Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The Joy Of Granddaughters

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published January 16, 2019] ©2019

I wrote last week about finding the ideal Christmas gift for Olof:  a slide rule.  I’d like to report that it is being lovingly slid on a daily basis.  Who knew there were so many reasons to calculate a logarithm?

But this Christmas was special for another milestone: For the first time ever,  I finally got to buy a grandchild a pair of earrings, in this case some sapphire-ish studs, her birthstone, to adorn her newly-pieced eight-year-old ears.

My adult life has included two husbands (I’m still married to one of them), two sons, two nephews, and a dog named Winston.  Nary a girl in sight until two lovely young women deigned to marry my sons (truthfully, we thought the ladies could do better) and produced two granddaughters (as well as three grandsons).  

I adore all five more than life itself.  But boys?  Been there, done that.  My sons were never all that interested in lunch and shopping.  And maybe that’s the good news. 

Hours after my first granddaughter’s birth, my fantasies went wild about all the things that we would do. I fervently hoped she would join a long line of proud feminists and enjoy learning about how her great-great, and great-great-greatgrandmothers were passionate suffragists, dedicated to the right of women to vote. 

It was clear to me when my sons were young that boys and girls were very different beings.  We would be at the home of a friend who had only girls, and my sons would be tearing around the house while the daughters were sitting on the floor dressing Barbies.  Clearly annoyed, the friend would say, “Could you please ask your sons to play quietly?”  And I’d think, “Sure, I can ask, but good luck with that.”  It’s not that they couldn’t be controlled or even compelled to sit, but “playing quietly” was an oxymoron.  It didn’t take too long until we pretty much didn’t have friends who only had girls. Not that girls can’t be holy terrors themselves. 

My two granddaughters (my other son produced a daughter 18 months after his brother did) are polar opposites.  Yet when they come together, they bond like long-lost siblings, perhaps because neither has a sister or even female cousin of her own.  Although both are theoretically Californians, I think they regard each other as exotic foreign exchange students,  each marveling at the dramatically different life of the other.

My older granddaughter lives in the uber-competitive world of West L.A.  She and her brothers all play multiple sports (both of their parents did in their youths as well) starting with Soccer Skills class at 18 months. It’s a rare holiday weekend that doesn’t include at least one tournament.

In a galaxy far far away, my younger granddaughter spends her weekends in Santa Cruz hiking public lands (for which they have annual passes) with her older brother and her parents, and invited friends, picking berries with which they make pies or jams when they get home. They raise chickens in the back yard for fresh eggs, and otherwise lead an unfrenetic life of wholesome organic-ness. 

When both granddaughters were here in July of 2017 for Olof’s and my joint 70th birthday celebration, I regularly fielded queries from one about the other.  West L.A. granddaughter observed in total astonishment, “Mormor, did you know that Molly doesn’t play a single sport?”  West L.A. granddaughter could not even fathom that there were children who didn’t have assorted athletic bags piled up by the front door.

Santa Cruz granddaughter was equally puzzled.  “So, you have to go somewhere after school every single day?”  She could not imagine that this would be a chosen life.

One afternoon when all the grandkids were in the pool, Santa Cruz granddaughter announced that she had to go to the bathroom.  So she jumped out of the pool, went behind the nearest semi-camouflaging philodendron, pulled down her suit, went, pulled it back up, and was back in the pool all within a matter of 30 seconds. 

West L.A. granddaughter was dumbstruck.  “Mormor,” she asked me later, “is that allowed?”
“Well,” I said, “it sort of depends on who your parents are.  And where you live.”  I explained that in her cousin’s world, she spends a lot of time hiking around park lands where there are not actual bathrooms, so that’s what you do. 

But the young ladies were a solidly united front hawking cherry tomatoes from our plants at our front gate at exorbitant prices to generous passers-by.  Farmer’s markets were a language they both understood.

When I learned that my older granddaughter had recently had her ears pierced, I was thrilled at the opportunity of a first-ever purchase of earrings for a child or grandchild.  I don’t know who got more pleasure from it, me shopping for them or her wearing them.  But it’s a whole new era. And I’m loving it. 

Monday, January 7, 2019

A Slide Rule Finds Its Forever Home

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published January 9, 2019] ©2018

It becomes harder and harder to find really special gifts for Olof at Christmas, especially when he has everything he wants, buys it himself if he doesn’t, and we’re always trying to downsize.  But this year I hit the jackpot: a slide rule.

Let me be clear that there aren’t that many people left who even know what a slide rule is, much less covet one.  Or know how to use one.  Or wouldn’t rather just calculate on their Apple Watch 4. 

In Olof’s and my youth (see “Mesolithic era”) there were, astonishingly, no handheld electronic calculators.  The really geeky guys (they were always guys) had slide rules which are mechanical analog computers, a phrase that I’m sure helps you as little as it did me.  (By “computers”, we mean a device that helps you compute rather than something you plug into a power circuit.)  Sliding the little bar thingey (not its technical name) back and forth you could do multiplication and division and also functions such as exponents, roots, logarithms, and trigonometry if you knew or cared what those were.  Olof informs me it was accurate to three places. 

Now, one would think that there would be a ton of cheap slide rules available out there for the mathematically sentimental, until you then realize that those two terms are mutually exclusive.  What was astonishing as I began my search was that searching “slide rule” on Amazon usually just got you pictures of slide rules on coffee mugs, T-shirts, and even wall paper. 

Suffice to say, the better source was eBay, and not surprisingly, every option was labeled “pre-owned.”  If you own stock in a company that claims to make new slide rules, you should sell.   A technologically-savvy neighbor helped me weed through the choices and ultimately found one that, while pre-owned, appeared to be new.  The seller apologetically noted that the case was engraved in gold with the name “William G. Vande Logt” presumably making it less valuable (unless your name was William G. Vande Logt). 

I was sold the second I saw it.  A slide rule with a back story! Does life get better than that? 

When it came, the leather case and carry strap (if you wanted to wear it on your belt to look super-geeky), were still in its original box. The documentation underneath it was literally crumbling and didn’t appear to have ever been removed.

William Vande Logt appeared to have been underwhelmed with this gift. 

I immediately Googled his obligingly-unusual name and found the obituary notice of his death on May 10, 2012 at the age of 81.  He had been employed by Zenith Electronics Corporation for 50 years in the Chicago area, was an avid golfer, had no children, was pre-deceased by his wife, beloved by nieces and nephews, and greatly mourned by his dog Breezy. 

But apparently not a slide rule guy. 

So I’m thinking a slide rule like this was likely given as a high school graduation present, which in Mr. Vande Logt’s case would have been 1949.  But who gave it to him? And was there a message there?  A father who dreamed of his son going into some prestigious engineering career?  Was this a sore subject?

One thing for sure:  this slide rule had never been slid.

It took a certain amount of brute force to move the middle bar which Olof notes will require an overdue application of lube, or at least some occasional use. 

I’m imagining Bill Van de Logt eagerly opening what he thinks is going to be whatever the hot new gadget was in 1949 and finding…a slide rule.  I can see the long face even now.  But why didn’t it end up in the nearest Salvation Army bin? OK, maybe because it had his name on it. 

So, what has this slide rule been up to since it was presented to Mr. Vande Logt?  Well, besides nothing for at least 63 years until his passing in 2012.  Mr. Vande Logt had no children to whom he could inflict this long-ago excoriated gift.  And what about the last six years until it was apologetically (given the personalization on the case) put on the eBay auction block? 

Inquiring minds would love to know. 

Our grandkids were quickly bored with Olof’s Christmas morning gift since it didn’t actually DO anything.  We explained to them that a slide rule was not the same as an abacus (one of them had heard of this) which pre-dated us by at least a decade. Our four-year-old grandson asked if we could put it down and help him sync his new remote-controlled tank to his iPad. 

Well, Bill, your slide rule has waited a long time for the loving home it has always deserved.  And if that’s not a warm fuzzy spirit-of-Christmas story, I don’t know what is. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Ghosts Of Christmas Trees Past

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published December 19, 2018] ©2018

A few days ago I went to buy my Christmas tree and couldn’t help but reflect on the ghosts of Christmas trees past.

My first husband always insisted we get a small live tree which we would then plant in the yard in what he considered a charming post-Christmas tradition. Folks: do NOT try this at home!  Little did we realize how much those suckers would grow - one to 40 feet! By the time my husband and I divorced ten years (and Christmas trees) later, anyone driving by would think our place was a tree farm with a driveway.  Meanwhile, the interior of the house descended into a barn-esque gloom since the tree tops had created a rain forest canopy effect. The tree roots made for constant plumbing problems and grass wouldn’t grow under pine needles. Ultimately, it cost me $4,000 to have ten originally-$20 trees removed from the property.  (I knew I should have had a Christmas tree removal reimbursement clause in the divorce decree!)

Now single with two little kids, I went for the six-foot Douglas fir simply because they were the cheapest. I’d be on my stomach trying to screw the trunk into the stand while six-year-old Rory was holding up the tree. Three-year-old Henry was supposed to tell me when it was straight.  I crawled out from under the tree to discover that it was listing 45 degrees. Irrefutably demonstrating the principle of gravitational vector forces, it promptly fell over.

It was several more years at least until we had a Christmas tree that wasn’t leaning precariously. In a brilliant Single Mom Home Repair School solution, I tied a rope midway up the trunk and tethered the other end to a ceiling plant hook.  Miraculously (since I guarantee that butterfly bolts are not rated for Christmas tree stabilization), it stayed vertical.

Some years later, Henry, who was about 11 at the time, and I brought home a bargain supermarket tree. Our tree, alas, had lots of branches right at the base of the trunk which we were attempting to amputate with a rusty jigsaw (left over from Pinewood Derby days) - in the dark in the front yard via flashlight - so that we could get the trunk into the stand.  What’s amazing is that we didn’t sever any digits in the process. I finally ended up calling a neighbor who came over with the appropriate tools and did the job for us. Decision for next year: better saw, or a tree from a Christmas tree lot.

Since I wasn’t all that interested in replicating the experience even with good tools, the next year I did indeed go to a tree lot and got full service branch trimming. The tree lot guys mentioned that they could probably get the tree on top of my little Toyota if I wanted to save the delivery fee. (I think they sensed a cheap tipper.)  I was dubious but they did indeed get the tree tied securely on top of the car by having me open the two front windows and running the rope through the car and around the tree, knotting it on top.

IQ test: What’s wrong with this picture?

Off I went in the early evening darkness driving as slowly as possible through back streets.  I was terrified that a sudden stop would put this tree on the hood of my car, or worse, through the windshield of the car behind me. With enormous relief, I pulled up in front of my darkened house. It was the kids’ night at their dad’s, and Olof was not yet living in San Diego. My plan was to untie the tree, drag it onto the front porch and have the kids help me set it up the following night.

Obviously over-focused on saving the delivery fee and failing to engage even a single synapse, I had not stopped to realize that with the rope threaded through the car windows, the doors couldn’t open. I was trapped in my car. It was well before cell phones. I sat in my car thinking, “Geesh, Inga, it’s amazing you’re allowed to leave the house without a conservator.”  (And also: Would it have killed those tree guys to ask if there would be anybody at home???)

I sat there shivering in my open-windowed car and pondering my options. I didn’t really want to have to go all the way back to the tree lot. But it would probably take all evening to cut through the rope with my car keys. (Note to self: Keep 9-inch Bowie knife in the glove compartment!)

As luck would have it, a neighbor arrived home from work shortly after, and, graciously avoiding voicing what must surely have been his assessment of the situation, extricated me from the car. Why all of my neighbors were not hiding from me after the first year I was single is still a mystery.

But ultimately, I married Olof and we could afford to have not only the Noble fir I had always coveted but have the nice Christmas tree lot people deliver it and set it up to my satisfaction. Personally, I think I’ve earned it.

No, this is not a tree farm.  My house is in there.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Famous Quotes From Olof

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published December 12, 2018]  ©2018

I may be the alleged writer in the family but many people don’t know that the real talent in the family is Olof.  Despite being a nuclear-physics-trained engineer, Olof has always been a fabulous letter writer.  It was, in fact, how we kept in touch for 23 years from the time we spent our senior year in high school in Brazil as exchange students (how we met) until serendipity (and both of our divorces) brought us back together decades later.

One of my regrets is that I don’t still have any of his letters to me during those two-plus decades.  Of course, we were either writing by hand on lined paper or right off the typewriter, unedited.  Both of us liked to find the humor in mundane – and often not funny at the time - things that were happening in our lives that day …my first husband’s and my attempt to save $125 by acid washing our pool ourselves, for example. Olof regularly regaled me with Air Force moments gone awry. My column is basically letters to a wider audience.

But in the 31 years we’ve been together since our divorces, I fortunately saved favorite documents of his creation, including all the contracts he had for Nintendo game loans (at interest!) with my younger son, Henry.  (Neither my ex nor I thought Henry was a good credit risk.)  Henry, even at eight, was clear that this money would be paid  back, and his allowance never had to be garnished a single time. Not surprisingly, Henry wrote his essay for MBA programs on learning business ethics from Olof.

Over the years, I’ve jotted down favorite Olof-isms.  On being asked on Thursday mornings if he was likely to be working that weekend, he’d reply, “Probably.  Thursday is Crisis Discovery day.” When he returned home after a brutal 20-hour day, I offered sympathy.  He nodded, as he headed for the bedroom.  “Yup, I’ve been ridden hard.  And put away wet.”  After rescuing a project threatening to implode, he’d note, “I think we got the shiny side back up.”

On his aggregate of four years in Saudi Arabia, the ever-optimistic Olof opined: “It’s only a desert if you think of it that way.  I prefer to think of it as a very large beach, with surf breaking on both sides."

When asked how he was able to successfully fix an item that had been considered irretrievably broken, he is likely to smile and reply, "cunning and guile,” “I messed with it,” or “just a mindless application of force.”

Always asked for technical support from family and friends, he often can’t help adding commentary. Explaining a new mouse to my sister some years ago, he wrote; “This is an optical, versus mechanical, mouse. Optical mice have no balls.  Comparisons to the Democratic leadership in Congress are gratuitous.”

Describing something as really inconsequential, he will reference the testicular attributes of rodents:It’s mouse nuts when you look at it.”

He has been in my kids’ lives since they were six and eight (we married when they were 15 and 17), and have had a profound influence on their education.  In a discussion I was having with the kids back in 1987 about what constitutes “manners,” Olof clarified, “anything you do that feels natural is unmannerly.” This they understood.

On another occasion, commenting on both on my housekeeping skills AND the kids’ assessment that they’d grown up “poor,” he opined: “You didn’t grow up in poverty. But you did grow up in squalor.

After one of our three beloved goldfish - Lucky, Ducky, or Tucky had just died (hopefully not Lucky)  I was trying to decide what might be an appropriate funeral service for it.  After three days with a dead gold fish in the refrigerator, Olof finally took matters into his own hands. I heard the toilet flushing in the hall way bathroom.  Olof came out and solemnly announced, “It was a burial at sea.”

He’s now adored by the five grandchildren whom he affectionately refers to alternately as “the plague carriers” and also “the destroyers of peace.” In play with our grandsons who have named themselves after various superheroes, Olof has dubbed himself Hummingbird Man.

From time to time I get to see his messages in cards we send to the kids.  On Henry’s 38th birthday this year, Olof noted: “Henry – It’s not hard to get older.  It’s getting wiser that’s hard. With three kids, a busy wife and a demanding job, you’ve gotten lots of opportunities.  Enjoy them.  Love, Olof”.

Responding to “Bastille Day birthday wishes” on his July 14 birthday, he noted: “Thanks for the good wishes.  So far my barricades have withstood the assault of time better than those of Louis XVI. But time is the great equalizer.”

So thanks, Olof. You are truly this household’s ray of sunshine.  And fortunately you don’t want to write a column of your own. 

I took this picture of Olof as we arrived at the Rio de Janeiro 
airport in 1965 to spend our senior year of high school as exchange students 

Olof and I corresponded frequently during his 
Air Force days

Monday, November 19, 2018

My Criminal Past

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published November 21, 2018] ©2018

I recently ran a column on the subject of teenage vandals on Halloween.

What I didn’t mention – and I confess it’s been haunting me a bit – is that I have a brief history of teenager criminal behavior myself.  I think it would be classified as Grand Theft Fruit and I’m not entirely sure that the statute of limitations is up.

As teenagers go, I was a good kid.  A 16-year-old public high school senior when this event occurred, I was editor of the school paper and president of the school’s service organization.  In earlier years I had been Secretary of the Organ Club (music, not donors).  So, I just want to say, Your Honor, that I wasn’t exactly going around breaking car windows on Halloween like some of the miscreants in my own neighborhood. 

I have read that the frontal lobe of the brain, the area associated with judgment, doesn’t reach maturity until the mid-to-late 20’s.  (I think we all know people in whom it never matures at all.)

The school service organization had decided the year before that as their major service project, they would adopt a Korean orphan which had a financial commitment of $10 a month – a  significant sum at the time.  We were clear that if we failed to raise this money, our orphan would starve. 

In the fall of 1964 when I was at the helm of this organization, we realized that due to orphan payments over the summer when we had no revenue, we would be short for our November 1 payment. Asking parents to fund this shortfall would never have been considered; it was our responsibility. The club decided to raise money by selling caramel apples door to door. Caramels were fortunately on sale but we’d never be able to make the required profit if we had to buy apples as well.  Came a voice from the back of our planning meeting: “What about Rockefeller’s apple orchards? He’s got plenty.”  We all lit up. It was like a bolt of lightning from a sociopathic higher being.

A little ways down the road from my New York City commuter burb was Pocantico Hills, the site of the Rockefeller estate.  On many occasions, we had driven past his apple orchards.  And yes, he did have plenty.

So, is Your Honor asking if we knew that what we were doing was wrong?  Well, the fact that we went at dusk might suggest so. With me driving my father’s car, five of us, clad in dark clothing, parked alongside the road, and, baskets in hand, crept stealthily up the hill.  Two of us climbed the trees and shook down apples while the other three loaded them into the baskets. 

In my memory, we heard a shot. Like from a gun.  But what we definitely heard was shouting in our direction and persons of a guard persuasion running in our direction. Terrified, we jumped out of the trees, grabbed the baskets and tore down the hill, hurling the apples into the trunk and blasting out of there at excessive speed, me driving the getaway car.   

For the next three days, I fully expected the police at our door ready to arrest Dad for being an accessory to a felony fruit heist. 

But opportunities to wield the poor judgment of our not-yet-mature frontal cortexes were not over.  The next morning our club convened at the home of another member to make the caramel apples. As we unloaded the apples from the trunk, a terrible reality hit us that we weren’t aware of earlier given the dim light of early evening.  It was the very end of the apple season and while these apples weren’t flat-out rotten, their best days were well behind them. 

We stood in the kitchen in silence looking at this sad collection of semi-decaying fruit and pondering our next move when someone said, “Well, we’re going to cover them with caramel, right?”  The God of Frontal Lobe Deficiency was working overtime that day.

I would like to say in my defense, Your Honor, that if we saw an actual worm in the apple, we didn’t cover it in caramel. Even we had some (very very minimal) standards. And so, we set to work, washing (yes, we did wash them first) and dipping our apples in melted caramel, and then meting out an equal number to each club member to sell in her neighborhood.  Instructions were clear: Make the sale and move on. Quickly. Remember: it’s for the orphan.

We did indeed make enough money to cover our orphan for the month.  At our next club meeting, when our faculty advisor learned how these funds had been raised, the color drained out of her face. 

So, creepy Halloween miscreants, you’re still not forgiven for vandalism in my neighborhood. But in my heart of hearts, I know your type.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Careers Your Guidance Counselor Never Mentioned

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published November 14, 2018] ©2018

I continue to be impressed with how many really interesting careers are out there that I never knew existed.

For example, in a column I wrote some months ago on colonoscopies, I came upon the work of one Mike Levitt described as “the world’s authority on intestinal gas.”  As I noted at the time, the would have to be every 10-year-old boy’s ultimate dream career.  You could just imagine the utter rapture on their little faces: “That’s a real job?” Think how much harder they would have studied in school if they knew that this was a future option!

At a dinner party last year with a group of scientists, one of them was lamenting that her company can never find a good “fungal physiologist.”  They are apparently in great demand, and even if you hire one, some other company will likely poach him/her from you. This definitely goes under the heading of “Careers that sound icky but pay great.”  And that your guidance counselor never mentioned to you.

A reader, responding to my recent column on low-flow toilets wrote: “I wanted to alert you to the existence of a very funny book dealing with every aspect [of excremental functions] including toilet design… It was written by an emeritus faculty at UCSD who was an internationally-respected algologist.”  As fun as the book sounded (it was; I read it), it was the “internationally-respected algologist” that immediately grabbed my attention.  A quick Google search revealed that an algologist is either a person who specializes in the study of pain…or algae.  (Could make the annual convention confusing at best.) The author, as it turns out, specialized in the latter and was in fact known as “the father of green algae genetics” which, like fungal physiology, is a career path I never knew existed. If he were alive I would ask him what inspired him to go into algae.  Did he have a pool guy as bad as mine?

I recently came across a career aptitude test report for my father from July 1937.  (I really have to get on those file boxes.)  The report noted that “Solely from a consideration of Henry’s work sample scores, his outstanding characteristics and those which he should make every effort to use are:

1.     Extremely subjective personality
2.     Inductive reasoning
3.     Tweezer dexterity

OK, I get that tweezer (fine motor) dexterity is really useful in a lot of professions but if I were his parents, I might have considered killing myself that it made the top three of my 16-year-old’s assessed skills.  What was most intriguing to me was the limitations of careers within the four possible career categories of the time: Science, Business, Language, and Social.  The Language category consisted in its entirety of Advertiser, Journalist, Lawyer, Salesman (Real Estate) and Salesman (Life Insurance).  The Business Group career options – all of five – were Purchasing Agent, Specialty Salesman, Office Clerk, Accountant, and Certified Public Accountant. Were these really the only choices in those categories then?

After my divorce 35 years ago, I underwent a battery of career tests myself at the behest of my husband’s lawyer who was less interested in my job aspirations than getting me off his client’s payroll.  What I remember about the test battery was that parts of it really were battery.  One test in particular gave you two choices and asked “Would you rather do this or this?”  Often the answer I wanted was “neither” or even ‘NOT IF THEY WERE THE ONLY TWO CHOICES BETWEEN ME AND DEATH.” But you had to pick one.

The results accurately showed that I was social and people-oriented but liked to work independently (amen: committees drive me bats--t crazy) recommending that three careers to which I would be ideally suited would be Nursing Home Supervisor, Chamber of Commerce Executive, or Liquor Store Manager. After the fact, I fantasized a career creating new career tests.

Of course, much of the time, despite the best laid plans (or more often, a total lack of plans), people just fall into professions.  A La Jolla friend has made a successful career (defined by living in La Jolla) out of manufacturing coloring books and crayons. Another lives off the manufacture of filters for home heating systems – you know, the ones you’re supposed to change every four months and actually change every four years? A friend of my husband’s lives a good life off the manufacture and wholesaling of woven door mats. Recently I saw ads for Waste Water Operators. I think I can safely say that not one of these guys had a guidance counselor who said, “I see your strengths as being in the coloring book/heating filter/door mat/waste water field.”

By the way, Dad ultimately went to an Ivy League school then, post war service, to Harvard Business School.  Inquiring minds want to know: was it the tweezer thing?

Monday, November 5, 2018

Generations Forward And Back

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published November 7, 2018] ©2018

I’ve mentioned before that the problem with living in the same house for 45 years is that one has a tendency not to clean out files in a timely manner.  One advantage of this, however, is that in my efforts to finally tackle this task, I came upon a folder of several hundred pages of letters written by my mother to me from the time I went to college until she died when I was 25.  Over the last few months I have slowly savored them.

What is unusual about this correspondence is that it represents much of our interaction since it was well before email, and during a time that long distance calls were reserved for dire emergencies.  What’s especially nice is that my mother was a wonderful writer.

A disadvantage is that I don’t have my letters to her, just hers responding to me.  And while I remember myself as a dutiful daughter who brought nothing but joy to her parents, I was obviously at times a total pain.  And sometimes genuinely mean.  But there it all is, in writing.

If she were alive today, I’d be doing some serious apologizing. 

My mother was a third-generation feminist (I’m a proud fourth).  Both her mother and grandmother had been rabid suffragists and proponents of women’s rights.  The 19th amendment (giving women the right to vote) passed when she was a toddler.

Maybe this background is why “home arts” were not her strong suit.  In one of her letters, she recounts her efforts to make new curtains for the common room of our small vacation home: “When I started to cut the thirty yards of patterned cloth, I discovered that the reason it was such a bargain was that the pattern hadn’t been printed straight. I finished a sample drape and it was beautiful except that the pattern was upside down. So I made the second one upside down also. If anybody notices, I will say that I thought they looked too suburban right side up. Then I did the kitchen side and they weren’t crooked, they were merely three inches too short. I solved this with a different kind of hanging unit.  After that I took the rest of the week off curtains.”

While she may not have been a domestic goddess, she was a dedicated horticulturalist. When I was in college, my parents moved to New Jersey to a newly-built home on a hilly overgrown wooded lot which provided challenges even to as talented a gardener as my mother. Many of her letters chronicle her efforts to tame this jungle while preserving its natural charm.  She referred to its different problem areas as the Slough of Despond, the Bosky Dell, and the Panama Canal.  My first marriage was, in fact, at a tree stump altar in those very woods.

I’ve written before that my sum total writing training is a life time of letter writing – which is really what my columns are: letters I’m writing to a wider audience. But also, from the time I was around eight years old, I started writing little stories and poems.  My mother always had nothing but praise for them no matter how awful they were (and believe me, they were), wanting me to experience the joy of writing for itself.  But if there was one she particularly liked, she’d ask if she could buy it from me for a nickel (the rate ultimately went up to a dime), obviously subtly encouraging my better work.  “Better” would be a relative term, as I found a whole folder of these after she died.  I’m truly impressed with her faith in me.

My older granddaughter is eight, and she and I were talking about this during a visit earlier this year.  I was telling her in earshot of her parents about writing stories that my mother then purchased if she particularly liked them.  Writing should be fun, I said.  You can make things happen any way you want them to. She wanted to know if she could write stories about how the mean girls get theirs.  I said “absolutely.” 

When we visited L.A. in May my son Henry showed me a story that my granddaughter wrote that he had purchased for $20.  (Definite inflation.)  It was utterly charming (and not about mean girls), and gorgeously illustrated in vibrant colors.  With a twinkle in his eye, Henry picked up the story off the counter where he’d placed it and said to her, “Now in Daddy’s job [private equity], I would let Mormor have this for $40."  Alas, the counter top was damp and all the colors had run on the illustrations.  My granddaughter turned to me and said, “Offer him ten, Mormor.  It got wet." 

Jury is still out on which direction this young lady is headed.  Or maybe not.