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I Miss You Already, Robin Williams

12 Aug

When I was ten years old, my greatest ambition was to have a pair of rainbow-striped suspenders, a la Mork, the alien who hailed from the planet Ork on my favorite TV show, Mork and Mindy. Yes, I’m serious. I remember going to the fabric store with my mother and she, bless her heart, inquired as to the availability of rainbow-striped elastic. I can’t remember why we didn’t buy any but I think it may have been because it was out of stock. So apparently there were several other kids running around town who, like me, wanted to be compared to the incomparable Robin Williams.

I have not seen all of his movies over the years, nor did I love every one that I did see, but every time that I happened to catch him being interviewed, I had to stop and watch because he never failed to make me laugh. He always amazed me with his quick wit and his hilarious comparisons. How his mind could fly from one thing to another and make it all uproariously funny! I envied his ability to think on his feet. I can think on my feet to a degree – I actually enjoyed extemporaneous speaking in speech class – but I’m not funny. I don’t have one iota of his ability to make people laugh.

Not many people do.

The truth is, Robin Williams could also make people cry. His movie What Dreams May Come is one of my favorite movies of all time. Perhaps “favorite” is not the right word. It’s too depressing to be a “favorite”. Maybe “most heart-wrenching” would be better. Or “most unforgettable”. Never has a movie made me think more about life, about death, about heaven and hell. About theology.

Is it trite to say that the world is diminished because of his loss? It is, trite or not. My heart hurts, thinking that even as he cracked us all up, he was hurting so desperately inside. I pray that I’ll give grace to the next person who irritates me – to the next and the next and the next ad infinitum – because I have no idea what is going on inside of them. Because, even if a person is smiling on the outside, on the inside they may be breaking apart.

Na-Nu, Na-Nu, Robin. I miss you.

BANG! THUMP! TWEEK!

11 Feb

It’s ten o’clock in the morning on a frigid Monday and I’m being lulled by the dulcet tones of my piano tuner man, hard at work in the living room. Such a lovely melody.

BANG! THUMP! TWEEK! BANG! Any little boy would be reprimanded for playing so badly.

I remember the tuning our piano got when we lived in West Berlin. We had some family friends come for Christmas, and we asked him to bring his piano-tuning kit. They lived in Saudi Arabia so it wasn’t a terribly long trip or a big deal to bring his tools – at least I don’t think it was!

He began tuning on a Sunday afternoon. BANG! THUMP! TWEEK! BANG!

The telephone rang.

It was our downstairs neighbor. We lived in an apartment building that had four two-story apartments in it so we only had three neighbors…and the one below us was MAD.

Ding-a-ling-a-ling! (Actually it sounded more like “buzz”…German phones sounded different than American phones!)

“Hello?” said my mother.

“Do you have a child visiting?” the down-stairs neighbor asked in English.

“Yes,” Mom replied, puzzled.

“Well, could you please ask him to cease banging on the piano? It is rest time in Germany. Sunday afternoons are rest time. Please stop him from banging.”*

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” Mom replied, amused but controlling her laughter. “The boy is not banging on the piano. It is being tuned by his father.”

There was a silence on the other end while our neighbor – an artistically-minded individual – recovered her embarrassment and said, “Entschuldigung. I am so sorry.”

“And I,” said my mother, “apologize for interrupting your rest time. We should have realized.”

“Yes,” said the woman. “You should have. But it is okay.”

She might not have actually said those exact words. But she implied them.

I can’t help but smile at the memory.

When I was a kid, back on Orcas Island, our piano tuner was blind. This amazed and impressed me. My tuner down in the living room tells me that is becoming more and more common.

Six or seven years ago I began praying for a free piano. I’ve always labored under the impression that God cares about every part of my life, so why not? I didn’t ask for a new piano. I didn’t ask for a good piano. I just wanted something that my daughter could take piano lessons with. Something that would get her through a few years and that I, too, could play on from time to time if I could remember anything of my seven years of servitude torture lessons.

Not too long after I began praying, I got a piano. Free. From a friend, who had gotten it from a friend, who had gotten it who-knows-where. It’s an old upright. About 100 years old. Has a few keys that stick, and the bottom few bass notes ring in a strange way from an imperfect “fix” at some point in its life.

I put it on an inside wall, ‘cause I remembered that I’d heard at some point that that’s where pianos ought to go. For 3 ½ years my daughter took lessons on that old piano. I played it a couple times. Should do so more. Every so often over the years my daughter would say, “Can you get the piano tuned, Mom?”

And I’d say, “Yeah, sure. I can arrange that.”

And then I’d promptly forget all about it.

Well, about a month ago she came up to me – a nice smile on her face – and she said, “Mom? I know what I want for my birthday.”

“Oh?” I asked her, not wanting to admit to the fact that her birthday was approaching and I had no clue what to get her. “What?”

“I want the piano to be tuned.”

HOW COULD I SAY NO TO THAT?!!!

So I texted her piano teacher and asked for the name of her tuner. I called him…and he came a few days later. HORRAY!

When my daughter got home from school that day her little sister, Boo, (who had been home sick so she knew it had been tuned) suggested that Meep sit down and practice piano right away. (In her mind she wasn’t giving away the secret, just nudging her sister toward discovery.)

Meep sat down to play. She played through her favorite piece. There were no fireworks, no bright-eyed epiphanies (I love that word) but she did seem to play a little more carefully…and, just maybe, a small smile played about her lips. Then Boo said, “It got tuned!”

And Meep’s face lit up like Santa Claus had come and she jumped up and said, “Thank you, Mom!” And then she practiced longer than she ever had before in her life.

Our tuner, a friendly and talkative gray-haired gentleman, told me that he doubted it had been tuned more than once or twice in its life. He said something like, “Normally each key has to be moved about 10 degrees [I don’t know if the term he used was “degrees”, but it was something like that] but this one had to be moved 50!” Obviously, even to a piano-term-dense novice like me, even if I don’t remember his terms, I do recognize that 50 is a lot more than 10!

So now Meep is happy and she’s playing the piano even more beautifully than before and, $75 dollars later, I’m feeling good about it, too.

*There was one other time that she called us on a Sunday afternoon during rest time. I was hanging a picture and pounding a nail into the wall. “Hello?” “Hello. Do you hear a banging?” “No,” I replied honestly, looking at the hammer in my hand. “I do not hear a banging right now.” She was a martinet. An extremely nice martinet…except during rest time.

All That I Remember of my Grandparents

21 Jan
The dirt road, coming up from our beach on Orcas Island.  There was an old orchard at the end of the road.  Yum!  I'm the smallest one, holding my grandma's hand.

The dirt road, coming up from our beach on Orcas Island. There was an old orchard at the end of the road. Yum! I’m the smallest one, holding my grandma’s hand.

My mom’s parents lived up the road from us when I was young. I remember very little about them, as Grandpa died a day or two after my 4th birthday and Grandma later that summer.

I remember that Grandpa kept candy in his desk drawer. I remember that they both liked picnics on the beach. I remember their car.

I remember watching Davy Crocket on The Wonderful World of Disney one Sunday night when Grandma, my sister and I were all home sick and weren’t able to go to church that evening. My sister and I must have been sent to stay with Grandma while Mom and Dad were gone. We ate popcorn as we watched.

I remember finding a piece of driftwood on the beach that looked like a duck and giving it to Grandma because she loved ducks. She was pleased. I remember that.

And I remember being in the car on a trip – in my memory we were in Oregon, but I’m not really sure that we were – and I was bored out of my skull. Grandma, my sister and I were all in the back seat and Mom and Dad were in the front. I was grouchy and I called my sister a dumb dumb.

And I got in trouble from Mom.

I was silent for a moment. And then I began to sing. Quietly.

“Dum, dum, dum, dum,” I sang. “Dum, dum, dum…”

I got a little louder.

“Dum, Dum, Dum!”

I thought I was being so clever.

Until Mom turned around and said, “I told you not to use that word. You are not to call your sister a dumb dumb.”

And Grandma said, “Oh, she’s not calling names. She’s just singing.”

I looked down at my lap. Tears pricked my eyes and waves of guilt washed over me.

Because I wasn’t just singing. I was calling my sister a dumb dumb in song.

Mom knew.

Grandma probably knew, too.

She smiled at me. Patted my leg. And I stopped singing.

And that’s what I remember of my Grandma.
g-ma beach

Frasers

Barnstorming (without an airplane)

7 Jan

I love a good barn. The older the better. So I asked someone I know if he’d be willing to let me explore and photograph his lovely, old specimen of barnishness. Happily, he said yes, and even though the hunters didn’t appreciate that I had taken over “their” space, I spent a good half hour or so exploring the lovely old weathered barn where once cows and sheep and horses (and at least one homeless man) lived. Now it’s home to barn swallows and mice and dust motes.

And the ghosts of chickens past.

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My LGB Train of Happiness

24 Dec

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What is it about toy trains that triggers our smiling muscles? Is it their disarming little chug, chug, chug as they circle around the track beneath the Christmas tree? Or is it their tiny whistle (or not so tiny in some cases) that echoes the steam engines of the past? Or is it just that humans like anything in miniature?

I lived in West Berlin, Germany, for my last two years of high school and I came home from school one day to discover that my dad had bought a wonderful “Lehmann Gross Bahn” toy train! The “Lehmann Large Train” is the largest gauge toy train that I’ve ever seen, though admittedly I am no expert on such things. During their four years in Germany, Dad added to the train each year until he had six cars and many other add-ons such as a Gandy Dancer, gates that rise and fall when the train approaches and passes by, street lights, a signal bridge, people, trees, and even a typical notice pillar (which I can’t remember the German name of) – a common sight around Berlin which lends a small-town atmosphere to the sprawling city.
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In the 25 years since I graduated and moved back to the states, the train stayed with my parents for a few years and with my sister (who had young boys) for quite a few more. But now it has come home to me! In three large “Max Marotzke” boxes (and one smaller one holding nothing but track), the train arrived. Max Marotzke was the name of the moving company that moved Mom and Dad from Berlin to Connecticut…well, Pan Am shipped them – in their own sweet time – but that’s another story!

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My sister sent the first box way back in March and my kids very much enjoyed discovering all the hidden treasures beneath all those Styrofoam peanuts! Then, this past summer, when we were out in Washington, my husband packed the rest of the train stuff and the day after we arrived home the US postal service delivered it to our door.

Now, finally, after all that waiting, the boxes are open and we’re setting up the train! It is easy enough to put together the track and set the train on top of it – even I can do that – but woe betide my children if they didn’t have their dad to make it go, light up the lights and make the engine steam. I am no engineer, but he, thankfully, is. For real. (Yet another reason this English major married a mechanically-minded man.)

The train station needs a little model glue...

The train station needs a little model glue…

And so, thanks to my husband, my father, my sister, and Max Marotzke, the train circles our tree as well as the entire living room here in Southwest Minnesota – thousands of miles and 25 years after it first circled our tree in West Berlin.

(Talk about the passage of time and miles – what about the passage of political tyrannies? I returned to a united Berlin a few years ago – what a joy it was to see the unified city as it was meant to be!)

Yes, there are many reasons that this toy train makes me smile. But the best reason of all is the newest reason – my three kids, engrossed by the circling engine as it chugs into their lives as it once chug, chug, chugged into mine.

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Letters to Santa

17 Dec

It’s that time of year again – the time I look forward to with a smile of anticipation and a gleam in my eye. The time when the newspaper prints children’s letters to Santa.

Oh, my word, how I love those letters.

This year the letters (all from first graders) seemed less greedy than in previous years, which is nice. I recall one wee girl last year who wanted a diamond ring. (Don’t we all, honey.) My older kids and I love reading these letters out loud though our youngest child – whose letter is amongst the ones printed this year – doesn’t understand the humor we find in her classmates epistles.

I decided to give you a few excerpts from this year’s batch of letters, with my daughter’s full letter at the end…and a “just for the record” explanation of her wishes!

Dear Santa, I have been a very good girl. How is Mrs. Claus? Do you sing Christmas songs in the sleigh? I hope you like our cookies…

Dear Santa, Do you like ice?

Dear Santa, Can I pet your reindeer?

Dear Santa, How are the elves? I love you Santa.

Dear Santa, Thank you for our gifts. Is it fun to ride in a sleigh? Please bring me a puppy. Thank you, Santa.

Dear Santa, When are you coming?

Dear Santa, I have been thankful for [my brother] because I like him.

Dear Santa, I help my mom set the table.

Dear Santa, I have said kind words to my sister and my parents.

Dear Santa, I want to help the world. Please can I have playdoh. Thank you.

Dear Santa, Sometimes my room gets messed up, but then I clean it up.

Dear Santa, Do you get presents for Christmas?

Dear Santa, Am I on the good list?

Dear Santa, I want walkie-talkies please…for my sister I want chapstick. For my baby brother, I want him to have
toys…for my dad, he wants a car…

Dear Santa, I think I want a new dog.

Dear Santa, I think I was a good girl.

Dear Santa, Will you please bring me socks?

Dear Santa, What do you do all year long? How often do the elves go to the dentist?

Dear Santa, I want…a REAL race car, the one that uses gas.

And finally, my favorite letter: Which, interestingly, is not signed “love” or even “your friend” as most of the letters were…but simply signed with her name.

Dear Santa, My name is Lucy. This year I have been quite good. What I would MOST like for Christmas this year is an iPad because my family has one but I don’t. If your elves are not too busy I would also like an iPod. I promise to leave you some chocolate milk and cookies on Christmas Eve. Merry Christmas! Lucy.

The photo says it all.

The photo says it all.

I am not entirely sure what to make of this letter, but one thing is for sure, she belongs to a tech-savvy family, can you tell? Please hear me, however, when I say that her entire family does NOT have iPads! I do not, and the only reason that her brother and sister do is because they have them through school and when summer comes and they have to turn them in they will go bonkers. My husband does have one, but it’s through work. I just feel the need to explain all of that! Also, I’m certain that the reason she wants an iPod is because she loves music and has been walking around with an ancient walkman CD player which breaks its volume control every time she drops it…which is fairly frequently.

I told Lucy, as gently as I could, that Santa wasn’t likely to bring her those things. She didn’t look me in the eye when she replied, but she said cheerfully enough, “I know. It’s you and Daddy who bring the presents, anyway.” She walked away, and I was left feeling slightly bad and slightly glad and slightly confused about what I ought to be feeling.

It’s hard to compete with Santa.

Here’s my letter to the Jolly Old Elf:

Dear Santa, Please give me the gift of time…and the wisdom to know how to use it.
Sincerely, Gretchen

Anticipation? Or Instant Gratification?

10 Dec

When I was in 5th grade I was invited to a birthday party of a classmate who had newly moved to Orcas Island. This was all very well and good, but it meant one thing first and foremost: my parents did not know her parents.

But we did know one thing about them and her: She was named after an Indian Goddess and she lived at Polarity Institute.

Translation: she lived in a commune and was involved in a cult.

Or something close enough that it was very, very suspicious to my parents.

To this day I am amazed that my mother allowed me to go to the party. Not that Mom would have worried that I’d be sucked into some bizarre group, but it was all just so UNKNOWN…I mean, I never knew anyone else who ever visited the commune and I certainly never did so again – not because anything bad happened, the opportunity just never came up. As I recall, my friend had moved away by the 6th grade, anyway.

My visit there was less than spectacular. I remember we were only allowed into the common room. I don’t remember cake, games, or anything else. Pretty much we were just left alone to hang around. I vaguely remember seeing a tall tree-house kind of thing on top of a pole. Or maybe I just imagined that.

I do, however, remember this for sure: they owned a VCR.

This was amazing to me.

Never before had I known anyone with such a thing. I didn’t even know what it was, to be honest. I remember going home after the two allotted hours and telling my mom, “They have a machine and they can watch The Sound of Music ANY TIME THEY WANT!!!!!”

This was miracle indeed. To be able to watch such a splendid movie at any given moment!! To not have to wait until it came on television?!

Remember those days? The waiting? The anticipation? I remember waiting for the Charlie Brown Christmas Special to come on TV. I’d pray that we had nowhere to go that evening. I’d write it on my calendar. I’d practically camp out in front of our little black and white set – the screen was smaller than my laptop’s screen is now – and woe betide anyone, parent or sister, who wanted to change the channel. Not that we had many channels to choose from. We had three, in fact, and all were out of Canada.

Now, when ABC advertises that the Charlie Brown Christmas Special is coming on my kids could care less. Not because they don’t like the Charlie Brown Christmas Special – quite the contrary – but because we own it. On Blue Ray. Black and while TV? What’s that?!

I have to say, it’s a mixed blessing, being able to own things like the Charlie brown Christmas Special. The anticipation is completely gone. That excitement. That skip in my step as the hour approached when we’d be blessed with Linus’ wisdom. Yes, it’s lovely to be able to watch it at any time…but, somehow, it’s not the same.

Somehow the magic has gone.

I’ll always remember my trip to the commune with a smile if for no other reason than I cherish that magical moment, that awe, when I realized that the technology existed to watch a favorite movie at any moment I so desired.

Yes…magical…and yet I had no idea how magical anticipation could be as well.

PS – We own The Sound of Music, too. But I hardly ever watch it. Maybe I should set a time – like my birthday – could that add the magic back? We have a family tradition of watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy every New Year’s weekend…and yes, we look forward to that as part of the festivities, so I suppose one can kind of manufacture that magic…with the added pleasure of being able to watch it any other time we so choose. The best of both worlds? Kinda of. But not quite…not quite…

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