Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Date Me

No, not that kind of date.

I took one of those goofy online quizzes the other day, one that was supposed to guess my age based on my responses. The test guessed I was 24. Hell, my kids are older than that!

It got me thinking - it really is easy to date a person, based on their slang as well as their social literacy.

For instance, say "Wood or wire?" to many of my high school friends and they'll instantly picture Anne Bancroft's Mrs. Robinson throwing Benjamin Braddock into a stammering mass of nerves. From the same movie, "You're missing a great effect!" (I saw The Graduate seven times in a row - I still can recite most of it by heart.)

The movies we watched, the books we read, the music we listened to, the makeup and clothes we wore - these things firmly place my contemporaries and I in the 1960s. I was swept up in the tide of Beatlemania and the British Invasion when I was eleven or twelve, and I'm still loyal to those bands today. At the time, despite the Kennedy assassination - all the assassinations - despite Viet Nam and the Establishment railing against long hair and short skirts, it was still a magical time. There was something in the air, a sense that, as Dylan said, the times they were a-changing. We thought it was the greatest decade ever.

Bell bottoms are laughed at now but I loved my bells and they were very comfortable, too. I craved Yardley's Marty Quant-themed make-up, as modeled by Jean Shrimpton, and whenever I had a little money I'd rush over to Jewel and buy a lipstick or eyeshadow. I can still remember what those Slicker lipsticks tasted like!

My youth was also framed by advertising jingles and songs from TV shows: the Mickey Mouse Club theme song, "It's Howdy Doody Time," "Flintstones, meet the Flintstones, they're a modern stone-age family...", dum-de-de-dum Bon-an-za! (I liked Adam best, how about you?) and right along with that, "See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet...", and then there was the Oscar Meier Weiner Whistle and Charlie Tuna and Trix are for kids, and how many others??

I still have fond memories of the Sixties, but the slang? Did we really say things like feeling groovy, psychedelic, It's a gas (as in "Jumping Jack Flash, it's a gas, gas, gas"), far out, outta site, what a drag, etc? Oh yes, we did. There was a whole vocabulary tied to the suburban weed culture - as in marijuana, not the more hard core drugs: words like head shop, roach, doobie, toke and more. 

We didn't drink beer or wine (unless you count Boone's Farm) - the cocktail du jour was a Harvey Wallbanger. That drink - or the Galliano liqueur used in the recipe - made me gag. I can't stomach cilantro, and, to me, Galliano was like cilantro in alcoholic form. I remember a friend squeezing the remains of her Harvey Wallbanger from a rag-rug back into her glass after spilling it. (I was more of a Southern Comfort girl - I favored Southern Comfort Sours, but I don't think I would have squeezed one from a rug.)

What drives me nuts is my inability to shed the slang I learned as a child - and "drives me nuts" is one of those phrases. Luckily, "neato" and "keeno" bit the dust around the time I started junior high, but "cool" is still with me. And now "awesome," a word from my kids' high school years, has latched onto my vocabulary, too.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. (The more things change, the more they stay the same.)Where we had jocks and greasers, the cliques at my kids' school were geeks, skaters, goths and others I can't recall. When my granddaughter reaches high school age, cliques will still be around, I'm sure, but with different names to define them. 

How about you? What dates you? What slang words have stuck from your childhood, and what jingles can you still sing with the slightest prompting? I've got a Howdy Doody earworm stuck in my head now - please, give me another tune to focus on!

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

House of Cats - Part Four, "Pick Two"

Well, it was fun while it lasted but, if you recall, my parents weren't all that excited about getting ONE cat, much less 17 or so. The day finally came where they said, "That's it - you can pick two cats. No more." It felt like Sophie's Choice, Cat Edition. Anya was my cat - I had to keep him. And Chelsea was mom to so many of the kittens, and she was a total sweetheart. And Dickens was so cuddly, as was Tiffany, and Sammy had always been a favorite of mine.

All-in-all, it seemed like a much better idea to place the cats we couldn't keep in loving homes rather than to take them to a shelter. So my brothers and sisters and I had a crash course in sales and marketing. Did you live in Elk Grove Village in the late 1960s? Did you get a cat during that time? If so, odds are your cat was related to ours.

We made posters, we spread the word to our friends and their families, to every family I babysat for, to everyone we went to school with. There were five of us Villars kids, and we swept through town with our cats like a furry tornado. The white cats were gorgeous so they were our first line of attack. We found homes for most of them. I'm not sure how many cats we found homes for altogether, but in the end we still had to take some to the shelter. (I can't remember for sure, but I really, really hope it was a no-kill shelter.) We kept Anya and Sammy and if I'd had a place of my own, I would have kept Chelsea, Tiffany and Dickens, too. Our only consolation was that Chelsea was so sweet and pretty, and Tiffany and Dickens were so cute and cuddly, we hoped people visiting the shelter wouldn't be able to resist them.

Odessa, from the first litter, went back to Mrs. Petersen, whose Siamese cat was Anya's mother. As I recall, Odessa lived a long life. I'd love to hear from any Elk Grove people who adopted our kittens. I hope they all had good homes and brought happiness to their owners, like Anya and Sammy brought to us.

Since then, I've had two kids, one granddaughter, one dog, two gerbils, one hamster, two rabbits, and many cats: Pudgie, Benjie, Tiffany Annie aka Baby LoLo, Tiger, Stephanie, Casper and Charlie. My brothers and sisters have had many cats and dogs, too. But none of us have ever topped the number of cats we had in 1968 to 1970. We've also provided shelter for a couple of possums and several generations of raccoons, as well as a number of deer. There have been snakes and moles, too, but not by choice.

Speaking for my brothers and sisters as well as for myself, I'm confident that dogs and cats will always be a part of our lives. The more, the merrier!

House of Cats - Part Three, Tiffany and More

So, if you're keeping count, the House of Cats isn't too crazy at this point. We had Anya, the father, Chelsea, the mama, and the four kittens from the first litter, which included Dickens and Sammy. Six cats - no biggie, right?

We had no freaking clue. We didn't rush to get Anya fixed because we didn't think Chelsea could get pregnant again so quickly. Guess what? She could. And this time she got REALLY big - so big, she had to walk downstairs sideways, taking one step at a time. She had seven kittens this time around. We made a bed for Chelsea and her kittens in an old Samsonite suitcase and kept it at the foot of my bed.

A few days later, some jerk tossed a kitten from his car as he drove past an elementary school - the same elementary school my younger brother and sisters attended, as it happens. My sisters smuggled it home and begged me to hide it. "Just put it in with the other kittens," they said. "Mom and Dad will never notice."

Well, um, it's just possible a kitten that's about 7 weeks old might stand out from day old kittens, especially since the New Kid was a tiger cat and the new batch were a mix of white, gray, and dusty gray-and-white cats with vaguely Siamese markings. But, what the heck? Who was going to notice one more kitten? So we kept her. We named the new kitten Tiffany. Because she wasn't quite weaned, Tiffany loved to snuggle up and massage us with her paws while she "nursed" our shirts - she liked the guys' sweaty t-shirts the best! Because she was so cuddly, Tiffany quickly became a favorite.

Tiffany and me and my 18th birthday cake

Tiffany complaining to me about my picture-taking

Dickens trying to open the screen door

Dickens, still trying to open the screen door, and Tiffany

The cat count, as you may have noticed, has gone up significantly. Anya and Chelsea and the original four kittens make six, plus the seven kittens from the second litter, plus Tiffany equals fourteen. But it doesn't end here...because we still hadn't gotten Anya neutered at this point. And, who knew? Kittens can get pregnant as young as six months.

Yep, shortly after Chelsea gave birth to her second litter, the females from her first litter (which turned out to be three of the four) started giving birth to their own kittens. Because they were so young, presumably, none had more than one kitten, and none of their kittens survived for more than a few days. But for those few days, our house was pure cat CHAOS. Chelsea would take her kittens and hide them in the cabinet where we kept bread. Her mama-kittens would steal her kittens, hide them somewhere else, and then put their kittens in with the bread. 

Three things happened around this time. We had Anya fixed, finally. And my brother Thom used some creative carpentry to build a multi-story cat house in our two-car garage. The third thing? I started dating Marty Davis, a dog-owner who had no experience with cats and wasn't all that thrilled by the idea of cats. I'll never forget the first time he came over. First of all, there were my sisters, perfectly comfortable running around the house in bikinis while my youngest brother, Russ, nearly died of embarrassment when Marty saw him in his Jockeys and a Batman cape, running around and singing the Batman theme song at the top of his lungs. Marty had a brother the same age as Russ so he wasn't too surprised by the whole Batman thing. But he turned beet red when my giggling sisters ran past him.

And then someone opened the door from the garage into the house...

As Marty describes it, at that point a wall of cats poured through the door, taking off in every direction. I wish we had a movie camera back then - I would have loved to capture that on film!

House of Cats - Part Two, Chelsea and Sammy

Nowadays, when we get a cat we get him or her neutered. Back when I was in high school, neutering was expensive so Anya retained all his parts.

We lived in Elk Grove Village, Illinois when Anya became part of the family, and it was the winter of his second year when my sisters, Connie and Laura, brought home a raggedy white cat they'd found in the snow. My parents did NOT want any more cats, but this poor thing was pitiful - her fur was falling out in chunks, leaving her scrawny body unprotected from the cold. My parents were outnumbered five to two, so we took her in. We named her Chelsea (or rather I named her - I always had a thing for names and I was oldest, so I claimed the right to name her). We took her to our vet, Dr. Kelly, who determined she had food allergies rather than some horrible form of mange. He prescribed Science Diet and, voila, within a very short time we had a gorgeous pure white cat with a coat like silk. Sadly, I haven't been able to find a single picture of Chelsea. Film and developing were expensive back then, so I didn't take a lot of pictures. I'll keep checking. She was a real beauty.

Presumably Anya liked his new companion, because we very quickly noticed Chelsea's belly growing...and growing...and growing. We were staying at my grandparents' house in Evanston when the kittens were born. My grandmother - NOT a cat person - was convinced Anya would eat the newborns. I spent the night in my uncle's basement bedroom, and Chelsea's four kittens were born in bed with me, without incident. Two were white - Columbine and Odessa, one was a mottled gray (Dickens) and one was ginger (Sammy). The white kittens were albino and, as is apparently common with albino cats, they were deaf. Dickens was the sweetest little thing and Sammy won my heart by climbing my jean clad legs with his teensy claws.

I claimed Sammy, who lived 22 years. When my daughter took in two kittens a few years ago, she named the ginger one Sammy in honor of the Sammy she'd met as a toddler.

A quick note: these events happened about 40 years ago, and I'm not sure my memory is reliable about some things. For example, was Odessa white or orange-striped? Was Dickens in the first litter or the second? What were the names of all the white cats? Maybe my brothers and sisters can fill in these details - they're all younger than I am, after all!

My daughter Jessica with Aunt Connie and Sammy

Jessica's Sammy

Sammy at around 20 years old

House of Cats - Part One, Anya

Over the years, I've had a lot of cats. Right now I have two - Casper, age 17, and Charlie, age 4. When I was growing up, I always wanted a cat but my mom wasn't crazy about the idea. Finally, when I was about 16, I got my chance. My mom's best friend, Isabell Petersen, had a Siamese cat. A black-and-white tom who lived on the street behind us got involved and suddenly Isabell had a very pregnant cat. My mom said - hurray! - I could have one of the kittens. I bought a red plastic food dish and with sparkly nail polish, I wrote the name of my kitten-to-be: Anastasia Shana Elisabeth. I loved that name!

Before long, the kittens were born. I chose a black-and-white one (who proved our guess as to the father). When I took her to the vet, though, I discovered I'd made a mistake - my kitten was a boy! I shortened Anastasia to Anya and decided that name would work for a male cat.

Right from the start, Anya was unique. He had a funny cry - part bark, part Siamese yowl - and he was very sociable. I regularly babysat for neighbors who acted in Masque and Staff, a local theater group. When Anya was a few months old, they started casting a play called "Everybody Loves Opal." It featured a cat - Mr. Tanner - and Anya won the part.

Anya posed for an 8x10 glossy photograph that was displayed along with all the other cast members photos. (I still have that photo and once I remember where I put it, I'll share it here.) Anya even had a write-up in the program:

Anya lived for more than 20 years, staying with my parents when I got married and moved to England. But Anya's story doesn't end here, not by any means. Check back for Part 2 of the House of Cats!

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Power of Speech

Looking back over the vast expanse of 62 years, I don't really remember when my brothers and sisters were learning to speak. I doubt I was struck by the magic of emerging language skills when I was a kid myself, but I do remember how excited I was when my own kids began to speak. Walking and talking are the biggies - life is not the same once babies master these skills.

My granddaughter, Adaline, started walking on September 1, 2013- now she thinks it's funny to crawl around like a baby. She likes to bounce up on her toes and she tries to jump, but she hasn't reached lift-off yet.

We're a family of talkers, so it's not surprising she's already talking a blue streak - my daughter was the same way, and my son talked pretty early, too. My daughter was the chatterbox but he held his own.

I've been looking forward to Adaline talking - I want to know what's going on in her head. Pretty early on she made it clear she wanted to know what everything was called. She'd go through books and point at things. Gradually, she started going through those books, pointing at the pictures and saying the names of each animal and/or object herself.

She loves exciting moments in books - THE NAPPING HOUSE is a favorite, and her favorite scene is the one where the bed breaks and the animals (especially the cat) fly through the air. She likes the scene in THE CAT WHO WANTED TO FLY when Maggie the witch tells Midnight the cat he is too little to go on her broomstick. "No, no, no," Adaline tells the kitty in a very firm voice. She loves the scene in ROOM ON THE BROOM where the fire-breathing dragon appears, chasing the witch. "Yikes!" she screams, and quickly turns the page where the dragon gets his come-uppance.

What is surprising to me is how quickly she's trying to say multi-syllable words. She carries around her much-loved wooden alligator pull-toy, hugging him and saying, "Ay-gator!" She leads me down the hall, saying, "Evator!" (elevator) and shrieks when she sees a "hechopter" (helicopter) go by.

She was slow to give us names but now I'm "Gama" and Marty is either "Bapa" or "Gampa" - he answers to both. She can say both "Mommy" and "Kim" and "Daddy" and "Jon", and she says "Jeca" and "Jeshie" for Auntie Jessica. Her dog, Winston, she calls by his full name: "Winston Chu-chill" and she loves to call the cats. The two at my house are "Cabber" (Casper) and "Char-char" (also Chow-wee) (Charlie) and at Jessica's house there's Mou-Mou (Mouse) and Jammie (Sammie).

Food is another interesting category of words. She likes "pizz-e-a" and "nacks" (snacks). Auntie Jessica has some chocolate kitty cats in her fridge that have been there since Christmas. Yesterday Adaline tugged on Jessica's finger and said, "C'mon, choc-lit!" and pulled her to the fridge.

She loves a particular episode of Curious George that features a skunk, so "Pee-uw!" is a favorite word. She was concerned about a sleepover episode of Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood - she still likes the show, but she points to the TV and says, "Scary!" (pronounced "Sca-wee") when it comes on now. She has trouble saying Great-Grandma and Great-Grandpa so she's learning to say their real names now. She can clearly say the name of her young aunt Cecilia, though!

The word we hear most is "Baaaaby!" - she does love her babies! I thought she was saying my name once, but she wasn't saying "Becke", she was saying "Bankie" (blankie). She's mastered - sort of - the names of many animals (birdie, ho-sie, cow, pony, huppo, turtle, guck, squi-yul and so on). I'm a little sad because she's learned to say "doggie" instead of "goggie", which is one reason I'm writing this. Before long she'll be speaking so clearly it will be easy to forget Adaline's first attempts at speech. She's growing up so quickly, one day she'll be asking what her first words were. I'm afraid I'll forget!

The words we were most excited about she said to her grandpa the other day. "Bye, gampa," she said, "Love you!" We're excited about "please" and "thank you," too, but "love you" is definitely the best!

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Through the Eyes of a Child

My granddaughter, Adaline, is 20 months old - almost 21 months. In the past few weeks both empathy and imagination have kicked in, moving her irrecovably from the realm of baby to toddler. This picture was taken on Easter Sunday - her poor nose shows the signs of a tumble she took the other day.

It started when she had a check-up and got three shots. I don't think the shots bothered her nearly as much as the bandaid covered gauze the doctor placed on her leg. When I went to change her diaper, she saw the gauze and freaked out. "Yucky, yucky," she screamed. Then, tugging at the bandaid, "Stuck, stuck!" My daughter handled the situation by quickly removing the bandaid (I'm using this term generically) and gauze. Adaline is very vocal about "bangaids" - she's not having them in any way, shape or form. We bought some with cute dolly-type pictures on them to see if we could change her mind. No way - she loves stickers, but now she's dubious about these "sticker" bangaids, too. She has become fascinated with an old Golden Book that embodies her worst fears - EVERYONE has owies and bandaids in DOCTOR DAN, THE BANDAGE MAN:

The trauma set in when Adaline noticed the arms had fallen off my nearly 60-year-old Ideal Saucy Walker doll, Melissa Kay. Melissa is made of plaster and her arms were connected by metal hooks and an industrial-strength rubber band. The rubber band broke some time ago, but I had managed to keep her arms attached with tight fitting doll clothes. Adaline has fallen in love with Melissa Kay, and the more love she gives the old doll, the more Melissa falls apart. Adaline was already concerned because Melissa's arms moved around inside the sleeves, but when I made the mistake of changing her clothes, Adaline saw the hole where the arm was supposed to go. "Broken, broken! Doctor, doctor," she hollered, and continued to holler it repeatedly all afternoon. Until I find a doll hospital, I'm trying to redirect Adaline's interest to other dolls. But the die was cast.

Two weeks ago, repairs started on a leak in the hallway of our 1920s building. It's outside our condo, just across from the elevator. Adaline wasn't too worried by the banging when the workmen cut a hole in the wall to fix the leak - the noise didn't bother her. When we walked to the elevator, though, it was a different story. She looked at the hole with an expression of sheer panic. "Uppy, uppy," she yelled, practically leaping into my arms. "Carry, carry!"

When the workmen came back, I took her into the hall so she could watch them work. She was very interested in their tools and sat on the floor, almost hypnotized, as they worked on the hole. I walked to the elevator with Adaline and her mommy and daddy later that day. She waved good-bye to me and then waved again. "Bye-bye, hole!"

When she arrived the next day, she was worried again. She greeted me with, "Broken, broken! Hole, hole!" Several times during the day, she took my hand and said, "C'mon! Hole!" We would troop into the hall (where the workman had left the pipes exposed, presumably so the hole could dry out) and Adaline would plonk down in front of it and just stare. Occasionally she'll say, "Pipe, pipe," and show us that the pipes aren't hot. Mostly, she looks worried.

Today, when she took my husband out to visit the hole, she picked up BEAR SNORES ON, a book she has enjoyed since she was little(r). She turned to a picture of the bear's dark cave and then pointed to the hole. I hope the publisher won't mind if I share this picture, so you can see for yourself:

This is Adaline and her friend, the hole in the wall:


One of these days, the hole will be fixed. I'm afraid the lack of a hole will be just as upsetting to her as the "broken" wall was when she first saw it. Will she worry that the snoring bear has been sealed up in the wall? Will she look at the smooth wall and think of "bangaids"? It's hard for an adult to master child-speak, in part because their reality does not always match ours. And as good as my imagination is, I must admit that it wouldn't have occurred to me to worry about the hole in the wall. 

Will she still say "Bye-bye, hole" when the wall is fixed? I hope she will!