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

 

Only if the plane was on fire

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‘When Whitmores say something is “exciting”‘

There’s a scene in one of my favorite Woody Allen movies (I’m thinking it’s Annie Hall) where Woody’s character asks his date to name her favorite sport. She says “swimming”, and Woody says, “Swimming? Swimming’s not a sport. Basketball’s a sport. Swimming is what you do when the boat sinks!”

Well, Woody, I hear you. I feel similarly about parachute jumping. I can think of absolutely no scenario where I would jump out of a plane. Unless it was on fire — and I’m not sure I’d do it even then.

Obviously The Child feels differently. There is photographic evidence (see the shot at the top of this post) of her smiling while she’s jumping out of a plane. And guess what? She did it again a few years later with a bunch of work buddies.

Not sure if this was before or after that second jump. Those could be smiles of relief — or terror

Anyway. I bring all this up because The Child never ceases to amaze me with her daring. Though, honestly, I shouldn’t be surprised when she does stuff like jump out of planes, leap off cliffs, swing from trapezes, or face off with large animals. She is, after all, a Whitmore.

The Child, outstanding (er, squatting) in her field: staring down danger

Now, some of you are no doubt protesting, “Hey, you’re a Whitmore!” But I am a Whitmore only by marriage. The Child’s Whitmoreness flows through her very veins.

Are Whitmores daring by nature? Well, let me just say that this is a family where a Whitmore Mom (our beloved Aunt Eleanor) would drive her small sons and their equally small cousin (Wayne, the future Dude) out into the Montauk woods and drop them off to fish and camp on their own. She’d return in a day or two and toot the horn, never worrying for a second that they wouldn’t come running. And this was when they were, oh, eight or nine years old. 

As you can see, these Whitmore cousins, seen here at around the age they camped solo, weren’t afraid of (shudder) snakes either

Don’t get me started with snakes. I’ve written whole pieces devoted to the Whitmores’ reptilian fascination. (You can read a really slithery/funny one called “The Year of the Snake”, if you are so inclined.)

Let’s just say that, early on in our relationship, I learned that when a Whitmore says something is “exciting” and asks if you want to participate in said “exciting” activity, you should always always shake your head ruefully and say that, unfortunately, it’s your day to wash your hair or brush the cat or paste in Green Stamps. Anything, anything but join in on something “exciting”.

If your Whitmore Friend jumps off a cliff, should you jump too? Not if you don’t want to break a vertebra. Which that guy up there on the right did

I learned this when The Dude asked if I wanted to go for a Hobie Cat ride. “Sure!” I inanely said, not stopping to think that a catamaran ride on the ocean with a Whitmore would be any scarier than a ride on a lake with my Middle Younger Brother Roger. After the ride, when I remarked, breathless and wet, that I was “afraid we were going to turn over there for a sec”, and The Dude answered “I was trying to tip over” — well, let’s just say that I learned the true meaning of the Whitmore term “exciting”.

Yup. That’s The Child. (The one wearing a top and dangling)

I bring all this up because The Child just completed yet another “exciting” adventure: she hiked a 220-mile section of the Pacific Crest Trail (called the John Muir Trail). It took her 20 days, and she did it alone.

The Child, with just a bunch of rocks for company, somewhere along the John Muir Trail. It’s a selfie, of course

I wasn’t rigid with fear (well, not rigid, anyway) because we could follow her progress every day via the wonders of satellite tracking. But even without GPS, I like to think I wouldn’t have worried too much. She’s a pretty capable kid. And besides, I had plenty of wine on hand.

We could even “see” where she was with aerial views like this one where she’s camped by a frozen lake

She made it to the end of the trail and capped off her achievement with a nighttime hike to the top of Mt. Whitney, which she reached in time to watch the sunrise.

Speaking of “made it to the end”, I think I’d better wrap this up and go get some coffee myself. But before I go, here’s a couple of examples of the kinds of “exciting” things I’ve been dealing with this summer.

Amagansett, New York. August 2019

“Why do you want to know?”

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‘How to deftly handle the odd impertinent query’

When I first moved to New York, there were quite a few things that took some getting used to. But the most startling thing wasn’t the garbage trucks clanking away at five AM or the fact that a “regular coffee” comes with cream and sugar — or even that panhandlers sometimes panhandle with cats on their heads. (See “The Cat is The Hat” for hilarious details.)

Wombat, who looks exactly like the cat in “The Cat is The Hat”, perched not on my head

No, the most startling thing was the way New Yorkers were so preoccupied with how much things cost. “How much rent do you pay?” “What did that Jag set you back?” (not that I had a Jag, mind you). Even (gasp) “How much money do you make?” And it hasn’t stopped. Now that I’m no longer gainfully employed I get “How much do you have in your IRA?”

Me, when I was promoted to Vice President at Ogilvy and started making “none of your beeswax” per year

Why, when you compliment a friend with a “nice skirt” or a “wow, I just love your coat” she won’t go “Oh, this old thing?” or “This? I’ve had this for years” like a Midwesterner. No, she’ll tell you how much it cost — with emphasis on how little she paid for it. “This? Oh, this I got at Loehmann’s — on the sale rack. The once-yearly clearance sale rack. Also, it was Loyalist Day. Plus I used my Aunt’s employee discount. And had it sent to my Mom’s in New Jersey so I didn’t pay sales tax.”

Feel free to compliment The Child and/or her Gal Pal. They won’t tell you how much they paid for those party outfits — because they get them from Rent the Runway

By the time she gets done it sounds like the store paid her to take the darned thing. Which actually does happen in New York sometimes. But not to me. (Though I did score some pretty choice free items from advertising shoots. Like a Gucci suit that was used in a Pantene commercial. Seriously. It fit me — brag brag — so Wardrobe let me take it home.)

But I digress.

Back in the Midwest, where — and when — I was raised, it was considered incredibly crass to discuss money in what was called “polite company”. Sex and/or religion, too. Oh, and no politics either, at least not at the dinner table. And, unless you were a census taker or an employee of the DMV, you certainly didn’t ask anyone, especially a woman, her age.

My mom and I at my first wedding. At the time, I was almost exactly half her age. Which is so not the case today

The title of this piece is the reply that my wise — and polite — mother used to give when Some Person Who Didn’t Know Any Better would ask, “Myrna, how old are you?” She would smile sweetly and reply, “Why do you want to know?” Which would usually nip that line of inquiry right in the ole bud.

Now me, I’ve reached an age that nobody ever even asks me about anymore. No, well-meaning people just assume that I’m entitled to the Senior Citizen Discount. But I still have my little payback strategies. I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned this one before, but what the heck. Nowadays, when a Nice Young Person offers me a seat on the bus or subway, I smile sweetly, look down at my tummy, and say, “Oh! Am I showing already?”

Amagansett, New York. July 2019

 

“What’s that smell?”

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‘There’s something rotten in the State of Illinois’

It rained this Easter. Which wasn’t really a problem, not for me anyway, since I don’t have any little kids to take on an Easter Egg Hunt. (More’s the pity.)

But I remember very well, being the Oldest Kid and all, what happened one time when it rained on our, er, Easter Parade.

But first, a word about Easter.

My family was Lutheran. Which is sort of like being Catholic, but stripped-down and rather basic — kind of like the black-wall tire of religions, or like being the Catholic B-Team. We were jealous of our cousins who were Catholic and enjoyed the full-on religious package; they got to have First Communion and wear fancy dresses and patent leather mary janes and hats with (gasp) veils and get sprinkled with Holy Water. They even got to kneel. (When you’re seven, you think kneeling is incredibly cool.)

I remember that purse. I loved that purse; I distinctly remember putting my collection envelope in there — and (gasp) am I wearing a hat?

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“While we’re still young”

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‘When it comes to age, everything is relative.’

My Favorite Younger Sister Laura (at left above, smiling and be-hatted) has a lot going on and is often in a hurry. When someone dawdles, say, at a traffic light that has just turned green — or spends too much time chatting up the checkout girl at Costco, she is wont to mutter “while we’re still young”.

She does this so often that when her adorable daughter Natalie was only about two, she would parrot her, much to our amusement.

But, amusement aside, “while we’re still young” has begun to resonate with me, and not just at traffic lights.

See, we helped The Child celebrate her birthday last week. And I realized that she is now the same age I was when I pulled up my socks and moved myself to New York City. This was a pretty brave thing for me to do at the time. (And yes, there’s a story, called “Take a Letter, Miss Henry”.) I didn’t know a soul here, but I decided I needed to get my Ad Career into gear before I got too old.  Continue reading

We drink milk, and we don’t own a cow

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‘How I narrowly escaped a life in Florida’

Last week I had a birthday. Which is all well and good, especially since I am rather fond of drinking champagne and having people sing to me. But I’ve gotten to the age where it feels like every week I’m having another darned birthday. The pages on my calendar seem to be flashing by like one of those flip books.

It doesn’t help matters that my friends are moving to Florida. They’re buying golf clubs and boats and condos with a spare room for the grandkids. Why, just last week we bridge buddies bade good-bye to one of our number who was moving to some place called Jupiter. It’s a place in Florida, not a planet. Though it might as well be, since she won’t be able to make our weekly bridge games.

Visiting friends in Florida a couple of years ago. We were there for — you guessed it — a birthday

Now don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against Florida. Well, except for the fact that there are no sidewalks, people bank their turns in their huge boatlike cars, and there are bugs big as dogs. I’m sure Florida has some fine qualities. In fact, what with all those friends fleeing southward it’s starting to look kind of good to me. Continue reading

I have never bought a couch

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‘Does this mean that I am no longer The Grownup?’

It’s bad enough when your Child ends up being six inches taller than you. (Stern maternal finger-wagging somehow loses its force when directed upward.) But then said Child ends up making way more money than you. (Granted, I am no longer employed. So there’s that.) And ends up collecting way more stamps in her passport. (The kid has been to Mongolia, for pete’s sakes.) 

But no matter. That tall, employed, well-traveled woman is a person whose nose (not to mention other body parts) I have wiped. I could be in the same room with her and still look myself in the eye and say “Hey, I’m the Grownup.”

But then she bought a couch.

And it’s not just a couch. It’s a sleeper sofa, for heaven’s sakes

And I, a much older person — and her mother — have never bought a couch. 

[Quick note here. Last night I read the beginning of this piece to The Dude, and he totally doesn’t get my point. Maybe you don’t either. Which means you can stop reading if you want. (But then you’d miss some cool couch pictures.) But I had always heard that the true mark of GrownupHood was to buy a couch. And, no, I’m not the only person who thinks so.] 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

Friends, Romans, Countrymen: Lend me your ears

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‘And I’ll show you how to make Corn Salad’

“Leftover corn? What’s that?” Would be what any member of the Henry Clan would say if you offered to share this recipe.

Because, when I was growing up, there simply wasn’t any corn left over after we were done attacking a big ole platter of ears.

Each of us could pack away more than one could imagine a normal child could consume. But it was my Oldest Younger Brother Scott who was the Corn Champion. His capacity for corn was so prodigious that my Grampa Peterson said Scott’s middle name should be “Sweet Corn”, and actually used to refer to him—in the summertime, anyway, when the corn was at its peak and Scott would eat the most—as “Scott Sweet-Corn Henry”.

The guy who dubbed my brother “Scott Sweet-Corn Henry”, my beloved pipe-smoking Grampa P

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“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

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