How could she forget about “Grampa crackers?”

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‘On little kids and how little they remember from being little.’

Some young friends of ours are going through the Nursery School Application Thing. Which, in New York, is like applying to the Ivy League, only way more stressful.

It’s felt that getting into the “right” nursery school can set your child on the road to not just academic success but life success. So the whole process is, well, somewhat fraught.

Me, not attending nursery school — enjoying the School of Hard Knocks instead

Fortunately for Dude Man and me, almost 30 years ago — when The Child was an actual child — the process wasn’t nearly so stressful, at least not for us. This was mainly because, having not grown up in New York City — and, in my case, having been unaware of even the existence of nursery school — we didn’t realize how cutthroat and competitive it all was and blithely went about things in a relaxed and matter-of-fact manner. “Hey, this school looks good — it’s close to our apartment!” was kind of how we rolled.

Our Child at her Very Good Nursery School when Aunt Eleanor was visiting

(You can read about our experience in “The Bears are Watching a Movie.”) Sometimes ignorance is bliss, especially when the ignorance involves education.

But back to our young friends. In the course of our nursery-school pep chat, the mother mentioned a cute thing that their two-year-old does: “When we come home from work he runs to get his shoes and our masks (my emphasis) so we can go outside,” she told me.

Well. This got me thinking. About a lot of things, but mainly about how little we remember from when we were little. And how you find out about stuff you did then from people telling you about it.

I certainly don’t remember this. Someone had to show me this evidence to prove that I once bathed with a cousin and an aunt — at the same time!

I once famously threw my socks and “shoes-on” out the car window (which you can read about in “The Red Shoes-on” ) and, another time, came inside after playing and informed my mother, “I wasn’t throwing rocks at the house.”

I can remember neither of these childhood episodes, which is probably just as well. I’m thinking that our young friends won’t be too upset if, in a few years, their Little Guy has no memory of wearing his mask, either. I certainly wish that could happen to me.

But what about those “Grampa Crackers” I refer to in the title of this piece?

See, The Child’s Grampa on the Dude’s side had a very close relationship with her. Quite literally. He lived in the same block as us in the City, but where we saw him most was in Amagansett. He was totally enamored of her, calling her “My Little Character,” and spending almost every waking hour in her company. They swam together, they hiked together; they picked berries and picked up snakes.

I don’t have a photo of Grampa and Child picking up snakes. More’s the pity

Grampa W’s favorite snack was Carr’s wafers. He would open a box and just, well, eat them. With no spread or topping or anything. The Child loved them too, and called them “Grampa Crackers.”

Well, thank goodness she had another perfectly-good Grampa, because this one didn’t last very long. He died when The Child was just four. In his honor, she made a mural of the ocean shore — and placed, smack dab in the middle, a Grampa Cracker. A real one, glued right on.

When I was clearing out the attic to make room for the displaced City stuff that wouldn’t fit into the Ken & Barbie House, I came across this mural. When I mentioned it to Her Grown Childness, she didn’t remember making it — and, what was worse, didn’t remember “Grampa Crackers” at all. I didn’t have the courage to ask if she remembered Grampa. Maybe some day.

Amagansett, New York. September 2021

 

The House Guest Hall of Fame

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‘Entertaining is easy — with the right guests’

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a woman in possession of an extra room, must be in want of a guest. (Sorry, Jane Austen.)

When I told The Child about my plan to write about house guests (both the really great ones and the really, um, not-so-great ones), she was concerned. “Mom! What if one of the Not-So-Great Guests reads your piece and sees that you’re writing about him (or her)!” And I’m like, “So? Maybe he or she would benefit from being thusly outed.” So. Be warned. Especially if you ever stayed with me and upon leaving I said to you, “I hope you had a really nice time.”

Really great guests in a hammock. I did not ask them if they “had a really nice time.”

I first wrote about the House Guest Thing a few years ago. But somehow gremlins (or maybe scorned house guests?) ate the post. Anyway. The story somehow disappeared from my archives.

I didn’t think much about it. I had other, more pressing, things to write about. How I almost went to work in Arkansas for Wall-Mart (“My Almost Arkansas Commute”), My recipe for corn salad (“Friends, Romans, Countrymen: Lend Me Your Ears”) and so on and so forth.

Cousins hanging around waiting for corn salad

But today I waved good-bye to my Brother-In-Law Bill. Who is The Dude’s brother. Aside from a propensity for buying multiple loaves of crumb-producing bread, he’s a pretty good house guest. He doesn’t expect to be entertained. He doesn’t leave wet towels around. He doesn’t try to cook; in fact, he likes my cooking.

The Child and another Very Good Guest display one of the humongous crumb-producing loaves Bill is so fond of

Okay. Back to Jane Austen. I bet, like Bro-in-law Bill, she’d make a swell house guest. But since she’s not a possibility, I have to make do with live people. Speaking of which, my daughter and her female friends make excellent house guests. They happily (and quietly) pursue shared activities not requiring any hostess participation or even supervision. They share a bathroom, a bedroom, or even a bed, if so required. Without complaining. And without eating or drinking in said bed. Model house guests.

The Child and her friends. They did not eat in bed. Homework, maybe. But no eating

To be perfectly honest, most of my guests are, in fact, close-to-model house guests. If they weren’t, well, I wouldn’t keep inviting people to stay, now would I? It’s kind of like that thing they say about babies: if it were all that awful having them, everyone would be an only child.

Of course, even model house guests sometimes sit on the couch in wet bathing suits, or walk around with sandy and/or muddy feet, or even set wet glasses down on prized hardcover books. But that’s (sort of) okay and eminently forgivable. And kind of within the bounds of “make yourself at home.” That is, if you live in the kind of home where books serve double-duty as coasters.

Speaking of which, when your hostess says, “Make yourself at home’” (which I never do, by the way) imagine that you are at, say, your mother-in-law’s home. Would you pare your toenails in Mother Smith’s living room? Or give your spouse a scented-oil massage in her bed? Would you ever even think of dying your hair (yes, this really happened, and no, red hair dye does not come out of a chenille bath rug) in her bathroom?

These guests did not bring food. They did bring a decidedly cute baby

Oh, and then there are the guests who bring food. Now, I don’t mean a nice jar of jam or a home-baked pie (usually from a hideously-expensive farm stand, but delicious, so who’s complaining?) I mean I’ve had guests who’ve brought huge coolers and shopping bags full of provisions, as if they were going into a Cold-War bunker or on an Antarctic expedition instead of to my well-stocked Hamptons home. And these provisions are not for communal consumption. They are for themselves. It’s like they can’t trust me to provide food they can actually eat.

Another perennially great guest: my mom. Nuff said

Now, think about this. It’s kind of like taking your own food to Lutece (Nope, Lutece is gone) or, hmmm, Gramercy Tavern, or (wait!) it would be like going to Shake Shack and taking your own burger.

Speaking of bringing things. It’s not necessary, but it is polite and awfully nice when guests do. If you’re stumped for an idea, think “consumable.” You know, something that everyone can enjoy together, and that soon will be gone. Many hostesses have not only their own ideas about décor, but also short memories. They might forget to drag out and display the purple majolica soap dish or the heart-shaped rag rug (both actual gifts given to me by actual guests) the next time you spend a weekend. So think fancy olive oils in pretty bottles. The afore-mentioned jams. Chocolates. Wine. Did I say wine? When in doubt, bring wine. Just don’t keep it in your room and drink it all yourself. Which one house guest of mine did. Really.

Another great guest. Gee, I don’t have photos of the bad ones. I wonder why?

There’s an old saying (I think Steve Allen said it first) that comedy equals tragedy plus time. Which must be why Bad Guests are much funnier (after the fact) than Good Guests. All I know is they’re much more fun to write about than actually live through.

Like the guest who couldn’t sleep in the guest room because she found an ant in her bed. Or the couple who left one Sunday morning for a nice brunch, “forgetting” to take their toddler along. Or the guy who sneaked downstairs in the middle of the night to turn the pool heat to 90. Or even the pair who declared that “you don’t need to cook for us tonight because we are going to The American Hotel for dinner“ but failed to include their hosts (um, us).

Well. When these various guests waved good-bye after their respective (interminable) visits were over, I politely waved back. But did I say, “Come back again soon”? Or “It was great having you”? Or even “Thank you for coming”? Nope. I smiled sweetly and said, “I hope you had a really nice time.”

The unsaid part being, of course, “Because you are never ever coming back.”

Thank goodness (and Thanksgiving) for great guests!

Amagansett, New York. September 2021

 

August: the ‘Sunday night’ of summer

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‘The season winds down while I’m still winding up’

I was on the phone with my mother the other day, discussing the fact that most of the 2016 championship-winning Cubs players had been traded — one, my fave, Javier Baez, is now playing for the Mets — when we interrupted our solving of the world’s problems with a big…heavy…sigh.

We didn’t even need to ask each other what the sigh was for. It was August, after all.

If June is spiked with the thrill of Friday-like expectation, and July is packed with the pleasures of an endless Saturday, then August is tinged with Sunday’s bittersweet longing.

The Child and her Whitmore Grampa solve the world’s problems on an endless July afternoon

It’s like when you were a kid and you were doing your homework at the dining-room table while Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color was playing in the next room. It was Sunday night. Where on earth did the weekend go?

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The Proustian Popcorn Pan

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‘My brain explodes with salty, fluffy memories’

I mentioned last week that my One and Only Mom was moving to new digs. All went smoothly, thanks to Only Sister Laura and Oldest Younger Brother Scott, who wrestled furniture and wrangled boxes.

Heck, they even unpacked, which in my experience (most recently with our dreaded downsizing, which you can read about in ‘The Tunnel at the End of the Light’) is way way worse than packing.

Boxes ready to be unpacked in the Ken & Barbie House. (Note that I only show my own unpacked boxes)

Mom to OYB Scott while putting things away in her new closet: “I need to go shoe shopping.” OYB Scott to Mom, after opening box containing literally dozens of pairs of footwear: “Um, what about these?!” Mom: “Well, I like shoes.”

Oh, I almost forgot to mention that Youngest Younger Brother Doug, while not present for the Unpacking, played a big part in Mom’s Move too — he was one of the Intrepid Ones who sorted and boxed and toted the stuff from her Seaside apartment. (You can just glimpse him taking a much-deserved Baseball Break in the photo at the top of this post.)

A better view of Doug as he and Mom take a Scrabble Break

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On fillers and dingbats

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‘Fun facts I’ve gleaned from newspapers read aloud’

Who knew so many people keep chickens? Dude Man has a pal named Andy who has chickens. He’s always begging us to take some eggs, but we turn him down because with no little kids we could dye Easter eggs with (for example) the two of us don’t really go through that many eggs. Besides, Dude’s cousin’s son’s fiancee just gave us a dozen from her chickens.

My Favorite Sister gets ready to use up some eggs. Too bad she doesn’t live close enough to get regifted some Andy Eggs. (And for other purposes)

Our recent eggs-plosion prompted The Dude to ask just how long eggs keep. (I think he was wondering if we could reasonably accept Andy’s offer.) I didn’t know exactly, but I told him that I’d read somewhere that you can tell how fresh an egg is by putting it in water and seeing if it floats. Apparently, the older an egg is the more air it has inside it. Old eggs float.

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“And what’s your dolly’s name, Little Girl?”

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‘”Parasot,” she squeaked.’

I know you’re not supposed to have favorites among your children. I remember asking my mother who was her favorite and she would respond diplomatically, “You are all my favorites.”

Who could possibly choose a favorite from among this hot and sweaty yet adorable bunch?

Well, that question is easy for me to answer; I only have the one Child. But then there is the question of favorite nieces and/or nephews. I won’t reveal my favorites, having inherited my mother’s diplomatic nature. But, when they were all little, The Dude expressed an especial fondness for his niece Natalie, my Favorite Sister Laura’s daughter. (I can say “Favorite Sister” because she is my only sister; but I confess she would probably be my favorite if I had seven sisters.)

Me, holding my still-Favorite Sister Laura

Natalie had a doll whose name was “Meat.” I kid you not — Meat. We aunts and uncles used to get a real charge out of asking, “What’s your dolly’s name, Natalie?” and hearing her pipe up in her adorable baby-duck voice, “Meat!”

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This Christmas is going to pot (roast)

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‘It’s high time to bring back that classic.’

As I wrote in my sort-of-whiny and somewhat-navel-gazing post last week, I’ve practiced a rather opt-out attitude toward the Holidays in the past few years.

Some years my “decorating” consisted of switching the turkey napkins for the reindeer ones

I remember only too fondly and well the famous Marilyn Christmasses celebrated at my late great Gramma Peterson’s when I was a kid. Nat King Cole on the stereo. Gumdrop tree on the table. A luxurious evergreen so bushy and tall Aunt M would often have to crop it so it’d fit in the living room. (We believed her when she told us the top, complete with angel, was in the bedroom overhead.) 

A Marilyn Christmas Classic: The Cousin Lineup

After that, during Dude Man and my Early Married Years, there were the amazing Aunt Eleanor Christmasses: lobster, shrimp and, if you saved room, an incredible roast beef dinner complete with popovers. Gramma Whitmore, who made it till a week before her hundredth birthday, would hold court while Eleanor cooked, champagne glass in hand.

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Where I grew up, fish came in a stick

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‘Not that my palate is all that sophisticated now’

I had fish for dinner last night. Which means that I ate in a restaurant. (Yes, I was masked. Except when I was actually eating said fish.) See, now that I am a grownup — and a rather broken-in grownup at that — I can handle eating fish. Certain kinds of fish. Once in a blue moon. But I still can’t cook it.

Me, after having not cooked fish for dinner

See, fish was not something in my Mom’s meal rota. We had pork chops (which came with mashed potatoes and canned corn), and “Swiss Steak” (which came with mashed potatoes and peas), meat loaf (ditto), chicken (double ditto) and sometimes — because it was “good for you,” — liver (which came with creamed potatoes and green beans.)

And fish was generally not found on Midcentury Midwestern restaurant menus. I can’t remember fish appearing, like my salmon last night or my branzino last week, even in “tonight’s specials.” No, fish mostly came in a stick, battered and fried — and was primarily eaten at school lunches on Fridays as sort of a penance. Or during Lent. Ditto.

I don’t have a photo of fried fish sticks. But this one of fried chicken is much better. In many ways

In all my growing up years, I can’t recall anyone of my acquaintance — certainly not anyone in my family — saying, “Gee, Mom. Let’s have fish for supper.” No, fish was what you ate as sort of a default option.

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Lockdown with a capital “L”

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‘When my Mom did some prison time’

My Mom was a nurse when she married my Dad, and she worked for a few years at Regular Nurse Jobs.

My Mom when she got “capped,” which is like graduation for nurses

I remember when I was in kindergarten and we lived in Memphis, she worked at Methodist Hospital, which my three-year-old brother Scott mispronounced as “Memphodist.” Mom didn’t correct him; she thought it was cute. (She also didn’t correct us when we referred to the “Entire State Building.”)

Mom, with one and a half kids

Well, after a while, nursing while “momming” got to be a bit too much, so she hung up her white cap and devoted herself to bringing up us kids. 

Mom had plenty on her plate, with kids ranging from Big (me) to Little (Toddler Doug) and three more in between. That’s Middle Bro Roger sporting a muscle tee on the left

But then, after years of carpooling and band recitals and PTA, the big kids flew the coop and the little kids turned into high schoolers. And Mom found she wanted to exercise her nursing muscle once again. And earn a little coin besides.

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I don’t care what you call me, as long as you call me for dinner.

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‘Well, on second thought, maybe don’t call me “Karen”‘

Big surprise: my name isn’t actually “Lutheran Liar.” It’s Alice, a name I didn’t like much when I was a girl. Back then I wished my name was Linda or Debbie or Nancy or Sandy or Barb. Cool girl names. Cheerleader names. Girls-with-flips names. (That’s me, without a cool name, but with a reasonably-cool flip, in the picture at the top of this story.)

Instead, I got saddled with the name Alice. Which is a perfectly lovely name, really. But at the time I thought it was a “Grandma Name.” Maybe that’s because, in my case, it actually was a Grandma Name: the name of my Peterson Gramma. To add insult to name injury, my middle name was also a Grandma Name: Celia, the name of my Henry Gramma. (I couldn’t — and didn’t — do this to The Child. Her name would have been Bertha Myrna.)

My Gramma, the original-in-my-family-anyway-Alice

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