The End of an Era

This week two long-time symbols of a bygone era passed away—Barbara Bush and The Bon-Ton, a department store chain that was founded in the town where I live. Not that I would compare the life of Barbara Bush with the demise of a retail business, but they both represent a way of living and looking at the world that has changed radically in the last few decades.

I was never a huge fan of the Bon-Ton, especially in recent years, but I did my share of shopping there. The store was an institution, a stalwart anchor, first in downtown business districts and then later in the malls that sprang up in the 1970’s. But with the growth of online shopping, the Bon-Ton along with several of its competitors, foundered and never quite achieved acceptable hip-ness. As the wolves at the door grew closer, cost-cutting in the form of shoddy merchandise and minimal staffing took its toll. On my last few visits, I left frustrated because I could not find clothing that was stylish and appropriate for my age, or because I couldn’t find someone staffing a cash register so I could pay for it.

When we remodeled our bathroom, (which naturally required new towels,) I didn’t even consider buying them at a department store. I researched the best towels on-line, bought several sets from various recommended websites, noting that every site offered a pleasant chat person to assist me. I’m an aging baby-boomer and yet that was the way I approached a purchase that ten years ago would have sent me scurrying straight to the Bon-Ton or JCPenney. The old order changeth.

I can’t say that I agreed with everything George Bush did as president, but he and Barbara conducted themselves with the grace and humility fitting for the leader and first lady of the free world. George and Barbara Bush personified the meaning of service to country and family in every aspect of their lives. They were decent people who deserved, and I think for the most part, received the respect and gratitude of an entire nation. I miss having a President who I can admire, whether or not I agree with his or her politics, and who doesn’t make me cringe with embarrassment every time they open their mouth. The Bushes were a class act, as were the grand old department stores in their heyday.

I shopped at the Bon-Ton today for what I suspect may be the last time. It was sad to see the garish “Total Liquidation, Everything Must Go” banners associated with fly-by-night furniture stores pasted over windows that always displayed the latest fashions. The high-end merchandise appeared to have already been removed from the store, and what remained was hurriedly thrown together, with racks of clothing in the aisles and minimal price reductions. The sales clerks put up a good front, but behind their pleasant demeanor, they looked shell-shocked and devastated. Probably the way a lot of government employees feel these days.

I suppose it will all sort itself out, as the British would say. Our retail world is changing just like it did when we moved from buying items at dry goods stores and ordering everything from the Sears catalog. Downtowns are coming back, and small businesses are still selling wonderful things, and the almighty internet helps us find those people who have just what we’re looking for. Today our sheets, towels and toilet paper may be dropped off by a drone, but it wasn’t so long ago that our milk and even bread and fresh meats were delivered to our home by a local merchant driving his own truck. Some of the old ways are coming back, just in a faster and more efficient way.

But it’s still hard to say good-by to the store where we bought our prom dress or sat at the Clinique counter for our first make-up lesson or where we had lunch with our grandmother in the tea room of the downtown flagship store. It’s even harder to say good-by to a woman who was truly a First Lady, another stalwart anchor from a time when the folks who occupied the White House were kind and good and cared first and foremost about our country. I hope and pray that those old ways are going to come back some day, too.

Barbara Bush

 

 

Overheard at Ulta

I was waiting to check out at a chain cosmetics store when I heard the cashier say to the customer in front of me, “I love your eyebrows. They’re amazing.” The young woman smiled and proudly replied, “Thank you. I do them myself.”

Huh? Her eyebrows are amazing?? And what does she mean, she does them herself? Since when did eyebrows start to require professional intervention? As if those of us  over 50 don’t have enough to worry about, now we must maintain our eyebrows? Apparently, tweezing and a dash of pencil are no longer enough. An entire industry has sprung up around micro-blading and procedures which render two strips of biologically necessary hair above our eyes into perfectly groomed little arcs that on some people remind me of the brows on Kukla, from the old 50’s puppet show.  I can’t help thinking about a friend of mine going through cancer treatment who would just be happy to have her eyebrows back, even if they grew in a straight line across her forehead.

Kukla, Fran and Ollie (2)

Of course, the older we get, the harder it is to keep playing whack-a-mole with our appearance. Color your hair and three weeks later, the gray roots peep through. Eat the seven-inch plate of grilled chicken and salad with a whisper of spray-on dressing, drag yourself faithfully to the gym and the doctor still says, “Hmm…looks like you’ve gained a few pounds.” Accidentally bump the selfie button on your phone and you recoil from the sudden shot of your double chin and the sad little lines around your mouth that look like cracks on a once pristine windshield. I’m not proposing that we let it all go to hell and run around in floral-print polyester with lank strands of gray hair flopping in our foundation-less faces, but despite our best efforts, Mother Nature is going to give us less return on our investment.

I may be over-reacting to what was simply a kind gesture of small-talk on the part of the sales clerk (probably required by corporate trainers.) But I struggle with society’s mixed message. On one hand, we’re encouraged to accept different lifestyles and sizes and partners, yet at the same time, would we be so kind as to maintain our brows and manicure and a timely shot or two of Botox would be appreciated as well. We can overlook Chrissy Metz’s obesity because her face is perfectly made-up. Helen Mirren and Jane Fonda are now oh-so-amazing not so much because of their talent and contributions to their art, but because they don’t look their age.

Accepting ordinary, healthy appearance is the final frontier, the last bastion of political correctness. Let’s celebrate the ladies easing out of their textured tanks at the gym after Aqua-Fit class because they’re moving their bodies and taking care of themselves. Let’s hear it for those of us who refuse to reign in our bellies with Spanx because we want to breathe comfortably and laugh easily. Who have those bellies because we’ve shared good food and good times with friends or birthed a kid or two and our metabolism and our appetite just don’t see eye-to-eye anymore. Let’s wear our dorky shoes proudly because we’re on our feet taking care of grandchildren or elderly relatives or working in the restaurant or the school or the hospital and tiny little kitten heels or sky-high stilettos simply aren’t going to cut it.

water aerobics

From my curmudgeon’s perch, I want to smile indulgently at those two young women in the cosmetics store. I remember 20, that magical time of life when eyebrows and manicures can be priorities. When you’d rather buy cosmetics than groceries. But I want to tell those girls that eyebrows are the least of it. I want to tell them to take care of their future children and eventually their parents and treasure their friends and work hard at something they love and if along the way, they happen to gain a little weight or end up with a few scars or find they no longer have time for perfect eyebrows, all the better. That means you’re living life with a vengeance, with a damn-the-torpedoes-full-speed-ahead attitude even if you’re wearing Mom jeans with your graying hair pulled back in a scrunchy and eyebrows that look real instead of perfect. Because our mothers were right. It’s what’s on the inside that counts.

Easter Eggs from Home

            This week I found myself sitting in the room where I first learned about Jesus. Where dear old Mrs. Stevens would toddle over to an out of tune upright piano and plunk out Jesus Loves Me and Fishers of Men while we sat on little wooden chairs painted in pastel colors, singing our hearts out and doing the motions to the songs. Where we’d gather at tables and learn Bible stories, pasting cardboard cut-outs of Moses and Abraham onto felt-covered boards. Where at the end of Sunday School, the wooden double doors would open, and our parents would be standing there waiting to take us in to church. (If we were old enough for Sunday School, we were old enough for church and our parents saw to it that we sat there quietly, sang the hymns, and said the prayers. Our boredom or need for entertainment did not factor into the equation.)

            Today that old Sunday School room serves as the church’s office, cluttered with paper and boxes of ink cartridges and smelling of the kerosene burner that helps to keep it warm without running up a high heating bill. I was there to pick up homemade Easter eggs a dedicated crew of parishioners makes every year as a fund-raiser. I buy lots of them in a feeble gesture of support and gratitude to this parish for being my cradle of Episcopalian-ism and in appreciation for the ministry they provide to a community that desperately needs it.

            Sadly, this church, like the town surrounding it, is not so healthy these days. The spirit is there but the outside flesh continues to weaken. The bell tower needs work and the roof should be replaced. The rector is down to part-time and is already serving past retirement age because, well, it’s going to be hard to find someone to take on the job.

St. Paul's columbia

Fifty years ago, this downtown street where the church is located was bustling in the week before Easter. The hardware store sold baby ducks and those awful pastel-colored chicks skittering around under a heat lamp. The women’s clothing stores, of which there were at least four in a two-block area, displayed the latest spring dresses in their windows. Woolworth’s aisles were jammed with Easter candy, and we bought our Hinkle’s egg dye from the owner of the store where it was invented. On Good Friday afternoon, the stores all closed from noon to 3 pm because everyone was in church and of course, no one opened on Sundays except for a few corner grocery stores.

Hinkle's egg dye 2

This once vibrant middle-class community now suffers from the same blight affecting others just like it across the country. Industry moved out taking with it the tax base, so property values plummeted. Homes sell for rock-bottom prices, often to greedy landlords who turn beautiful properties into apartments for low-income rentals. Many of the churches my friends attended are empty shells, their scout meetings and choir practices replaced by food pantries and social service agencies. The poverty rate is staggering, and the school district is bankrupt.

It breaks my heart to drive these streets and see the elderly and infirm shuffling along on the sidewalks. The scared kids on the corner, putting up a menacing front. The worn-down young mothers pushing strollers, while trying to rein in another small child or two. To see so many homes in urgent need of repair, to see what were once thriving businesses shuttered and gone or replaced by thrift stores and other earnest and hopeful start-ups—a coffee shop here, a yoga center there, most of which will probably not survive.

I take those luscious eggs I buy from my childhood parish, place them in pastel cupcake wrappers and donate them to the dinner that the parish I belong to now serves every year on Easter Sunday. As soon as the last note of the postlude sounds, we literally take the Good News we just celebrated in majestic ceremony out into the world. We serve dinner right smack in the middle of Easter Sunday to the hungry, the lonely, to first-responders who can’t be with their families because they’re protecting us—to anyone who needs it.

Easter dinner guests

When I place food in front of our guests, I see the faces of the people in my hometown. I like to think that what helps support the church where I grew up, brightens the day, and lifts the spirits of those we serve in our own parish and that what I learned about Jesus all those years ago in Mrs. Stevens’ Sunday School classes still makes sense in the world I live in now.

Chef GrantEaster dinner 1

 

On Market

I love going to market. Around here, “market” means a weekly gathering of farmers and butchers, bakers and cooks, selling what they themselves grow, harvest, or prepare. In south-central Pennsylvania, we’ve been eating local and doing farm to table long before it was trendy.

I grew up a half block away from our town’s farmer’s market. Every Friday, my mother and I would walk up the alley, each carrying our own basket, to a beautiful old building which in those days, was packed with vendors. We’d often come home with a “market house supper” — maybe a broasted chicken, with a side of homemade macaroni salad or in the summer, fresh corn on the cob and sweet sliced tomatoes grown in the sandy soil of the nearby Susquehanna River. (Yes, corn on the cob can be an entrée, as can strawberry shortcake in early June!) If you wanted fresh meats and cheeses for sandwiches, you got them “on market” since the grocery stores in those days only had plastic-packaged Oscar Mayer. My mother knew the names of all the stand-holders, and market was a hub of information, gossip, and community.

GE DIGITAL CAMERA

Not much has changed, although sadly, my hometown market is no longer in business. I still enjoy shopping where I can talk to the person who produced the food, where there are rarely cash registers or UPC code scanners. Fruits and vegetables come from nearby orchards and fields so there are no stickers to be scanned. Your purchases are totaled on a scrap of paper, and only in recent years have some vendors started accepting credit cards.

I like knowing that my food dollars are going back into the local economy instead of into the pockets of some giant conglomerate. Few items are encased in plastic or any kind of packaging. You can buy 1 tomato or a bushel if you want. The people behind the counter can tell you the best way to cook their spare ribs or which fish just arrived from Baltimore that morning.

Market is not as convenient as the grocery store. There are no carts. You must bring your own bags or basket. It tends to be crowded and you have to jostle yourself around strollers and people stopping to chat in the middle of the aisle. You come out of market smelling like it – sort of an odd combination of celery and smoked meat and whatever the little café happens to be frying that day. But even that makes you feel as though you’ve been around real food, rather than the sterile, artificially clean atmosphere of the grocery store.

I find myself going to the same vendors for the same things. There is no comparison between the lunchmeat and bacon I buy at my favorite deli stand on market with that found in the grocery store. Whole wheat potato rolls dusted with flour. Homemade sweet pickles. A small lemon sponge pie or an apple dumpling for my husband. (Ok, I’ll admit, I’ll have a slice of the pie, too.) Beautiful sweet lettuces and produce grown from an organic farm that supplies many of the area’s most upscale restaurants. Yesterday, I chose a cucumber there and the lady at the stand said, “Oh, that one’s a little soft at the end. Let me find you a better one.” When’s the last time you heard that in a grocery store?

In our digital world, it still feels good to see the food we plan to consume up close and personal and know that it hasn’t been sitting in a warehouse for a week. It feels good to dig for cash and interact with the person we hand it to. To order our holiday turkey or Easter ham from a human being instead of a computer. To know that juicy strawberry we’re biting into was picked the evening before.  To see the next generation take over the same stand from their parents and grandparents.

Market house supper

We’re having market house supper tonight. Grilled sirloin burgers, probably the last roasted butternut squash of the season, coleslaw better than I can make myself. Possibly a sliver of lemon sponge pie for dessert. No Blue Apron or Black Tie or whatever they call it box of pre-fab, pre-measured, miso-glazed salmon on a bed of quinoa delivered to my doorstep can touch that meal.

See you on market.

York central market 4 (2)

 

 

Old Stuff

I’ve recently been working on a piece for a themed issue about “keepsakes” for an online publication. (My goal is to be published there someday but it’s a stretch for a writer without an MFA degree or a lot of publishing credits. I keep trying…) Their focus was that because so much of what we do now is digital, we no longer keep things like ticket stubs and newspaper clippings as physical reminders of the events of our lives

I wrote about a beautiful nativity set that my grandmother painted years ago which is one of my most treasured possessions, and it made me think about articles you read now about how the generations coming after us baby-boomers don’t want our stuff. It’s all passé and dated so please schlep it all to the auction house or Goodwill before you pass away, so we don’t have to be bothered with it. Just not cool, mom and dad.

I can remember when my parents cleaned out my grandparents’ home. I was a senior in college, obsessed with an upcoming wedding and a new teaching job and happily removed from the whole process. I was in that “I’m a hip young adult now, buying my own things for my first apartment and who wants all that old crap?” phase. I’m sure this is common to every generation but now we post about it online so it’s an ISSUE.

I’m not talking about the piles of ancient magazines and moth-eaten old clothing. I am all for getting rid of useless debris. (My husband can attest to this.) I’m talking about objects that connect us to those who are no longer with us–whether it’s a beautiful picture or a handmade scarf or even some simple kitchen utensil that we remember using with a parent or grandparent. In those items, we hear our loved one’s voices, we smell pipe smoke on our father’s wool jacket, we remember family members eating and drinking from the plates and glasses that now grace our own holiday tables.

As I age, I experience an increasing need to wrap my arms around the tangible evidence that people I loved once existed, as memories of their physical presence gradually recede. The boxes of family slides buried on a closet shelf. An odd-looking plant from my grandparents’ den that is still alive in our sunroom forty-plus years later. The ceramic pitchers my grandmother painted that hold my kitchen utensils. Two Books of Common Prayer, covered in nubby leather, one inscribed on my dad’s 1937 confirmation day and one carried by mother in her wedding in 1955, resting in my nightstand drawer.

 prayer books

I pull out those slides occasionally when I’m working on a piece of writing to help me illuminate my story, to get the details right about small-town life in the 1960’s and ‘70’s. I use the tools in my grandmother’s ceramic pitchers every day and I think of her in her own kitchen. She was a great talker and often got so busy talking (and sipping her scotch and soda) that she invariably burned something. But no one made better fried tomatoes in a cast-iron skillet or the most decadent almond cake with bitter chocolate drizzle. Those old prayer books with their tissue thin pages embossed in gold, filled with the language of 1928 when they were published, represent my heritage as a dyed-in-the-wool cradle Episcopalian.

I remember my grandmother used to say, “You’re not going to have us forever, you know.” When we’re young, we don’t appreciate the impact of that statement. I know I didn’t. So my message to the next generation or two is this–don’t be in such a hurry to disparage the worldly goods of your parents. Granted, most of the possessions we so fiercely cling to in our lives are just plain stuff, easily replaceable. But choose carefully, when you start the overwhelming job of cleaning out the homes of parents and grandparents. If you come across something in which you hear your mother’s voice or that takes you back to a wonderful time in your childhood, hold it fast, don’t stuff it into that trash bag headed for rummage sale. There will come a time when you will cherish it, perhaps far more than you do right now.  If you can taste the almond cake or hear your dad reading those Edward Lear limericks to you as a bedtime story, find a place for that recipe or that worn old book in your life. Those are the sparks which light our memories, tell us where we’ve been and who we are now, and like the people who once owned them, their very presence brings us joy.

Edward Lear 3

 

Flowers at the Salon

It’s just a small salon located at the rear of a non-descript building along a busy commercial highway. Inside there are only two chairs, and it’s warm and inviting, painted in soothing muted colors, and decorated with interesting artwork. Comfortable and cozy, rather than big city slick. I’ve been coming here for so long that I think of the two women who own the shop as friends, rather than professionals who style my hair.

When I walked in this week and saw several fresh floral arrangements resting on a counter, I thought perhaps there had been a death in one of their families. But that wasn’t the case. Steph received an arrangement from a client simply because it had been a difficult week and her daughter’s school had been closed for several days due to threats of violence. The other bouquet was for an older client who had recently returned to the area after a brief move out of town. A customer who often had appointments at the same time wanted to welcome her home with a surprise bouquet of flowers.

Those flowers reflect the intimate sense of community that exists in a hair salon. The people who color and snip and make us shine a little brighter are also our therapists and ministers. We sit in front of the mirror, vulnerable with dripping hair, and share our lives—our joys and frustrations and heartbreak. Our children grow up and our parents grow old and the mirror reflects a few more lines on our face and a lot more gray in our hair, but our stylists keep us going and send us out into the world looking and feeling refreshed and ready to tackle whatever is coming at us next. Kind of like church.  

The salon is a great source of information and gossip, (also like church.) Scandal and drama in the schools? A new restaurant or store has opened that’s exceptionally good or bad? The salon is way ahead of social media when it comes to finding out the latest scoop. As we wait for our hair to dry or the color to soak in, we eavesdrop on each other’s conversations. We spread rumors and share ideas and recommend plumbers and house painters and help each other figure out ways to cope—whether it’s with a bad back or a bad landscaping job. No online presence can replace the human connection of someone looking at us and saying, “I had the same problem and let me tell you what I did about it.”

Our stylists, like our pastors, are there for us in the good times and the bad. They are there for homecoming and prom and wedding hair. Lisa met me at the shop before hours on the morning of my father’s funeral so that my hair looked good. It was one less thing I had to deal with on one of the most difficult days of my life. When I had major back surgery and worried about how long it would be until I could get a haircut, she reassured me that she would come to my house and do my hair and that she occasionally does that for clients with health issues. A version of home communion.

These women work their magic on all of us, but they reserve a special grace for their oldest customers. They tenderly wash and style the hair of ladies for whom a trip to the salon is an event, a big trip out. Fridays are often “blue haze” days when elderly clients come in to be permed and colored and sprayed, many times in the same style they’ve worn all their lives. Having their hair done makes them feel connected to the young women they once were, even though their aging bodies may betray them.

I was still there when the customer came in who received the anonymous flowers. She spoke with sad resignation about moving into a small apartment in a local retirement facility. I got a sense that she felt defeated and that she knew this move would probably be her last. When her appointment was over, Lisa presented her with the flowers and said they were a gift from another client who wanted to welcome her back and hoped they would see each other again soon at the salon. At first, the woman’s face lit up with a delighted smile, but then she worried about how she would carry them home in her car without spilling them. Lisa and another customer walked with her down the ramp from the shop, helped her into her car and securely tucked the flowers on the floor of the backseat.

I hope those blooms brighten her days at least until next week, when she comes back to the salon.

flowers at the Lisa's (2)

 

System Malfunction

It’s a balmy spring-like day, and I just came back from a walk. I needed to process the scenes from Florida. Once again, we’re shown footage of students filing out of a school with their hands up or on each other’s shoulders. An army of emergency vehicles and school buses parked helter-skelter around the campus. Frantic parents behind crime scene tape. Swat teams in riot gear. And then I keep imagining what the media mercifully doesn’t show you. A mother rocking in a fetal position in her teenaged son’s room, clutching his soccer jersey. Or the spouse of a murdered teacher, catatonic with grief, sitting at the kitchen table where she ate breakfast with her husband that morning.

This hits so close to home for those of us who spent our professional lives inside a public school. We know what a February afternoon feels like, right before the dismissal bell rings. Late winter is the armpit of the school year; the shine has long worn off, winter sports are over, spring sports haven’t started yet, standardized tests and final projects loom and June is barely visible on the horizon. The natives tend to be a little restless. I remember instances of fire alarms going off at the end of the day, occasionally pulled by a bored student, but more often accompanied by an announcement “Please disregard. There is a system malfunction.” Indeed.

We have a long history of violence in this country. The wars, including the one we fought with each other, the bloodshed in the western frontier, the gangsters and organized crime of the 1920’s, the bitter strife of race riots and now drug wars–it’s all horrible, but it’s the sad nature of the human beast.  I don’t condone any of it but at least there is some sort of ugly agenda. I will shoot you because you own slaves, or you didn’t pay your drug bill, or I want the land that belongs to you. What I cannot get my head around is the slaughter of innocent people for no apparent reason other than the shooter is hurt and angry or carries some stain that can only be washed clean by the blood of strangers.

I was bullied in school as I suspect most of us were, to some degree.  Whether we were too fat or too skinny, didn’t make the football team or cheerleading squad, were too bright or too slow, or maybe our family was poor and our clothes smelled bad—it didn’t matter. We’ve all sustained injury from grenades of pain hurled by our peers and most of us have probably thrown a few of our own.

I can remember a fourth-grade classmate who was vilified by the teacher every single day. Whatever went wrong, it was his fault, and he would just lower his eyes and take it when she lit into him. Looking back, that teacher should have been yanked from the classroom, but she was one of the revered grand dames of our elementary school and no one dared criticize her. The young man eventually graduated, shows up at class reunions happily married and successful, and to my knowledge, has never shot anyone with a high-powered rifle because he was treated like a pariah in fourth grade.

What’s different now? Is it because social media allows us no escape? Back in the day, we could at least go home and close our door and cry or scream or play loud music or do whatever we needed to soothe ourselves without seeing continued taunts and ridicule on the electronic device we’re connected to 24 hours a day. Or is it that we no longer have the resilience to accept that life can be bitterly cruel and terrible things happen to us that are not our fault and are therefore entitled to take out our frustration on others we perceive as more fortunate? Or is it simply because it’s harder for some of us to find a support system? Whether it’s within our own family or a church or an organization—we all need a place to go where someone will wrap their arms around us and say it’s going to be ok. If we’re out there flailing for too long, we’ll grab onto any lifeline we can find, even if it’s extended by the hand of evil.

It appears there is nothing we can do about slaughtering the innocent except voice platitudes, wring our hands, and wait for it to happen again. When we dare raise our voices in question or protest, we are like gnats smashed against the windshield of this giant stinking leviathan of corruption that purports to be our federal government. Someone told me recently that when he sent an email to his congressman, he got an automated response informing him that the site was no longer being monitored. Not even a “Duly noted. Thank you for sharing your concern.” No, this was “Sorry, but we can’t be bothered with your petty email because we are too busy pandering to political action committees and special interest groups and whoever else will guarantee us lots of money for re-election.”

I have been blessed to live a life of comfort and ease and although I faithfully vote in every election, I have never been terribly political. This sixty-year old moderately liberal retired school teacher is angry and frustrated about what is happening, but I feel helpless. The message is loud and clear that I can send all the emails and make all the phone calls I want, and it will do no good whatsoever. Dying children don’t stand a chance against big money and big power.

I was still teaching when we started code red drills after Columbine. We’d hear the announcement over the intercom, and I would close the blinds, lock the doors, and turn off the lights. My students would put down their instruments and we’d all crowd behind my desk, in awkwardly close proximity, away from view of the windows. The kids would snicker and whisper, and I would admonish them to be quiet, that this was serious, and we’d wait patiently for the all clear announcement. At the time it seemed silly and contrived, and we’d roll our eyes at the idea of a boogie-man coming down the hall to get us. And then at a neighboring rural school district in April 2003, a middle school student walked into the cafeteria and shot his principal dead in front of hundreds of his classmates.

Fifteen years later, we are still slaughtering the innocent. The system continues to malfunction.