kids are kids — and naturally unfiltered — so fight over Aunt Marilyn we did. We adored Aunt Marilyn. Maybe because she was rather like a kid herself. For one thing, she was our mother’s younger sister by almost ten years. She was a high school kid when I was born. For another, she remained single — living in her parents’ (our grandparents’) house — for most of our childhood, so she was always there — and eager for fun — when we visited.

That’s All-American Teen Aunt Marilyn, complete with saddle shoes and bobby socks, between Perfectly-Fine Aunt Shirley and my Gramma P. My Mom is holding “Everybody’s Up!” Scott while I glower through the car window

Even after she found the Amazing Arlyn and got married, she didn’t “settle down”. She continued to play croquet and badminton (See “Howie and the Muscle Shirt” for a funny badminton story) with youthful gusto and was apt to say things like, “Who wants to go out in the snow with the rodel?” when it was, like, a zillion degrees below zero. (I just googled “rodel”, which is a kind of sled, and found one that looks just like Aunt Marilyn’s for sale for $1,175.)

That’s Marilyn, in bridal gown, natch, greeting well-wishers in the background. That’s my Starter Hub and me front and center

Aunt Marilyn hated the hot summer and absolutely adored winter. And not just for the skating and skiing and rodeling. She was a Major Fan of Christmas. I can remember like it was yesterday going to our Gramma P’s for Christmas. Marilyn was always in charge of the fun, both before and after she and Arlyn got hitched. (Arlyn, bless his little Dutch heart, really got into the swing of those Swedish Christmases. Though I bet he didn’t really have much choice.)

A scene from a Marilyn Christmas. That’s my Mom whispering her wish to a plastic-bag-bearded Santa

Since we were Swedes, the festivities were always on Christmas Eve. You can read all about these special festivities and even watch a video of the Very Last One in “A very Marilyn Christmas”. If you listen carefully, you just might be able to hear Nat King Cole on the stereo.

Aunt Marilyn in the kitchen stirring up some fun. I’m thinking this wasn’t Christmas, since the cooking is happening on top of the stove

Ironically, it was during her favorite season, while she was skiing with my mom out in Colorado (pronounced by Marilyn as “color” with “adoh” on the end) when she first felt the manifestations of the Parkinson’s Disease that would torment her for decades and ultimately take her life just last Saturday.

Winter won’t be winter without you, dear Aunt Marilyn. And as for Christmas? I feel like just skipping it this year. But that wouldn’t be at all what you would want. So I’ll break out the gumdrop tree and the teensy cordial glasses in your honor. But, if you don’t mind, I’ll skip the homemade brown paper “oven bag” to roast my turkey. I’ll no doubt burst into tears, but I’d rather my turkey not burst into flames.

Rest in peace, dear Aunt Marilyn. Christmas — even with teensy toasts and gumdrop trees — won’t be the same without you

New York City. October 2019

 

The Summer Selfie, Seventies Style

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‘Taking a look–and a photo–back in time’

It’s funny how genetics works. My Dad was a numbers guy; a civil engineer who worked with a slide rule designing bridges and roads. My Mom was a science-y person too; she was a nurse who in another time and place would surely have been a doctor.

My siblings and I? Not so numbers-y, science-y. My Only Sister is a writer turned real estate agent, my Middle Younger Brother a filmmaker, my Oldest Younger Brother a photographer. And me, you know enough about former copywriter ad girl me.

The only one who followed that science-y path? My Youngest Younger Brother, a neuroscience nerd turned optometrist, who in grad school was studying the effect of cocaine on the brain. Or maybe it was heroin. Whichever. All I remember is that he had to go to the lab several times a day to make sure the rats got their “fix”. I also remember that he would joke that he wanted to outfit the rats with itty-bitty doo-rags and switchblades.

Youngest Younger Bro Doug takes a houseboat break from his lab-rat drug-dealing duties

So anyway. Enough with the genetics. The reason I’m going on about this is that my Photographer Brother, recently retired from his news-photography career and looking for something to do besides go on zillion-mile bike rides every day with his gorgeous squeeze in the equally-gorgeous countryside around his home in Marin County, has started sorting through his photo files dating back to 1965.

Said Scott, “I just bought a new scanner…this should be interesting”

This new scan-gajillions-of-photos project reminds me of something Scott said when our Dad was presented with a computer at his retirement party: “There go the roses.”

Dad was a prize-winning rosarian. Until he got that darned computer. (Note: Scott probably took this photo too)

Well, I don’t know if Photo Bro has any new-hobby-endangered roses, but he has been busily posting discoveries from his stash almost daily. He generously posts them on a family share site for my sibs and I to enjoy.

Photo Bro (in middle) at some forgotten wedding with my Dad and his brother, my Uncle Mike

Invariably, when I check the site I find not only great photos (my bro was and is an excellent photographer who has had his work published in the New York Times, among other places) — but visual evidence of times and places and people that I have forgotten all about. It’s kind of scary that I have such big memory lapses. Almost as scary as seeing myself looking so, well, young.

Impossibly-young-and-almost-unrecognizable-me (again) with Youngest Younger Bro and Only Sister. This time I was the one who remembered the occasion; Scott didn’t

The picture at the top of this post is a perfect example. Not only had I no recollection of what the heck was going on in this photo, but I did not recognize myself. Honestly, I had to show the picture to The Dude and have him verify my identity. “Sure, that’s you,” he said. “Who else could it be?”

Our houseboat, the Sir-Launch-A-Lot (seriously; that was its name) pulled up to a sandbank on this day of photo fun

When I asked my brother was what going on, he said that he had brought a 20-foot cable release home to Carlyle (the town where we were raised and where this lake with our houseboat on it is located) and had us all snap “selfies” with it. (If you look closely at the houseboat shots, you’ll notice we’re holding something with a black cord on it. That’s the cable release.)

Even Mom and Dad got into the act. Note what Dad is holding. Besides Mom, I mean

So heck. I don’t remember this outing, or taking these “selfies”, or even that it’s me in that photo up there. But at least I don’t put the carton of Haagen-Dazs back in the microwave instead of in the freezer like certain Other People Who Shall Remain Nameless did just yesterday.

Amagansett, New York. September 2019

French Lick, the WaWa Goose, and the Oregon Trail

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‘Summer vacations, Midcentury Midwestern Style’

The Child is on Day 18 of her solo hike of the John Muir Trail. The JM is a 200-mile section of the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from Canada to Mexico. Her Childness started in Yosemite National Park a couple of weeks ago and will finish in three or four more days at Mt. Whitney.

Here she was on Day 13. Well, here is where the satellite said she was, anyway

We’re not too panicky, since we can track her via GPS. And sometimes, when she has cell service, she calls or texts. She even Facetimed us from the top of Half Dome.

The Child Instagrams from Half Dome, where there were still a few people. Unless those are bears in disguise

Now, I’m glad (sort of) that she’s doing this. But I must say that this kind of trip is certainly not my cup of tea. The blisters and bears and dehydrated food and being alone for hours at a time wouldn’t bother me so much. (In fact, I rather like being alone.)

Nope. It’s the sleeping outside part that’s the deal-breaker for me. Let me explain.

The Child’s home away from home. A veritable trailside Hilton

See, when I was a kid, when we took a family vacation, we drove. We didn’t know anybody who took planes. For one thing, back in those days taking a plane with a family with at least three kids (and ultimately five) was way too pricey. At least for families like mine.

Trains were on the expensive side too, though I remember taking one once from Memphis to Chicago. That was the trip where Middle Brother Roger (who was the youngest at the time) sat on a fancy lady’s lap and asked her why she had a string of dead squirrels around her neck. (It was, in fact, a mink stole, and she didn’t even get mad, he was so adorable.)

Surly Teen Me, with Laura and Roger, on a rare trip that (I think) did not involve sleeping outside. We went, for some reason, to French Lick, Indiana, and stayed in an old resort at the hot springs. (Oldest Younger Brother Scott snapped the photo)

And when we were on these driving vacations, we didn’t stay in motels. (See same reason given for not flying, above.) Nope, we slept outside. Well, not outside-outside, exactly. We stayed in a popup camper. (See our Nimrod in the photo at the top of this post.) In those days these things were too hot or too cold, mosquitoes (and little kids) whined around inside, and when it rained the canvas leaked.

Once in a while on a road trip, we wouldn’t even bother with the Nimrod. Dad would just pull over by the side of the road and we kids would grab some Zs on a mattress that was back in the cargo area of the Ford station wagon. (But, hey, at least it wasn’t outside.)

Getting ready to hit the road back home to Memphis after visiting the Peterson relatives in Northern Illinois. At least our luggage is on top, and the mattress is in the back

We drove and camped our way to Colorado, a trip I associate with the aroma of Alberto VO5. (It was super-hot in the car, no automotive AC available in those days, and the goop had liquefied. Younger Only Sister Laura, who was a mere tot at the time, had been playing with the jar and spilled its contents.)

Regardless of the smell, I also remember walking in the wagon ruts of the Oregon Trail and being amazed by the vastness of the Badlands. Great Mom Quote: “Just think, the early settlers rode in their covered wagons straight into the sun for months at a time — and they didn’t even have sunglasses.

A couple of good kids (Scott and me) out in the Badlands

We drove and camped our way to Canada, too, a trip I associate with instant mashed potatoes “cooked” on a Coleman Stove and with “toasting” rinsed diapers on a stick held over a campfire. Heady times. I also recall a side trip to see the WaWa Goose. And I will never forget driving over the Mackinac Bridge, which is the longest bridge in the Western Hemisphere and the source of many a nightmare of mine to this very day. 

Dinner in the “dining room” — a tent that attached to the front of the Nimrod

Basically, though, these family trips were a lot of fun and made memories to last a lifetime. But I did promise myself that when I grew up I would never ever sleep outside again. And I haven’t.

Not even on the Upper Reaches of the Amazon River did I sleep outside. We had no hot water, but we did have real beds in that boat there in the background

Amagansett, New York. August 2019

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater

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‘The dirty little downside of belonging to a big happy family’

I have this very good friend, Jim, who is astonished that anyone could have grown up in a house with only one bathroom. It’s a good thing he doesn’t read my blog, because he would be shocked (shocked!) to hear that not only did we Henrys share a bathroom — we also shared our bathwater.

(Of course, he told me once he shares a shower with his cat, so there’s that.)

Anyway. Back to the Henrys and their sharing of the suds.

Those of you who do read my blog (bless you many times over) know that I am the proud member of a large, happy family. A large happy family who did a lot of sharing.

We shared popcorn in front of the TV, we shared (sort of) the toys in the toy box, we shared seats in the car. (See ‘He’s Breathing My Air’ for how that worked out.) Of course we shared bedrooms. My parents (natch) shared Mom and Dad’s Room, my three brothers shared The Boys’ Room, and I shared The Girls’ Room with my Favorite Only Younger Sister Laura. She and I shared so nicely that she even tried to move on to cohabit my dorm room when I went to college. (It’s a pretty good story, called ‘Larry and the Nose Holes’; you might like to read it after this one.)

We shared chores too. Here I am enthusiastically taking my turn loading our (quite astonishing at the time) dishwasher

And all five of us (plus two parents) shared our one bathroom — and the bathtub in it. When we were little and there were only three of us kids, Mom would line us up in there all in one go: me in the deep end, Scott in the middle, and Roger at the shallow end. Later, when there were more of us, we took turns.

I’m honestly not sure if this was about efficiency — it taking less time to bathe children using the sequential-dunking technique — or whether it was about the fact that our hot water heater couldn’t face the challenge of five tub fill-ups. But I do remember being grateful that I was the oldest and therefore got dibs on the hottest (first) bath.

In my family, bath sharing happened even before I had any siblings. Here I am getting squeaky-clean with my Aunt Susie and Cousin Jimmy

I guess sharing water was a Henry Thing. Here I am sharing a washtub with some Unidentified Cousin. At least we have pants on

Of course, there was a brief blip before my oldest younger brother was born when I got to have the tub all to myself. (See the photo at the top of this post, taken when Mom and I lived at my Gramma Peterson’s while my Dad was away in Korea, for seriously cute proof.)

Being the firstborn, I got everything all to myself for a while — including the kitchen sink

Being a child at the time, I honestly don’t remember being grossed out or embarrassed by having to share my bath time ablutions. But I do remember being humiliated and horrified when my brothers would dig this particular photo out of the big cardboard box in the attic and taunt me with it. Sometimes they’d even threaten to show it to my friends.

The incriminating photo. It didn’t help that my mother had written “Big Girl!” on the back

The end.

New York City. April 2019

“I seen smallah”

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‘Alice’s Adventures in Underwear’

You just gotta love the Seventies. Well, at least I did. One reason was because in the Seventies, even in the Midwest where I was living at the time, underwear — at least of the brassiere type — was optional.

Me. In the Seventies. When I didn’t wear, um, glasses

See, I hate wearing a bra. Which is kind of funny because when I was 12 or 13 or thereabouts I could hardly wait to wear one. I remember feeling all embarrassed in PE (what you may have called “Phys Ed”) when we girls were changing into our bloomers (honest injun, we wore bloomers in PE) and I was the only one sporting an undershirt.

Do little girls still wear undershirts? Well, I’m sure as heck wearing one in the school photo at the top of this post. You can see its telltale outlines under that big “A”. (My Mom made that dress, and no, that letter “A” was not scarlet.) Continue reading

Lucky Thirteen

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‘A match made in high school heaven’

I once read that some people are so freaked out by the number thirteen that many buildings just skip that floor. Kinda makes you think about that dentist on “14”, eh?

Well, apparently my parents weren’t freaked out — or maybe they just liked to tempt fate — because they were married on the thirteen. I don’t know how many times their anniversary fell on a Friday, but I do know that their umpteenth-gazillionth would have been this past Sunday. I say “would have been” because my Dad, unfortunately, is no longer with us to celebrate. Interestingly enough, The Dude’s parents also got married on the thirteenth. Of, maybe, November. (Why not ask The Dude, you’re probably thinking. Well, I did, and he said “Heck if I know.” Men.)

I called my Mom anyway, because hey, any excuse to call my Mom. She is remarkably fun to talk to. And it gave me a chance to quiz her on some family marital lore.

For example. I had always known that my Mom and Dad didn’t have a fancy wedding, but I wasn’t totally sure of the circumstances. Were they poor? Were their parents mad at them? Turns out that it was a Religious Thing. My Mom’s family was Lutheran (but you knew that), and my Dad’s was Catholic. Not Seriously Catholic, but enough to nix a Church Ceremony. Continue reading

A very Marilyn Christmas

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‘A Holiday Tribute to an Aunt I bet Yule wish was yours’

I was feeling a touch of the Christmas Blues the other day. Remembering The Old Days and how we kids used to peer out the car windows at the Christmas trees lighting up the picture windows of the houses in the small towns along Route 50 on the way up to Gramma’s house. And how, once we got there, we’d run as fast as we could to the Tree to see just how big it was and to shake the wrapped presents to guess what was in them.

I think I liked pressing my face against windows. Here I am smudging things up at Gramma’s

When Christmas Blue, what do you do? Well, I called my Mom. (Thank goodness I still have one.) She knew exactly what I was talking about, and exactly what I was missing: The Marilyn Christmas. Continue reading

“You make a better door than a window”

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‘Consuming media the Mid-Century Modern way’

So. The Dude and I went to an actual movie yesterday afternoon. In an actual movie theater. It was the new Mission Impossible. (The one everybody else on earth saw, like, six weeks ago.) I must say that I’m glad we caught those zooming motorcycles and dueling helicopters and ticking nuclear bombs before they left the theaters and we had to stream the whole shebang instead.

Looks like Youngest Younger Brother Doug’s been doing a little ‘streaming’. Or maybe ‘laking’

I can remember only too well those days when, if you wanted to see a movie, you had to go to a movie theater. (I shouldn’t say “had to”, because it was really fun.) The only thing that was kind of a downside was that the one movie theater in my hometown only had one screen and pretty much played only one movie at a time. I say “pretty much”, because sometimes they’d play Kid Movies in the daytime and Grownup Movies at night.

You’d buy popcorn or Milk Duds and sit in the balcony with your friends. If you were naughty, you’d warm the Milk Duds in the palm of your hand, then throw them at the screen. The goal was to get them to stick in an embarrassing spot — like on the Leading Lady’s cheek. Continue reading

“He’s breathing my air”

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‘An ode to siblings and their rivalry’

When I was a kid there was this show on TV called ‘The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour’. It was a pretty groundbreaking show at the time. But not so groundbreaking that my parents didn’t absolutely adore it. Their favorite part was when Tommy would say to his brother Dick “Mom always loved you best.”

I’m thinking they dug this because they both had plenty of siblings, and thus could relate. Of course, having plenty of siblings was the rule rather than the exception in those days. At least where my family was from, parents needed lots of little ones to help out on the farm with chores. And (gasp) there was always the risk that some of them wouldn’t (ahem) “make it”. So you had to have a few “spares”. You know, “just in case”. I can remember my Gramma P talking about her little un-siblings Pearl and Edward. Bless ’em, they “failed to thrive”.

Gramma (right) with one of her two sisters, Aunt Net. She also had a brother, Uncle Warren, who “made it”. Well, except for the arm he lost in a farming accident

Continue reading