Tuesday, February 22, 2011

To Grandmother's House We Go

On nights that I can't sleep, I sometimes take a memory walk through my grandparents' house in Ashland, Ohio, on East Liberty Street. As soon as I enter the front door, I smile because of the couch: there it is in all its rose-pink glory. What a family scandal that davenport caused, and what a topic for conversation it became for years. I was so enamoured of that couch, and I couldn't wait to tell Grandma so. "Grandma, I love that couch! It's gorgeous!" I said to her as I walked in and hugged her. She looked up at me from her chair at her sewing machine--where she always was--and her eyes were positively sparking with orneriness. Holding my hands, she said, "Oh you do now, do you? Well, it's pink, anyway. There's some that don't like it so awful much. Supposed to be rose. The color, I mean." She looked a little thoughtful for a moment, then still holding both my hands, said, "Well, I'm glad you do. And the rest'll still sit on it, either way."
I don't remember who actually picked out that couch--maybe an aunt or even a decorator--but it was the boldest piece in the room. Even the red glass chandelier above the stairway (which one uncle once likened to something seen in a bordello) couldn't compare to it. As I linger in Grandma and Grandpa's living room, I am drawn to the serenity of one corner where her chair waits patiently each evening, the floor lamp hovering beside it. Here, at day's end, Grandma sits and reads her Bible like a devoted scholar of the Word. I used to watch her, quiet and careful, to see if she was getting comfort, peace, happiness, or enlightenment from this daily ritual. Each time I observed her, she seemed to be studying, learning, almost...girding. My grandmother, who saw the Reverend Billy Graham as a sort of ecclesiastical superhero, was gritty about her Bible.

As is the case with many homes, Grandma and Grandpa used their dining room for everything but dining. Theirs contained Grandpa's desk, a dark mahogany trove of drawers which seemed to contain something new and exciting every time we visited; an exquisitely carved tall writing secretary that would make an Antiques Roadshow host salivate; one of Grandma's several sewing machines (I think this is the one she won as a prize for something); an actual drop-leaf dining room table shoved up against the wall; an incredibly comfortable but noisy rocking chair which all the grandkids loved because it rocked so far back that it was almost dangerous; and a frosted glass light fixture hanging from the middle of the ceiling that all of us kids called The Wedding Cake. This light fixture was huge, looked handpainted, and did look exactly like a wedding cake. Sometimes, my little sister and I would lie on our backs just to look at it. And on one memorable visit, we found an ancient pack of cigarettes in the desk drawer.

In the kitchen is where the defining character of Grandma and Grandpa's marriage becomes clear. On any given day when we would come to visit them, we would be likely to find Grandpa washing dishes or setting out the lunch dishes (only, they called the afternoon meal "dinner"; the evening meal was "supper") or puttering at some chore or other. Grandma was invariably at her sewing machine--the primary one--in the kitchen. She had a couple of machines she used, and her Number One was a treadle machine. There it is, at the back of the kitchen behind the table, right under all the windows. Next to it is a little half-bath. Grandma's kitchen is, to me, huge. And the cupboards seem to go all the way up to the ceiling. How can they reach all the way up there? It isn't a big deal, though; all the everyday things are down low, and the Important Things For Grandchildren are stored in the lowest cabinet of all. Those things are the cookies. I can see them now: thick, brown molasses cookies and her "white" cookies made with sour cream, both soft and fat and as big around as a baby's head. Oh lord, those cookies. Some years, I was all about the brown cookies; other years, the white. And it didn't matter when we came to visit, there were always cookies! How did she do it?

It is a kitchen of Many Little Miracles. Horehound drops and pink wintergreen discs. Creamy homemade mints from my Uncle Marshall's candy shop. Pies with strange fruits like ground-cherries and elderberries and my all-time favorite, rhubarb. Pennsylvania Dutch pot pie, which isn't pie at all, but doughy dumplings and ham hocks and rich broth. Grandma and Grandpa canned everything, and we had corn that tasted like summertime, even in the grey doldrums of winter. Grandpa was famous for "cleaning up the last" of everything, leading to odd mixtures and creations on his plate. Once, Grandma scolded him for eating peanut butter and baloney, and he made a funny face at her behind her back to make us laugh.

It was decades before the idea of the Man Cave, but that's what Grandpa's basement and garage were. Downstairs, Grandpa had built himself a workshop for turning out whatever hardware was necessary for the latest of Grandma's sewing projects. For the longest time, it was fancy doll beds that Grandma was making skirts and sheets and coverlets for and selling at the Senior Citizens' Center. Grandpa made the actual beds for her to dress. Also downstairs was a sawhorse with a real saddle that we grandkids would ride to let off steam, the canning stove and equipment (perfect for playing house), and the door to the garage. We didn't go out in the garage without Grandpa, and my memory is very dim here. Stories abound, however, about Grandpa letting cider "go hard" out there. I'm not sure I believe them, partly because I can't imagine Grandpa ever being without full possession of his faculties, and partly because I can't imagine Grandma putting up with that behavior because, believe me, there was absolutely no way it could have occurred in secret.

Sometimes, if it's a particularly sleepless night, I even drift all the way up the steps with their comfortable, familiar creaks and pause in the bedroom where I used to sleep when we'd spend the night. The wallpaper is greyish blue with sprigs of dogwoods, and the bed is soft and springy. Outside, I hear the sounds of mourning doves and the occasional car as it travels the brick street, stops at the intersection, then continues up the slight hill on its way. I know the pictures on the skirted vanity--wedding pictures of my aunt, my mother, and all their attendants. I can hear the soft murmurs and laughter of the grownups down below as they talk about relatives, kids, the past, and the future. I can feel the crocheted fancywork on the end of the case as I turn my pillow to the cool side and fall asleep in the big, wide bed at Grandma's house.

Monday, February 14, 2011

How Can This Be Only February? My Tragi-Meter Points To At Least Late March, And Self-Pity Springs Eternal

Sorry to take issue with T.S. Eliot, but I'm here--barely--to tell you that it's February that is the Cruellest Month. When the weather chick gets breathless announcing that we'll climb into the mid-twenties (!!), you know things have reached Maximum Suckage And Holding.

As a result, I'm scattered and fragmented and In The Slough Of Despair, and even Walt Whitman can't lift me this time. (Especially to hear him droned and desecrated by disengaged juniors who, unless Walt has, like, a MyTwitFace presence, really, like, has, like, nothing to say, like, what page is it on again?)

Yet, I press on. Allow me to shake loose a few clingy clutterbits from my random-bin, and we'll see if anything entertains.

+:+The snow, my lord, the snow. There was absolutely nowhere else to put it, and the driveway had two inches of ice on it. Yesterday, the temperature skyrocketed to almost 40, and I was able to go outside and actually look around a little before getting into the car, which prompted this dialogue as I walked near the side of the garage:
Rick: (nonchalantly) Oh, by the way. I hit the garage over there with the snowblower.
Nance: (surveys damaged area, eyes widening, mouth agape) Oh my god! Why...well...what on earth did you expect me to...do with this...information?
Rick: (calmly, not looking at her) Process it and try to move on. And when it gets nicer out, remind me to replace those pieces of siding.
Nance: (staring at him as if he just landed on the planet) What?! Are you...? Do we even have those pieces of the siding?
Rick: (already in the car) Of course.

+:+ Somehow, Piper and Marlowe are...well, fat. On just dry cat food and water. Do not laugh. I am beyond distraught about this, and I have put them on A Diet. I bought diet cat food, and I only feed them twice a day, the recommended amount each time. No table food, and the treats they get are only 2 calories each, and they do not get them every day. Needless to say, they are Very Unhappy, and Marlowe lets me know. Often. Equally distressing is our daily session of Forced Active Play. Piper's idea of playing is to lie there and watch Marlowe play. "Wow," he seems to be saying, "that is a lot of moving around that you are doing over there." He might roll over if a toy comes near him and then bat it with his paws, and sometimes he might stroll interestedly after the laser dot, but not much beyond that. Marlowe is much more athletic, which is due, in part, to her constant and flagrant disregard for the No Cats On Counters rule. And now that she is STARVING, she is up there all the time. A couple of days ago, my brain now turned to mush by School And Snow, The Deadly Combination, I uttered this memorable admonition to her when I found her hungrily scrounging in the (clean) kitchen sink:
"Marlowe! Look at you! Get out of that sink! What are you, some kind of animal?"

+:+ Speaking of felines, Sam's new kitten Madden may have been misnamed. Kaeleigh, Sam's girlfriend, brought up the login screen for her online class and then left her laptop on the table to go get something she forgot. When she came back, Madden was waiting for her next to the computer. Kaeleigh picked up the computer, and in the login box was typed "ben." He still answers to Madden, though, so maybe it's his middle name.

+:+ Politicians have to stop saying that they trust or have faith in the wisdom of the American people. What in the hell gives them this sort of confidence when there is so much proof to the contrary? I can show you, real quick-like, 6 reasons not to have any faith at all in the collective wisdom of the average American: US Representative Michele Bachmann, Candidate Sarah Palin, television show Jersey Shore, spray cheese in a can, the re-election of Bush 43, tea party sign carriers. I could also add reality television and TLC network, really. Birthers. Kardashians. Comme des Garcons toe shoes. Make me stop. Hurry.

The winter is Endless. I can't concentrate on anything, and I have been reading the same book for eleventy weeks. It's good, but I can't read and comprehend right now. I have adult ADD. Or Seasonal ADD. Or, I am just crabby and fussy. Either way, I need...oh, crud. I don't know what I need. Be wonderful for me in Comments.

Monday, February 07, 2011

The Defender of The Language Never Rests, And She Takes Questions

This week, the Defender of The Language will be answering questions posed by irritated readers from across the globe. Let's start with Jill, from Oregon.

Hi, Defender. Like you, I find myself physically sickened by these morons who can't use the apostrophe correctly. Can you talk about the signs I see on people's houses that say things like The Taylor's and The Smith's? That's not right, is it?

Certainly I can comment regarding that. Those signs are not displaying the correct usage of the apostrophe and are, in fact, both egregious and upsetting. Unless the residents of those properties are known by a nickname like Donald Trump, who goes by "The Donald," those signs should have their apostrophes relocated. The houses are owned or occupied by all of the Taylors and Smiths; therefore, the apostrophe should reflect that and be placed at the end, thusly: The Taylors' and The Smiths'. The fact that commercial signage cannot be trusted shows in what a sad state we find Our Language. How abysmal, really.

Now let's hear from Costa in New Mexico.

Thanks, Defender, for being there and for taking my question. I know idioms are sometimes regional, but why are some people so stupid about them? For example, the idiom "cut and dried." If I hear one more person say "cut and dry," I think I'll shoot someone. Or am I the one who's wrong?

Oh, believe me when I say that I share your vast frustration. There is even a blog out there in the ether with the erroneous version of this idiom in its title. The correct idiom is indeed "cut-and-dried," and complicating matters further for lazy writers is the necessity of hyphenating it when it is used as a plain, not predicate, adjective. Sometimes, simple common sense can be useful in understanding some idioms. To say something is "cut and dry" just sounds awkward, both in tense and parallel structure. Makes me shudder.

Finally, someone calling himself ZuuZuuu in Pennsylvania writes:

Yo, Defendah! You're cool and all, but what's the big deal with spelling everything so perfect all the time and whatnot? Plus, English doesn't make sense, the way its spelling is, like, so random! Like, a double-o in "moon" is pronounced "ooh," right? So why is this sentence wrong? That girl is fat, so she needs to loose a few. Later, Big D.

It is with great restraint that the Defender of The Language will address only the issue germane to your last query and leave the myriad concerns of your...commentary for another time. Now, then. What you are really bringing to bear is the age-old Lose Vs. Loose battle that is, in a word, never-ending for those of us on the Front Lines of Language Defense. Let me just say this: In the English language, we already have a word spelled "L-O-O-S-E." It is an adjective meaning "free from restraint; unfettered, unbound" and it rhymes with other words spelled similarly, such as goose, moose, and caboose. Occasionally, the word loose can also be used as a verb, but it still means to set something free, to unfetter it, to release it from its restraints. Most usages of this are archaic or poetic. "L-O-S-E" is an active verb, and it means to fail to retain something; to come to be without an object. If you become confused because these words don't follow some sort of rules, simply accept that fact and resign yourself to the fact that part of being a mature writer is remembering a few important things on your own. Certainly that cannot be too terribly taxing, can it?

If you have a question for the Defender of the Language, leave it in Comments, or contact Nance here at the Dept. of Nance by clicking the email link in the sidebar. The Defender of the Language will respond weekly.
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