Sunday, December 9, 2012
The author repudiated her family’s “tough cowboy” ethos and rejected what she felt was their misguided pride and chauvinism.
When I finished her sad memoir, I shed a tear in my root beer.
Then I stopped. Replace “Montana” with “Idaho,” subtract the boozy second husband, and her story is my story. Why isn’t my story depressing?
Perhaps because I was raised by the world’s most incurable romantic.
Mom grew up reading the feel-good stories of Gene Stratton Porter: “Laddie” and “Girl of the Limberlost,” and Benedict and Nancy Mars Freedman: “Mrs. Mike.”
She believed that love conquers all, and she lived her belief.
She saw beyond the obvious—Dad, scratching his grizzled crew-cut, wearing yesterday’s dirty jeans and a baggy wife-beater, yawning, in desperate need of coffee to jump start his middle-aged system.
He hadn’t stepped out of her novels. He wasn’t a dashing member of the Canadian Mounted Police, or an environmental pioneer striving to save endangered timberland.
But he was her hero. They sold the dry farm during the 1960s—not at top dollar, since his brothers were the buyers—and he worked hard every day to save our financially endangered family.
Mama took care to show us the handsome young man who proposed when she was 18. To a daughter contemplating marriage, she wrote the story: “He took me, that beautiful moonlit May night, to the little wishing bridge beneath the newly leafing trees at the park—and asked me to marry him! We were deliriously happy, sitting in the moonlight and planning what a wonderful family we’d have. I remember we mentioned we’d still be married in 1980 [he died in 1989] and that seemed the dearest thing we could ask for. He cuddled me in his arms and put a beautiful diamond on my finger.”
She believed in him. And by extension, she believed in the children born to their marriage—lucky for me.
At times, her incurable romanticism kind of made me sick. I called her Pollyanna and said she was “corny.” Her grandkids accused her of being “cheesy”—the same thing.
Now, I catch myself thinking like she did. Along with believing in people, she didn’t judge them. If she’d been a memoir writer, she wouldn’t have applied 2012 ethical standards to 1890s homesteaders. I don’t think we should either—most of us wouldn’t stack up too well if judged by their standards.
We should be honest about people and the world, but it doesn’t hurt to put on rose-colored glasses once in awhile.
So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go sing “Auld Lang Syne” with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed.
Sunday, November 11, 2012
What gift is given when a woman does another woman’s nails?
My sisters and I had a love-hate relationship with beautiful nails. Growing up, we watched enviously as Madge soaked her client’s nails in Palmolive and showed off the lovely results. We did farm chores, and our nails were weak and brittle. We didn’t learn how to do a nice manicure.
Later, raising five children, I seldom took time for what seemed to be a self-indulgent activity. When I did slop on some nail polish, my stubby nails were quickly battle-scarred by dishwashing, gardening, and canning.
As in many things, I learn from my children. Our oldest daughter, Lara, learned how to care for her hands and passed the knowledge on to her sisters. Recently she bought a dryer for gel nail polish, which we christened “the EZ Bake Oven.”
At our family reunion, Lara took time away from fun to give manicures and pedicures to ten girls and women. Each was able to visit with her—very relaxing—because the gel method involves applying several coats of polish and drying them for 60 to 90 minutes.
Those nails made me feel prettier, and my shiny fingernails lasted two weeks at the peak of gardening and canning season, and my toenails lasted two months.
When my mother-in-law, Marene, went to a rehab center after a fall, Lara volunteered to do her nails. She planned to use regular polish, since Marene wasn’t using her hands much, but Marene had heard about the EZ Bake Oven and wanted to try it.
We meshed three busy schedules to accomplish the nail session—Marene fit it in between therapy sessions, Lara found time amid the demands of four young children, and I penciled in an afternoon to tend two rambunctious boys.
Their visit was much like this beautiful autumn—unhurried, peaceful and strengthening. Marene was pleased with the results on her beautiful, tiny hands that showed the benefits of years of dedicated moisturizing and manicuring.
When her nails began show wear, Marene asked for another manicure. We couldn’t schedule it that week, and promised to get to it the next week.
Then she became seriously ill. Within 36 hours, we were told that her condition was terminal. She was made comfortable, and we sat and held her tiny hands.
Angels work at “4th South,” a special part of St Luke’s Hospital in Boise, as well as in other parts of the building. Caitlyn and Kim brought us chair-beds to sleep on when sleep was desperately needed; Dawn brought juice and pamphlets about what to expect; Marla moved us to a bigger room, and with Debra, guided us gently down the path through the valley of death.
One special angel, Lara, came with nail polish and a file and gently manicured her grandmother’s nails for the last time.
How lovely it is to hold someone’s hands and make them feel beautiful!
Friday, October 19, 2012
I remember sitting in her old overstuffed chair, talking. She was a good listener. She allowed the brimming heart of a little girl to flow freely, without judgment. She understood kids, and was a kid at heart.
Nettie Rackham lived a block and half away from our family in
Maybe it was after our maternal grandmother died when I was nine that we
started calling her “Grandma Rackham” instead of “Mrs. Rackham.” Teton City, Idaho
We dearly loved our own grandparents, but they didn’t live close by, and they were dead by the time I was 13. Nettie wasn’t our real grandma, but she filled an important place in our lives.
I remember her curly gray hair, pulled back into a bun, and her long sharp fingernails. I enjoyed watching how she used her hands differently than we short-nailed Nelsons.
Grandma met her husband at the age of 14, a skinny girl pushing a her brother in a baby carriage to a “medicine show.” Chloe courted her as she tended her younger siblings after her mother’s untimely death.
They married and raised their kids before and during the Great Depression. She gave birth to her first child by herself on an isolated homestead. She said she was scared the whole time they lived there, but she certainly did some courageous things with snakes and other challenges.
Once she showed me her photo as a young girl, taken around 1915. She looked like a “Gibson Girl” with a lovely hairdo. I asked her how she was able to fix it that way.
“Oh, we stuck it up in all kinds of messes and jammed pins into it,” she said.
Our Mama was an attentive neighbor to this little lady who no longer had a driver’s license, but at the heart of it, they were friends. One day when my youngest sister was three, she noticed that Mama had dozed off during their naptime.
What an opportunity! Shanan slipped out of the house.
Mama jumped up, saw where Shanan was headed and called Grandma. When Shanan entered, she told Grandma she wanted to play. In some gentle way, Grandma got her up on her settee covered with an ancient patchwork quilt and Shanan took a nap.
Mama wanted us to do things for Grandma Rackham because we loved her and it would do us good, but Grandma was firm. She had needs, and we kids filled them—it was a business proposition for her to pay us to get her mail and grocery items from the Teton Merc.
She rolled a quarter out of an Alka Seltzer bottle to pay us—we protested, but not much. Grandma was our source of spending money until we got old enough to babysit, when we got paid .25 or .35 an hour.
We spent them on penny candy—bubble gum, jawbreakers, malt balls, Smarties, and lollipops.
She may not have been a blood Grandma, but she was a real one.
If you had a memorable grandparent—remember to write about them!
Monday, September 24, 2012
The clothes police who monitored my every accessorization for nearly 30 years have moved out, and I’m helpless.
One day 29 years ago, our oldest daughter was having an “I don’t wanna go to kindergarten meltdown.” I convinced her that if she wore a fresh flower in her hair, she’d be happy at school.
It was the last time she took my fashion instruction. She developed her own taste and soon began giving me advice.
It reached a crisis the Christmas morning when she was 14. The day before, I’d had a parenting crisis, walking through the mall, counting the number of gifts I had for each child, and realizing that she was a gift short.
I decided to buy her a new coat. It was slim pickings, but I found a nice red parka.
Christmas morning at our house was always chaotic, but nothing could have prepared us for her reaction. Her blood-curdling cry reverberated from the walls: “I look like a tomato!”
Later, her future mother-in-law asked me what clothes she might like as a gift, and I had no idea—I had sworn off buying her clothes.
Her two younger sisters followed in her footsteps. If I wanted them to hate an outfit, all I had to say was, “That’s cute.”
This also applied to dating, with my sons as well as my daughters. If I said, “You ought go out with Joe Blow / Jane Smow,” there’d be an immediate “Eeeyouuu! You’re crazy!”
Kiss of death.
So the clothes police have lived at my house for 29 years.
My middle daughter got me out of nylons, assuring me that many women were running around bare-legged—that this is “the best way to wear sandals—as long as you shave your legs and get a tan.”
Women my age have a long history with nylon stockings—at first you wore them with a garter belt, a tangle of mechanical parts and weird elastic; then you graduated to a girdle, which sucked in your gut for you all day at school. Panty hose were a big improvement, but they still twisted and got runs, snags, and holes.
So I happily gave up nylons. My legs aren’t tan, but the blue veins make up for it.
Our youngest daughter fought a losing battle to keep me from looking old. She left for college two years ago, and I became free as a bird.
I caught myself yelling things like: “Too bad! Those hip-huggers you gave me had a bleach accident!”
Then my cousin said, “What’s with all these women who run around without nylons? In my day, that was a sign of low morals.”
It bothered me, so I took a visual survey at church. The younger women didn’t wear nylons; the older women did.
I need the clothes police to tell me if I’m too old to leave my hosiery off.
I’m turning myself in. It won’t be so bad—those orange jumpsuits are kind of cute.
Tuesday, September 11, 2012
Anyone who has had one or more good grandparents has a priceless gift. My husband passed on part of his legacy when he showed our kids the candy drawer in his grandma’s kitchen.
Our grandparents showered us with candy, stories, lullabies, and hugs—and so did our kids’ grandparents. Our youngest cried halfway across the state after leaving my mother once. Finally I said, “We’ve come a long way. Do you still want to go back?” “Yes, let’s go!” she replied, replacing her tears with a smile for a brief moment before she realized we were still driving toward
Our kids’ grandparents lived far away. When we were together, three of our kids’ grandpas took them fishing and four grandmas cooked for them. The rest of the year, they used letters, packages, phone calls and birthday cards filled with money to show their love.
Nowadays, many grandparents send texts, tweets and Facebook messages.
For the grandparents, this all takes a mental toll. Case in point: recently, my husband asked at breakfast, “Are you serving warmed-over waffles?”
I replied, “Yes, they were home-made yesterday and toasted today, but remember, every day thousands of people eat Legos.”
Fortunately our ten grandchildren between the ages of ten and one have eaten more Eggos than Legos, but they’ve done everything else with Legos that you can think of, and a few you can’t imagine.
We entered grandparenthood in a big way—our oldest grandchild was born around 3 a.m. on our 25th Anniversary. The first grandchild on both sides, he had no fewer than eight grandmothers, great-grandmothers and step-grandmothers, and four various grandfathers. To say he was showered with gifts is putting it mildly.
I didn’t want to get lost in the shuffle. I recommend my secret weapon to any grandparent in the same dilemma: books. Babies like to be held and read to.
Reading creates a bond
Nine of our grandchildren said, “Bama, Ama” or some other variation of “Grandma” before they said anything remotely close to “Grandpa.” One grandson called us both “Grandma” until he was four years old. And our home is “Grandma’s house” rather than “Grandpa’s house.”
My husband is a good grandpa and this bothers him just a bit.
I chalk it up to thousands of “this little piggy’s,” lullabies, walks, sippy cups filled with juice, pushes on the swing, diaper changes, Disney Sorry games where I have to play the part of Captain Hook rather than Buzz Lightyear or Cinderella—and a ton and half of cookies per grandchild per year.
It’s a big job being a rock star to these little folks, but someone’s got to do it.
However, our 21-month-old grandson said “Bumpa” first and has been saying it ever since. It’s not meant for me, because he walks in the room, looks me in the eye and says, “’Ere’s Bumpa?”
Some kids just can’t be bribed.
Tuesday, August 28, 2012
My back-to-school memory triggers—the smell of chalk dust, the clang of the big bell in the school belfry, and the sight of wooden desks attached to each other with metal rails along the floor—will not be my grandchildren’s’ triggers. They will remember the smell of whiteboard markers, the sound of electronic buzzers and PA systems, and metal desks, some with computers on top.
Everything is different. But I hope they learn some lessons, either in school or in life, that are the same: That they grow by doing the most challenging jobs; that mistakes are part of success, and that there’s no place like the dinner table at home.
My mom said: “Life is hard, but you can do hard things.”
D. Todd Christofferson, noted attorney and church leader, tells of a cold late winter day when he was 12 years old. His father was out of town, and the family’s ewes started birthing. His grandfather left work, picked Todd up from school, showed him how to deliver a lamb and then returned to work, leaving him to deliver 12 more lambs.
He says, “Doing this difficult job was the biggest self-esteem builder I ever had—far more meaningful than hearing ‘You’re such a great guy,’ from adults in my life.”
Here’s another lesson I hope the grandkids learn—“Work hard, expect that you’ll make mistakes, and keep working.”
During the women’s gymnastics at the 2012 Olympics, the commentators hyped some competitors so much that those watching expected perfection.
Gabby Douglas had won gold a couple of days before—then she made a misstep on the balance beam. Afterward, as the commentator fell on his sword, Gabby was nonchalant. She’s made a mistake, and the world was still turning. A wise parent or coach had taught this gracious young lady how to handle both flawless performances and boggled ones with gratitude for the opportunity to compete.
Finally, just as Dorothy of Oz learned, there’s no place like home—especially when the family eats together. Marion Cunningham, a cookbook author who died recently at the age of 90, said, “No one is cooking at home anymore, so we are losing all the wonderful lessons we learn at the dinner table.”
“Too many families seldom sit down together; it’s gobble and go,” she wrote, “eating food on the run, reheating it in relays in the microwave as one dashes off to a committee meeting, another to basketball practice. As a result we are losing an important value.
“Food is more than fodder. It is an act of giving and receiving because the experience at table is a communal sharing; talk begins to flow, feelings are expressed, and a sense of well-being takes over.”
My husband and I raised five children, and meetings, sports, and school activities competed with the family dinner hour. We fought to eat together as often as our schedules allowed, because, as Ms. Cunningham said: “The table is the place where you learn who you are and where you came from.”
Monday, August 6, 2012
Kevin S. grins up from our fifth-grade class picture. His gap-toothed grin and the sparkle in his eyes show that the photo was taken before November.
One day in 1964, Mama said, “Get dressed and have a cinnamon roll.”
Wow! Eating Mama’s cinnamon rolls at 7:30 a.m. was like having a decadent dessert instead of a mundane meal. Mama and Daddy made sure we ate a good breakfast every day: hot cereal, eggs or Dad’s sourdough biscuits and pancakes. Sourdough lovers said they were fantastic. I ate them but didn’t love them because they tasted sour.
Mama was generous with BBC (butter, brown sugar and cinnamon) and let her rolls rise to a tender fluffiness. Truly a caramel roll, they didn’t require a superfluous powdered sugar glaze.
To my nine-year-old mind, it was heaven to wake up to those rolls and a glass of cold, creamy milk from Swiss Miss, the family cow.
Ecstasy turned to agony, though, when Mom said, “Take these rolls over to your friend Kevin’s house.”
My friend Kevin? I had no friends named Kevin. Kevin J. and Kevin S. were in my class, but neither was a friend. They were boys, and as such, were bitter enemies to me and the other four girls in Mrs. McNee’s class.
“Mama! Why are you giving cinnamon rolls to Kevin’s family?” Mama’s eyes were swollen. Her voice broke as she answered softly, “Kevin’s daddy died of a heart attack last night.”
I was bewildered. My Dad was several years older than Mr. S., and there he sat, savoring a roll, looking solemn, but healthy as a horse. Fathers of children were not supposed to drop dead. It wasn’t part of the job description.
She was hustling me into my coat and mittens. “Mama!” I wailed. “You can’t make me go to their house all by myself!”
“Don’t drop them! Be nice to his mother and tell her how very sorry we are, and then get yourself to school,” she said as she crammed a wool hat on my head.
I inhaled to whine, and Dad raised his eyebrows at me. My arms ached from the weight of the rolls, but they warmed me as I trudged through the snow.
I managed to knock on the door, and there was Kevin — the smartest, mouthiest kid in our class, oddly quiet — but for a moment, when he smelled the rolls, he grinned. His little sisters pushed back their tangled hair and grabbed hungrily for the warm treats. His mother was nowhere to be seen.
Years passed. Perhaps there were times when Kevin and other members of his family wanted to die. But they choose to live. Mrs. S. remarried. Kevin wrestled in the 145-pound class and was voted senior class president. He went on an LDS mission, became a lawyer, married, fathered children and lost his first wife to cancer. His thick brown hair slipped away and his balding visage graced the covers of telephone books, shining with his enthusiastic smile.
If I need a lawyer, I’ll call Kevin. He was the first person whose suffering broke my heart.
My mother worshipped babies. She was happiest with a baby in her arms, and when she couldn’t hold a baby, she’d take its picture.
As her grandbabies grew up, she still worshipped them and took their pictures. Years after her death, we still find huge deposits of photographs that she developed into double prints. Her legacy is that we get to sort and preserve them.
Full disclosure: I haven’t “managed my photographic legacy,” I’ve “mangled” it.
Most, not all, of my photographs taken from 1976 to 1999 are in albums, with sporadic labeling and skimpy chronology, and certainly without cute scrapbooking in plaid, ribbons and lace.
At least I got them out of the “magnetic” (sticky page) albums that were so bad for photos, an effort that set me back 10 years in photo organizing.
Around 2000, we got our first digital camera and sailed into a new world. We developed photos only for special occasions and stored them in a huge file on our computer. This library grew and grew until a nuclear bomb blew up inside our computer and annihilated it.
OK, it wasn’t nuclear, and it wasn’t a bomb, but the results were the same.
Yes, I’ve learned valuable lessons and have picked up other useful tips I plan to implement soon!
1. Take pictures. Mom had it right. She knew how quickly babies grow, and she shot pictures in the moment. If you never shoot it, you’ll never have it.
2. When a digital camera makes you so giddy with power that you take numerous shots in the quest for the perfect one, remember to delete the duds.
3. Delete duds in dog-eared boxes or albums, as well. Over-exposed and under-exposed, multiple shots and photos where nobody looks good go into File 13. Scenery pictures can go if they have no special significance.
4. Label, label, label. People you know today will look like strangers in the misty future. This applies to both hard copy photographs (use a fast-drying acid-free pen or a No. 2 pencil on the back of the photo) and to photographs on the computer, because it’s a lot harder to find that darling photo of Baby Joshua on his big brother’s bike when it’s labeled IMG 2397 instead of “Joshua Mike’s bike ‘79 Nampa.” Label with names, date (approximate if you’re not sure) and place, if possible.
5. Sort into albums or files on the computer however you’d like — chronologically, by person or by event.
6. Scan photos to your computer and save them on places such as hard drives, external drives, online storage services and CDs. Store a set away from your home in case of disaster.
7. Never laminate photos, and use albums with pages that cover and seal photographs and that are archival safe and lignin and acid-free.
8. Store albums in a dark box, all in the same place so you can “grab and run” in an emergency. Fires that destroyed homes this summer burned irreplaceable photos.
9. Look at your photos often. Mom’s photos bring me close to her, Dad and to others. What a legacy!
Saturday, June 23, 2012
It’s time to slide. Put on a swimming suit and shoot down a Slip ‘N Slide in the backyard. Slide into home plate. Cook some sliders on the barbecue. Glide down the slippery slide in the park.
And slide into favor with family members by sharing memories from old photographic slides gathering dust in closets.
Baby boomers HAVE slides—back in the day (1950s through 1990s) we took mountains of slides, which were cheaper to develop and of higher quality than prints.
Did we look at them? Not at our house. Although my parents owned a sparkly–white screen and an old-fashioned slide projector, my husband and I never purchased those luxuries. As a result, we squinted at our slides against the light only when we wanted to make a few prints.
You can’t enjoy slides unless you have a free evening, a projector to enlarge the images and a screen, or a white sheet or wall, to display the photos. Or you can make them into prints, costing around .49 each at film developing outlets.
Enter modern technology. There are several ways to digitize slides, and once it’s done, you can use the images to create slideshows on your computer, email them to others, make prints (cheaper than .49) through online services, and burn them to dvds to share.
My husband recently scanned a box of slides and burned them to dvds to share at a family reunion. It was so fun that we’ve added this service to our home business; many photo developing sites also offer this service.
So what’s the best way to digitize slides?
First, a definition: Dots per inch (dpi) is a measure of spatial printing or video dot density, and generally—not always—a higher dpi correlates with better image resolution.
Dave Dyer, an expert, compared the outcome on one slide image using seven methods: using copier attachments for flatbed scanners—1.) a cheaper model with 1200 dpi and 2.) a unit with 2000 dpi; using a digital camera to photograph slides—3.) a projector based copier with 1800 dpi, which projected the image onto a screen and 4.) a direct copy attachment that holds the slide and attaches to a digital camera, 2400 dpi; using slide scanners built for this purpose only—5.) an older model, 2400 dpi, 6.) a modern unit, 2820 dpi and 7.) a professional scanner used by a professional, with 4000 dpi. See http://www.andromeda.com/people/ddyer/photo/slide-transfer.html
All seven images were OK, but I felt that #1—with the lowest dpi, done on a flatbed scanner—was the best quality photo. Great—that’s the kind of scanner we have!
Dyer wrote, “Resolution isn't everything. Color and contrast are equally important . . .”
Cleaning dust from slides is key. Scanners with Image Correction and Enhancement (ICE) technology hide dust, but it’s good to clean slides using compressed air and an antistatic brush (photo developers do this when turning slides into prints.)
After using a flatbed scanner, you can enhance the quality of too-dark slide images if you have the right software on your computer.
Bring a smile to your loved ones this summer—slide those boxes off the shelf and share photos from 20, 30 and 40 years ago. If you don’t have the equipment to do it yourself, check into local businesses that offer this service.
Sunday, June 3, 2012
Every year in June, the John Doe family held their family reunion, and Jane Doe made her wonderful chocolate chip cookies.
But this year, there would be no reunion. John was on his deathbed with only hours to live.
As he listened to the clock tick out the last moments of his life, he smelled chocolate chip cookies. His “bucket list” suddenly expanded to include tasting them one last time. With his last ounce of strength, he pulled himself out of bed. Falteringly, he fumbled for his canes and pulled himself upright. He struggled across the floor and made his way painfully down the stairs and into the kitchen.
There was Jane, baking cookies. As he reached for one, SMACK across the back of the hand, she hit him with a wooden spoon: "Leave them alone, they’re for the funeral dinner!"
It’s the season for favorite family reunion dishes. From our Swedish grandfather, my family inherited the Midsummer tradition: a reunion for family and friends held on the Saturday closest to the summer solstice.
In Sweden, they eat the year’s first potatoes and strawberries, soused (pickled) herring, chives and sour cream. And they drink beer and snaps.
In Idaho, we eat all the wonderful potluck items that good cooks can muster: Crisp fried chicken. Specially cured ham. Aunt Jeanne’s potato salad. Crunchy peas from Alan’s garden. Fluffy dinner rolls. Desserts, including huckleberry-apple pie and sticky homemade cinnamon rolls. Homemade ice cream, churned with snow from a snowdrift on our grandfather’s homestead that stays frozen under straw from March ‘til June. And of course, chocolate chip cookies!
We never drink beer and snaps—our picnics are non-alcoholic. Here are some great beverage suggestions for family reunions (with very little high-fructose corn syrup!)
Water: Stay hydrated! Place a solid block of ice in a five-gallon drink cooler and fill with water. Stays cold while family members re-fill personal water bottles all weekend. Or, fill a cooler or clean wading pool with ice and plastic water bottles—re-cycle the empties.
Dry Ice Root Beer: Mix outdoors or place five-gallon cooler in kitchen sink as it brews. In cooler, mix 6 cups white sugar and 3 1/3 gallons cold water ‘til sugar dissolves. Add one 2-ounce bottle root beer extract. Wearing gloves, carefully place 4 pounds of dry ice into cooler and cover loosely with lid (do not secure lid—pressure may build up.) Brew about an hour before serving.
Sutherland Slush: A favorite at family wedding receptions. Boil for 7 minutes in large pot: one 6 oz. box Jello (any flavor but grape) dissolved in 1 cup hot water; 6 cups sugar; 3 cups water. Remove from heat, add one 46 oz. can pineapple juice and 9 cups water. Over the sink, measure into 3 equal parts (about 7 cups each) in Ziploc bags. Seal, lay bag on a flat pan and freeze. (These make a great “blue ice” substitute in your cooler!) Thaw for two hours before serving, then mash the slush with a potato masher or hand mixer in a non-breakable bowl or pan. Add one 2-liter bottle of lemon-lime soda to each bag of slush; 3 bottles total. For a fancy event, serve from punch bowl. Serves 50.
Sunday, May 20, 2012
Daddy and Mama's five-drawer dresser-- 2012.
Mama's vanity, 2012. Its metal stool padded with satin wore out over the years.
It’s easy to distress furniture.
Just put five or six good-sized rocks into an old sock and flail away at your piece like a Mafia hitman.
Wipe the sweat off your brow, and voila' —you’ve got a beat-up antique.
My mother would never forgive me if I did that to anything, let alone her precious bedroom set.
Besides, it’s no stranger to distress.
My parents could seldom afford new or matching furniture, with one exception. During the 1950s, after an exceptional wheat harvest, Daddy and Mama bought a bona fide bedroom set: a tall, five-drawer dresser, a vanity with a large square mirror and tiny satin-covered stool, a three-drawer nightstand and a double bed with square headboard and footboard. In blond oak, the lines were clean and sleek in the “Scandinavian Contemporary” style. With a red satin bedspread, their bedroom was complete.
A dresser drawer shows the original oak finish and brass hardware.
The double bed seemed vast to me 53 years ago, when at age four, I crowded in with my parents. Though Mama gave me three inches on her side of the bed, I thought they were extremely selfish not to scoot over a little—after all, they had a lavish 54-inch wide mattress!
I look at the bed now, and it has shrunk. How did two full-sized adults and sometimes a baby sister manage to spare even three inches for me?
Sometimes my sisters or I brought a tummy-ache with us, so the bed and nightstand no doubt received an occasional baptism in vomit.
We moved twice a year—at the end of May, to our dry farm home, and at the end of September, to a rental house in town. Daddy and his moving crew—sometimes his sons, heaven help us if it was his wife and daughters—loaded furniture into the farm truck for the 20-mile trip. Sometimes the dresser and vanity stayed in town through the summer; other times they were moved.
One term depicts moving day: “%&**%$#.” Daddy was always in a hurry to load and unload. He could back that truck up nearly to the doors of the two houses covering some of the steps and saving a lot of work for his crew.
He took all the furniture in one trip—and it was up to Mama to haul pots and pans, clothing and books in numerous round trips by car.
Lacking muscle, I was often assigned to carry the slats, wooden boards that supported the mattress.
Though Mama swaddled her precious bedroom set with quilts and blankets, it got banged around—Dad’s famous saying about what it did to furniture was: “Seven moves is as good as a fire.”
The large dresser and vanity filled both of the small bedrooms my parents used. Like many folks during the 1950’s and 60’s, Daddy smoked, and some of his smoldering Camels stained pieces of the set. Luckily, cigarette burns were the worst consequence of the times he dozed off while smoking.
Daddy and Mama shared the big dresser, and stored important papers in the middle drawer, which had three compartments. One of them held memories of Holly, their daughter who lived only four months—her birth certificate, the few photos they had of her, some tiny baby clothes. On June 6, 1976, the Teton Dam burst ten miles east of us. As we rushed to get out of the flood’s path, Mama wrestled that drawer out of the dresser and into the car trunk. She was the only one who had the sense to grab irreplaceable items.
The three section drawer held my parents' important papers.
Daddy died in 1989. Mama kept a pair of his jeans unwashed in the dresser for quite a while. Sometimes she buried her face in the worn denim, in his scent.
Mama died in 2009 and some of us gathered on a Memorial Day weekend to sort and inventory her things—a big job, since with her Great Depression mentality, she saved everything. Then we gathered on a summer weekend to distribute her belongings.
My brothers pitched an army tent in the yard to cover our parents’ possessions. Our oldest sister, the executor of the estate, had come up with a great system: we placed the names of her eight living children, and of a grand daughter representing her deceased daughter, into a hat. For each item on the inventory, a name was drawn, and that person got the item. After nine draws, the names went back into the hat and we started over.
Previously, we had each indicated which three items were most important to us, so negotiation, consideration of others’ desires, and trading went on throughout the process. At sundown, all had meaningful legacies and there was plenty left for the grandchildren before one truckload went to Deseret Industries and another went to the dump.
I was happy to inherit the bedroom set. Once more, my brother and nephew wrapped the furniture in blankets and loaded it into my son’s small truck. The Scandinavian Contemporary bedroom set rode across Idaho, blasted by heat, plastered by bugs and shaken by semis.
All the way, I wished that the set looked like it did the first time they brought it home in the truck.
A professional quoted a hefty price to sand, stain and re-varnish the pieces. Someone suggested distressing it—but I didn’t have the heart to punish it any more than our family already had!
For 18 months the bedroom set sat in the crowded garage as I pondered how my amateur DIY efforts might destroy my inheritance. When our son got married and begged for a dresser for their unfurnished apartment, I gave him the one I’d been using, and with my clothes hanging out of laundry baskets, I had to do something. I decided to paint.
As I sanded and puttied the gouges and burns, memories flooded in. On a drawer, a child had scratched “Mom,” starting with an extra tall M.
“Which of my delinquent siblings vandalized this dresser?” I wondered.
On the next drawer, “Dab” was scratched in the same style.
Dad's drawer labeled "Dab".
It all came back. Mrs. Van Houten, my second teacher, despaired that I would ever figure out the difference between d and b. “You’ll be ‘Deddie’ all your life,” she said.
As I sanded, I remembered myself as a child, scratching the dresser with my baby sister’s ducky-headed diaper pin. A snoopy big sister caught me and punished me, but “Big deal,” I thought—I had labeled those drawers! (As if my parents needed help remembering whose drawer was whose.)
I haven’t changed much—my husband chides me for labeling pantry shelves, saying, “We can tell the difference between green beans and peaches!”
Somebody—not me—wrote in crayon on the dresser box behind a drawer. There was a lot of dirt in the bottom three drawers and the box behind them, probably from the dresser being stored at the farm for a time.
The vanity after being sanded.
The dresser after being puttied, living in our garage.
Yes, it was gouged and burned, but the furniture is solid, with tongue and groove workmanship, as sturdy as the day it was built—1951, says the stamp on the back of each piece.
When I painted the nightstand, I hoped to replicate its former blond oak color, but I choose a shade too dark and even with some careful antiquing by my husband, it didn’t have the look I wanted. It sits in the home of our daughter, Emily, who just moved from a tiny home to a big home—an heirloom to anchor her to our shared past.
I chose a creamy ivory paint for the vanity and large dresser, and replaced their tarnished bronze hardware.
Close-up of paint and hardware on vanity.
The dresser sits in our bedroom, massive and beautiful. In the three-section drawer, my socks and underwear have never had it so good!
Miraculously, the vanity’s 42-inch square mirror, sporting a campy decal of a rose, a compact, lipstick and nail polish, has survived intact. Clear plastic brackets clamp it to a supporting sheet of wood, which has its own beautiful wood-grain patterns. The vanity practically shouted, “I need faux crystal handles to match my brackets!”
The wooden frame behind the mirror with beautiful wood grain landscape.
It sits my office, which doubles as “the good guest bedroom” when it isn’t buried in papers. I shared a bedroom growing up, I shared a bedroom in college, and I’ve shared a bedroom during 35 years of marriage. So the four-year-old in me has decorated this room—my first all-to-myself room—in pink.
My reflection in the vanity mirror has changed through the years, first in my mother’s bedroom, now in mine. Because I see her image in the background, loving me and holding me accountable to her principles, I can look myself in the eyes in that mirror. I’m glad my grandchildren will be able to see themselves in Mama’s mirror.
Grandchildren can see themselves in my parents' vanity mirror. Notice the small
decal of rose and make-up in upper left corner.