Saturday, March 30, 2013

Remembering My Grandparents' House

Eight months ago, give or take a few days, I became a grandmother. I babysit for that little sweetheart every weekday, and I LOVE the way she smiles when she comes through the door. I don't know if it will always be this way, but right now Grandma and Grandpa's house means FUN!

Adaline meets Grandpa
Adaline has a routine with her grandpa (who is one of her favorite people in the whole world) where he takes her around the living room. She greets the gnomes on top of the bookcase, squeals at the picture of her daddy's cousins and points out "Mama, Dadadadadaaaa" and herself and Uncle Nick in another picture. She also loves a very old picture of "Becky and Tommy" although I'm certain she has no idea that little girl in the picture is her grandma!

A different picture of Tommy (now Thom) and Becky (now Becke) 

The other day we drove through Evanston, and I had trouble remembering the cross streets that led to my grandparents' house. They lived on Lawndale Avenue for about 40 years, and I spent a lot of time there when I was a kid. I have some very random memories of that house.

The house was a bungalow, with concrete steps up to the front door. The first level of steps (four, as I recall) were easy to jump from - no challenge to me or my younger brothers and sisters. Up by the front door, though, there was a concrete "shelf" considerably higher up. Jumping off of THAT to the sidewalk below definitely earned points with the siblings. I don't like heights, but I jumped from that "shelf" more times than I can count.

My grandmother came from New England, and she had definite ideas about how kids should behave. She had an attic packed to the rafters with all kinds of cool things, and yet she wouldn't let us play up there. The basement was allowed, but to my mind, it wasn't nearly as exciting. Looking back, though, I remember a few things about the basement that intrigued me:

*My grandfather had a couple ping-pong tables situated under Gro-lights, where he grew begonia cuttings in vermiculite.

*He had a bomb shelter-slash-pantry in the basement, filled with old canned goods and drying bulbs that he forced every spring, mainly narcissus and hyacinths.

*There weren't many toys around the house, but there WERE some Big Little Books that belonged to my uncle Jim, who was only ten years older than me. My grandmother suspected they were valuable, though, and didn't like us to play with them. (Which made those books all the more attractive to us!)

*I don't remember my grandfather ever building anything, but there was a workshop in the back of the basement with a work table and some interesting tools. I was fascinated with the heavy metal vice - I'm amazed I never used it as a thumb screw on my siblings!

*My uncle Jim had a bedroom sectioned off near the work table. My favorite thing about the room was a painting hanging over the bed of a big old train. The train's headlights were trained on the door, and every time I walked into the room I shivered, feeling like the train was going to jump off the wall and run me down.

*I remember my grandparent's bedroom best the way it was when I was a little kid. The curtains were patterned with big cabbage roses, a pattern I've always loved. My grandfather would pull a book down from his closet shelf and show me his silver certificate dollar bills. It seemed like hidden treasure to me! On hot summer mornings he would make us each a bowl of blueberries with milk and sugar, a treat that stills makes me think of childhood summers.

*My grandmother collected china and her table was always beautifully set. When she made pancakes, the syrup was never poured from a bottle - it was warmed up and served in a moose-shaped creamer. To me the moose = syrup, but for some reason my grandmother put vinegar in it once. I poured it on my pancakes and, embarrassed to criticize her cooking, choked them down until someone else complained. I can still remember the taste of vinegar-soaked pancakes, which is probably why I rarely eat pancakes these days.

*My uncle Dave was in the Navy when I was young, but Jim was a teenager, and he was often stuck babysitting for me. I was thrilled to be taken along on his dates, and if he was upset at being saddled with me, he didn't show it. Jim's bedrooms changed as I grew up - for awhile the middle bedroom was his, then the room on the back porch, and then the basement.

The middle bedroom held the secrets. The wallpaper was patterned like wagon wheels, and when I was supposed to be taking a nap one day I noticed Jim had written letters between the spokes of several wheels. I loved mysteries, and I assumed the letters were a secret code. They were, in a way. He'd written the names of all his girlfriends between the wheel spokes. I seem to recall earning money by hinting about the secrets of the wallpaper whenever he brought a girl to the house.

*In the living room was a grand piano my grandmother played regularly. She and my grandfather, who was a notable tenor, sang duets. They had a Lerner & Lowe songbook I memorized back in the day, although my piano playing skills never went much beyond "Heart and Soul." There was also a big white fireplace with bookcases on either side. Before I could read, I'd look for the red book with the gold crescent moon on the side, and pull it out so my grandfather could read Br'er Rabbit to me.

*My grandfather liked to have a fire going even in spring, and after my grandmother's big meals he would flop down on the carpet in front of the fire and take a nap. The first time I brought Marty - my future husband - to the house, I neglected to tell him about my grandfather's naptime habit. He was appalled when we all moved into the living room after dinner. My grandfather was sprawled on the floor and everyone just kept talking and stepping around him.

Marty gasped and caught my arm, gesturing to the floor. "Your grandfather..." he choked. "He's..." "Sleeping," I said. And then felt my face turn bright red when I realized what he'd thought. Oh well, we are a strange family. It's probably a good thing he learned that early on.

My grandfather in a hat my parents brought back from China

*I still remember the neighbors - Dr. Hedge, who had a beautiful Annabelle hydrangea at the corner of his house, the Rockefellows a few houses down, my friends Linda Smith and Jeannie Hamer.

We never did find Lawndale Avenue when we were driving around. Maybe it's for the best. It's always weird to go by the houses from our youth and see someone else living there.

Monday, March 18, 2013

This WAS Me - a Long, Long Time Ago

Sometime in my youth I was given a book called THIS IS ME, copyright 1956 by Polly Webster. While searching for some tax papers I needed the other day, I came across this book. (Normally my papers are organized, but our move last year changed all that.) I wrote in this book, according to my pencil notations, when I was 8, 10, 11 1/2, 12, 13 1/2, 14, 17, 20 and 43 years old. It's intended as a sort of diary, but I'm not surprised to see additional notations by my little sister Laura and Kerry, who was my best friend back in the day. (We're still friends now but we don't see each other very often.) 

Me at about age 8 - sadly lacking a tiara

I was interested to see the books I liked back then. (Most of these I remember, but I was surprised to see a list of classics posted in 1969, when I was 17. I have to laugh when I read the headings: "Books I read because I had to" and "But these books I read because I wanted to read them." Under that list, my comments included Mystery Books and Good Books and (my daughter will snicker) the misspelled "Island of the Blue Dolfins."

This one is funny and kind of sad. The heading of the page is "If I had a thousand dollars I would..." (Well, there are no ellipses, but - damn it - there should be!) In my innocence at age 10, I wrote: "If I had a thousand dollars I would send 1 hundred dollars of it to CARE, 1 hundred the slums in Chicago and with the rest (!!!) I would buy myself a house, new clothes, some kittens, furniture food and (gotta love it) a tiara. I would (editor needed here to insert "spend") the rest for mostly bills." The REST???

As a teenager, when I should have been more worldly-wise in economics, I still expected that a thousand dollars would pay for a year of college (clearly, my son did NOT get his math smarts from me!). In the midst of my charitable inclinations, I also included a haircut and makeup for myself, as well as CHOCOLATE ECLAIRS.

On the "When I Grow Up" page, I'm shocked to see "hair stylist" at the top of the "Things I Want to Be" (along with writer, wife, mother, social worker, saleslady, newspaper reporter, etc.). I think that was wishful thinking, because I've always found the talent for hair styling elusive. Judging by the sample of my artistic talents on the right, it's clear to see why I never became an artist. I'm surprised to see that on the list. (I'm also mystified by chef, nurse, dressmaker and architect - those must have made the list because I'd recently read books that featured heroines with those careers.)

Easy to see where my priorities were! Notice house and baby came before college and car. I was mad about the Beatles, but did eventually marry an Englishman and got my wish to go to England. (Who knew I'd eventually live there, too?) Nowadays I can afford to treat myself to dried apricots and chocolate eclairs - rare treats growing up in a family of seven - although it's a tragedy neither are quite as appealing as they were back then.

On other pages I listed things I worried about:

"If I'm really all that much taller than everyone else" (I was 5'7" in middle school, eventually reaching 5'8")
"If my dress is up in back"
"If I'm a pest"
"If I'm monopolizing the conversation" (odds are, yes!)
"If I'm going to pass math"
"If I'm going to be late to school"
"If I have food on my face"
"If my hair's messed up" (I'm going to guess "yes" on this one, too!)

My favorite things to do? According to this book:

Goof off (sub-heading: Goof off with BOYS) *snicker*
Watch TV
Listen to radio (that would have been my primary source of Beatle music)
Ice Skate

My favorite colors were, surprisingly, white and pink. Favorite magazine was Ingenue, favorite books - same as now, too many to list. Favorite food: pizza. (What? Not chocolate eclairs??) Favorite place - now this is a mystery: Indiana! Favorite pastime: Reading. Then, apparently when I was trying to be cool as a teenager, "Gin & Tonic" was added to the list of favorites.

I went back and commented on my earlier comments when I was older. There is a chart to show responsibilites and I put an X under "Neat." Later I went back and wrote "You're kidding!" next to that one. Next to "I am bossy" I wrote "I DON'T KNOW" in big red letters. (It was a constant oldest-sister concern.)

Under physical talents I put Xs next to I Can Turn Somersaults, I Can Do Cartwheels and I Can Stand On My Head" but next to I Can Do Clog Dancing I wrote in all caps "WHAT IS IT???"

So that was my trip down memory lane. My son glanced through this book today and was interested that many of my early career choices came close to the mark. This phrase keeps coming up in my life lately:
Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. Loosely translated, it means "The more things change, the more they stay the same."

A scary thought just struck me - this book is more than fifty years old. It's an antique! Or is an antique over 100 years old? Whew - I've got a few decades before the book and I are antiquarian, in that case. Maybe I'll update it again in another 20 years or so!

Sunday, March 10, 2013

My Road from Mills & Boon to the Land of Happily Ever After

The year was 1980. I lived in London and worked at the London (Sunday) Times, selling business advertising. My daily commute involved a long train ride from Bexleyheath, Kent to Charing Cross Station. From there I took a bus to Theobald's Road and walked up Grays Inn Road to the (former) Times building.

 Between the bus and train rides, I had a lot of time to read. I was young and poor and, while I did spend a lot of time at the library, hardcover books were heavy to lug around. I regularly brought Agatha Christie paperbacks with me, since I had all of her books (in multiple editions).

 Eventually I tired of rereading those, and was drawn to a book stall I passed every day in a street market on Grays Inn Road. They didn't have many mysteries (my genre of choice) but they had loads of Mills & Boon books. I'd never read one, and I imagined they would be mushy and somewhat frowsy, not my taste at all. (I pictured the authors as bouffant-haired Barbara Cartland-types, an image that makes me laugh now.) But the bookstall sold used Mills & Boon paperbacks for ten pence each or a pound for a whole bag, a price point that fit my budget perfectly. I decided to give them a try.

My first time out, I bought a bag and filled it with an assortment of authors. The mix included Janet Dailey, Violet Winspear, Helen Bianchin, Sara Craven, Carol Mortimer, Margaret Pargeter, Margaret Way, Penny Jordan, Charlotte Lamb, Anne Mather, Karen VanDerZee and others. I picked one at random to read on the train home: ONE OF THE BOYS by Janet Dailey. I finished it before the train arrived at my station.

Soon I was buying a bag of Mills & Boon books a week, reading them like a kid devours candy. I even broke down and bought NEW editions. The covers were mostly a bit hokey and embarrassing - I often hid the books inside magazines. But I didn't buy them for the covers, I bought them for the stories. Within a very short time I was reading two or three romances a day. Soon I had read all of Janet Dailey's books, all of Charlotte Lamb's, all of Margaret Way's books, and I had a long list of other favorites.

 By the time we moved back to the United States a few years later, I was well and truly hooked. As soon as we settled in to our new house, I subscribed to Harlequin Presents, Silhouette Special Edition, Candlelight Ecstasy Romance and more. Whenever a new line was added (Blaze, Desire, etc.), I subscribed to it, too. I read the books as fast as they arrived, and quickly filled a whole bookcase with my "keeper" romances.

Before long, my favorites were triple-stacked on the shelves.


 I realized that, while I still loved mysteries of all kinds, many of my favorites could be classified as romantic suspense - books like Mary Stewart's TOUCH NOT THE CAT, and Evelyn Anthony's THE TAMARIND SEED. In my usual way, I found authors I liked and read everything they wrote. Soon it wasn't enough.

 One author on my keeper shelf was Nora Roberts, so when I began seeing her books in airports and grocery stores, I decided to check them out. ALL of them. When I finished reading all of her books, I panicked. What would I read now?

I discovered Jennifer Crusie's books in Las Vegas. While my husband attended a business conference, I was excited to find a small bookstore between the Mandalay Bay hotel and the Luxor. They had a big display of Crusie's books. I bought one called TELL ME LIES and went outside to sit by the pool and read. A few hours later, I'd finished the book. When I looked up from the pages, the sun was setting, I was the only person by the pool and the gates were locked. Luckily, I found a maintenance man who let me out. I went straight back to the bookstore and bought every Jennifer Crusie book they had.

It's been 30+ years since I read my first Mills & Boon novel. Tempus has definitely fugited! I no longer subscribe to every Harlequin line, but I still read category romance. A lot of my friends write for Harlequin, and I still tend to focus on my favorite authors. (Did I mention I have a LOT of favorite authors?) Still, it was Mills & Boon who started it all, and Harlequin who sealed the deal. I blame them for the overflowing state of my bookshelves. They are packed with every sub-genre of mystery and romance as well as some sci-fi and paranormals.

My family doesn't understand my love of romance novels, but to me it's a no-brainer. I read for enjoyment, and there's nothing more satisfying to me than a happy ending. I don't hide covers anymore - partly because they've improved a lot and partly because I'm a romance reader, and I don't apologize for it. Anyone who brushes off romance novels (or writes them off as "bodice-rippers") has probably never read one (or not recently). They're bloody hard to write, and I am thankful for all the authors (nearly always women) whose books brought me joy. You're a class act, ladies. Thank you! And thank you, Mills & Boon, for setting me on the path to romance.