Life with my Dad

Stories I remember from growing up with a "spontaneous" Dad and a tolerant Mom who sometimes didn't think things through all the way before he implemented them. And some about my Mum as well.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Day My Aunt Almost Killed My Dog

When my parents brought me home from the hospital after my birth there were already two girls in the house. Their names were Cindy and Lindy and they were full sized black and tan dacshunds. Lindy was Cindy's daughter and they were a big part of our daily lives. Many of the photos I have of myself as a young child included these dogs.

My family spent many weekends at my Aunt Daphne and Uncle Pete's house. The dogs were welcome along with the family and we all passed pleasant time together. I'm still surprised my Aunt Daphne allowed the dogs in her house because it is a showplace. Everything is pristine and in it's place, dusted, organized, fluffed, folded and polished to perfection. Definately not a place you would expect to welcome dogs.

Many of the women in my family are sentimental and enjoy our traditions, myself included. We save things from special events. We maintain family traditions. The closeness and love of our family members means more to us than anything else in the world. Daphne is no exception to that rule.

Traditions in England are long-held and usually involve a great deal of sentiment (something that is right up my family's alley). One of those traditions is that the top of a wedding cake is usually made from fruitcake and royal icing. This combination of ingredients means the cake can be saved for a long period of time without becoming moldy. Many people save the tops of their wedding cakes and eat them on their first anniversary. Again, Daphne was no exception to this rule and had saved her wedding cake. She didn't, however, eat it on her first anniversary and still had the cake top more than 10 years later. It was carefully wrapped in foil and stored in her kitchen cabinet.

Our elder dog, Cindy, was growing old and had developed what my parents called 'sugar diabetes'. She would eat anything in sight and would sniff out food in the most obscure places. We didn't have to worry about there being a stray crumb under the table or a stray morsel anywhere. Cindy cleaned us out. She even learned how to open our refrigerator and eat everything she could reach. For a long time we couldn't put anything on the bottom 2 shelves of the fridge because it would be gone.

Put a dog with an insatiable appetite into a kitchen with a hidden wedding cake top and you have a recipe for disaster. While we were out shopping one day Cindy found the cake and, in spite of it's state of near fossilization due to old age, gnawed a huge chunk off the corner. I'm not sure if we came home in time to catch her in the act or if the cake was so petrified her old teeth gave out but the topper wasn't completely destroyed.

I don't remember exactly what happened next (you know how they say you block out traumatic events) but both Daphne and the dog survived. There was probably a good deal of yelling and the issuance of a canine banishiment decree. Most likely, thanks to the sentiment gene carried by the women in my family, there was a careful surgical excision of the chewed corner followed by a more secure wrapping job, and ancient Egypt-esque entombment of the remaining cake. It wouldn't surprise me to learn today, after almost 50 years of marriage, that Daphne still has the remains of her cake topper.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

A 3 minute egg

For most people, practical jokes are an inconvenience to be tolerated with a weak smile and a vague hope that the perpetrator of the joke will spontaneously combust as retribution for their act. In my family a good practical joke is a thing of beauty to be carefully planned, plotted, and orchestrated. When sharing stories at family gatherings there is always someone who brings up a practical joke. The perfect practical joke becomes woven into the tapestry of our family history to be recounted and enjoyed again and again for years to come.

My parents were the masters of the practical joke. Their typical foil? My Uncle Pete. The one person in the world I know who can ALWAYS take a joke. The man has not only the greatest sense of humor but the greatest ability to laugh at himself without it becoming personal. Something I truly wish I could execute even half as well as Pete does.

The relationship my parents had with my aunt and uncle was truly something I have never seen duplicated since. Saying they were close to one another doesn't really cover the depth of their relationship. It's difficult to describe a relationship that allows people to tease and joke with one another with no one getting bent out of shape...ever. They never forgot that they loved and respected one another above anything else. Their friendship was truly a thing of beauty.

One weekend when my Aunt and Uncle were visiting, Pete announced, quite theatrically, that he wanted breakfast in bed. My Mum fell into her role nicely by asking what his majesty desired for his morning repast. The answer: a three minute egg (soft boiled)...not a second more...not a second less and soldiers (buttered bread cut into strips so they can be dipped into the boiled egg). Bowing to his royal highness, King Pete, Mum went to the kitchen to begin her preparations.

To understand the rest of this tale a little background information is necessary. Our house sat at the edge of a field in a small village in England. On alternating years the farmer who owned the field planted either wheat or sugar beets. When he would till the field prior to planting Mum and I would walk the rows and look for treasures. England is such an old country that today's life is lived on top of layer upon layer of history. The farmer's plow unearthed old pieces of pottery, clay pipes, and all sorts of debris from the lives lived on the land for hundreds of years.

One of our major finds was a china laying egg. These eggs were used by farmers to keep their hens sitting after raiding their nests. The egg was in perfect shape. Amazing considering it was buried in a field for decades and turned up by a tractor's plow! This treasure was about to take center stage.

When Mum went back to the kitchen she put a pot of water on to boil, popped bread into the toaster, put the kettle on for tea, and rinsed off the china laying egg. She prepared a nice tray to take for Pete's breakfast in bed, buttered and sliced the toast, brewed the tea, and dropped the china egg into the boiling water. She timed it perfectly. Three minutes...not a second more...not a second less. When three minutes had passed Mum put the steaming egg in to an egg cup on the tray and walked it into the bedroom. She placed the tray on Pete's lap and made a rapid retreat from the room.

Dad and I were waiting in the hallway after Mum delivered the tray to Uncle Pete. I'm surprised Pete didn't know we were there because we must have been giggling. They quickly shut the door behind Mum and we all stood quietly listening.

From the other side of the door we could hear some gentle rustling and general movement. King Pete was arranging himself and preparing for his royal feast. We could hardly wait to see what would happen next! Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, we got results as Pete picked up his spoon and attempted to open the top of the three minute egg. A loud, metallic "plink"...long pause..."plink" shorter pause..."plink, plink, plink"..."HEY!" came from the room. The spoon bounced of the egg with such a loud and satisfying "plink" we could hear it in the hallway without even pressing our ears to the door!

Mum, Dad, and I were almost falling down laughing in the hallway. Mum opened the door and asked if the egg was to his royal highness' standards. Pete, always being the good sport, was laughing right along with us and enjoying the joke. Eventually, Mum did come up with a three minute egg for Uncle Pete but not before etching another great practical joke into our family history.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Dad vs. the Animal Kingdom

Things in the world were a lot different when I was a little girl. There were no such things as automatic windows in cars. Car seats didn't exist. There were less "safety" features in place everywhere. People were expected to be responsible for their own safety.

A perfect example of this was Windsor Safari Park. A very large animal park/zoo which featured animals living in something close to a natural habitat (with the small exception that they typically don't have to dodge traffic). You paid your admission fee at the gate and drove into the park on a one-way blacktopped road. It was expected that you would drive at a reasonable speed because the animals were wandering around in the areas next to the road and there were no fences. You could feed some of the animals through your window if you had brought treats for them. Most would accept them happily.

I was very young when we went to Windsor Safari Park. I remember sitting on the edge of the back seat and with my arms wrapped around the front headrests to be closer to Mum and Dad. I couldn't see over the headrests so the view was much better in this position. It was a perfect spot to be for viewing animals because I could go to either side of the car at will.

We had not brought treats for the animals but there were plenty of "browsers" who approched our car. Mum didn't like them poking their heads in the windows so we kept them rolled up.
Gazelles, giraffes, and a few others peeped inside to see if they were going to be fed. It didn't take them long to realize they needed to look elsewhere and they would slowly mosey back to the next car.

Dad steered the car down the road until we came to a group of baboons who were lounging around on the road grooming one another. They had chosen the center of the road as their spot to rest and seemed unconcerned about blocking our progress. Occasionally one of the group would look up from grooming another to see if we were performing the same ritual and then resume where she had left off.

Dad could only take so much baboon grooming and edged the car a little closer. I suppose his theory was that the baboons would understand he wanted to get through and move over. This did not work as, apparently, baboons have no knowledge or regard for vehicles or 'rules of the road'. They continued their activities happily oblivious to us and Dad's pressing need to move on to the next species.

Uttering some manner of profanity under his breath (standard practice before embarking on 'Plan B'), Dad decided he needed to get the attention of the group by flashing the headlights. Since it was broad daylight the lights had no effect and didn't even warrant the attention of a single animal. This elicited more muttered profanity from Dad and a reference about the parents of the baboons not being married at the time of their conception. Which, in retrospect, is true but really not applicable to the animal kingdom as such.

Having failed miserably at Plan B we moved on to Plan C which involved honking the car horn repeatedly while reissuing the profane references in a much louder voice. Every baboon on the road must have jumped a foot in the air while uttering gutteral alarm calls. They were all still on the road but now they were milling around while Dad laughed and said something to the effect of "that'll show them".

Almost immediately after the words had left Dad's lips one of the baboons began to approach the car. Mum was nervous and chastised Dad for making the baboons angry but he was still confident that he had the upper hand. Mum glanced nervously about the car to ensure all of the windows remained closed. She was a fan of nature but preferred not to be completly submerged in it or have it climbing through the car in which she sat.

The baboon approached the passenger window and stood on his hind legs to see into the car. In one lightening quick "only a Mother could do this" move, Mum locked both passenger doors, slid over toward my dad, pushed me toward the opposite door, and began to explain to Dad what a bad idea it had been to honk at the monkeys. Motherly multitasking at its best.

Seeing nothing that satisfied his curiousity on the passenger side of the car, the baboon dropped back down on all fours and ambled around the front of the car. He stopped near the hood ornament and stood back up for a closer look. His long fingers gripped the chrome appendage and waggled it back and forth. Baboons may be territorial about their desired grooming areas but they can't hold a candle to the American male when his car is being assaulted. Dad just wasn't going to stand for this. No monkey of any kind was going to mess with HIS car so he honked the horn again.

The baboon leapt back from the car and began screaming at the top of his lungs while jumping up and down and making, what I take to have been, obscene jestures at Dad. He was NOT happy at being startled. Mum reminded Dad that it wasn't a good idea to honk at the monkeys. Dad started to tell her that the noise had removed the monkey from the front of the car but was cut short by the sight of the irrate baboon launching himself onto the hood of the car.

Mum was positively apoplectic! Dad, on the other hand, was ready for another round. No hairy, thumbless monkey was going to walk on the hood of his Mercury Comet. Absolutely NOT! Dad pulled himself up straighter in the driver's seat and locked eyes with the baboon. The two were sizing one another up and neither was prepared to back down. The baboon walked all the way up to the windshield of the car and stuck his nose against the glass. He wanted to get a good look at his adversary and make sure it was known that he was, indeed, the dominant male.

Dad's chin tilted down slightly. His eyes narrowed. A small smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. This animal was about to find out who the true king of the jungle was. This animal was about to have his comeuppance. Dad and the baboon remained locked in occular combat. Neither blinked. Tension mounted. It was like a scene from an old spaghetti western. You know the kind where the two gunslingers are facing one another on a dusty main street. Some disembodied guy is whistling a mournful melody. Every spectator is holding their breath and waiting to see who will draw first.

Dad's arm slowly reached out toward the dashboard. The baboon's every breath etched a small patch of fog on the windshield. Dad's fingers closed around a silver knob on the dash and, with a flick of his wrist, the windshield wipers lept across the glass and smacked the baboon square on the nose. This was apparently a surprise for the baboon because he quickly stepped back, shook his head and watched the wipers travel back and forth.

A evil chuckle filtered through the car as Dad celebrated his apparent automotive and evolutionary superiority. Mum was again lecturing Dad on proper baboon etiquette as the baboon suddenly snapped out of his wiper induced hypnosis and leapt from the hood of the car onto the roof. Dad flipped the wipers back to the off position and looked toward the roof. We all listened intently for evidence that the baboon had accepted his loss and left the scene. The silence was deafening.

Dad broke the silence with a stream of epithets which would have made a platoon of Marines blush as he realized the baboon was having the last laugh. A small stream of yellow liquid was coursing rapidly down the center of the windshield as the baboon expressed his opinion of Dad's tactics. Dad snapped the wipers on again and hit the washer fluid. As the fluid bathed the windshield and overshot it's mark onto the roof the baboon finally decided he had endured enough. The icy cold washer fluid was the last straw and he rapidly ran back down to the road while screaming instructions to his troop. By the time he reached the former grooming area the troop was on the move and finally leaving the roadway. The ultimate victory belonged to Dad, the dominant male and proven King of the Jungle, but at great sacrifice to the dignity of the mighty Mercury Comet.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Another Dinner We Never Ate

Moving from England to America at age 10 was a bit traumatic. In England I had lots of friends and extended family and we spent quite a bit of time with them. Once in America there was no one. Dad was estranged from his immediate family and the experience was bizare for me because I was accustomed to visiting, being visited, and having children to play with. I missed the evenings with friends and the weekends with family more than I ever thought possible.

Dad decided one day we were going to visit his Aunt Cecil. He had never before mentioned an Aunt Cecil and never spoke of his family so this was a surprise. Then again, much of my life with my Dad can be summed up in the sentence "He had never mentioned it before so this was a surprise". We just got up on a Saturday morning to find out we were going on a road trip (one of our first spontaneous trips). Being back in his native land made my Dad much more unpredictable than he had been in England. We had never gone on a spontaneous road trip when we lived in England. However, to me it could only be a good thing to have family around so I was looking forward to meeting Dad's mysterious relatives.

My experience with America thus far had been limited to changing planes and sleeping in airports. I didn't know anything outside Quincy, the town in which we had come to live, and had no concept of what it was like outside of town. Aunt Cecil, I was told, lived in the country near Shelbyville, Missouri about an hour and a half away from Quincy. A reasonable drive for a child of 10 especially when there were books to be read to pass the time.

We travelled along the usual roads with yellow lines zipping past and I occasionally looked up from my book to see where we were. America was mostly corn and soy beans from my point of view because that's what I could see from the back seat. Everything was surprisingly flat with very few hills of consequence. The trip took the typical turns, curves, and stops until suddenly something felt different. The car was bouncing around a little more than usual, there was a dusty smell in the air, and Dad was driving much slower than he usually did.

Looking out of my window I could no longer see the corn. Now all I could see was a white cloud of dust surrounding the sides and rear of the car. I sat up straighter in my seat and peered through the windshield. In front of the car, a ribbon of grayish-white gravel stretched ever onward between two infinite walls of corn which were occasionally punctuated by a mailbox or tree. It was like being submerged in a sea of green corn plants with a soundtrack of buzzing insects and gravel popping out from under the tires. Most Americans would recognize this as a simple drive on a gravel road but for me it was all new. Dad explained that many of the American roads were not paved out in the country because they weren't frequently travelled by anyone other than the people who lived on them.

After what seemed like an enternity Dad slowed the car and turned into a long driveway beside a patch of lawn. Trees of varying sized dotted the lawn and a green bench swing rocked in the breeze under a tree laden with pale orange fruit. A tiny woman in a dark threadbare dress emerged from the white farm house wiping her hands on her apron while a large man in overhauls followed closely behind.

Aunt Cecil had the facial features of a shrunken apple head doll. Her face and hands were tanned and wrinkled from years of working in the sun. Tiny strands of gray hair, having escaped her bun, waved in the breeze around her lined face and gently brushed the lenses of her glasses. Aunt Cecil was dwarfed by the man standing behind her although he wasn't much over 6 feet tall. This was Uncle Vernon, Cecil's husband.

Introductions were made and pleasantries exchanged. Aunt Cecil invited us inside and offered drinks which were happily accepted after the warm dusty ride. Small talk was bantered around and with a wave of her hand Aunt Cecil offered us seats on the "davenport". Had she not waved her hand in the direction of the couch I wouldn't have had a clue what she was referring to. From my limited experience Davenport was a city in nearby Iowa which the weatherman always included in his evening report.

After a while, the cool drink did its job and I asked if I could use the restroom. Aunt Cecil directed me to go out through the door in the kitchen and follow the fence down to the gate. She said the gate was open and I would see it just on the other side of the gate. Puzzled, I set off in search of the restroom.

As the kitchen screen door slammed behind me I spotted the fence behind the house. Following the fence I came to the gate which was, as reported, open. Just through the gate sat a small shed with a single door and no windows. I looked around for signs of another building but there were none to be found. Perhaps the bathroom was inside this building.

Approaching the door I could hear the buzzing of the insects in the field around me. I had never been in the "country" before and it was a bit unsettling for a child with a wild imagination. Frequent glances over my shoulders proved there was nothing nefarious following me or lurking in the tall grass. I reached the door and pulled it open to reveal a bench with 2 toilet seats on it and a coffee can sitting in the middle. The smell would have gagged a maggot! This was the restroom in question. No plumbing or signs of civilization other than the two yellowed with age toilet seats and a coffee can. Deciding I couldn't hold my breath long enough to use the "restroom" I relieved myself in the grass near the fence and acquired a mosquito bite on the tush for my efforts. Later it would be explained to me that the coffee can was to keep the raccoons from accidentally dropping the toilet paper roll down either of the holes since it was too big to fall through. I suppose necessity is the mother of invention afterall.

Things were looking up when I re-entered the house because Mum and Aunt Cecil were preparing dinner for us. Aunt Cecil told me to go out front and sit with Dad and Uncle Vernon in the swing until they were ready for us. I did and had a great time learning how to pick apricots and check them for worms before popping them into my mouth. I almost forgot about my horrendous trip to the restroom and actually began to enjoy myself. Uncle Vernon was a kind and personable man who didn't believe children needed to be ignored all the time. My kind of guy.

Six or seven apricots later Aunt Cecil called us back in to the house to sit down for dinner. As we sat down at the table Mum sat next to me and gave me a reassuring smile. Bowls were passed around and we began to fill our plates. Fresh corn from the garden. Fresh potatoes Uncle Vernon had dug that morning. Fresh bread Aunt Cecil had baked. Then a plate of something I couldn't identify to save my life.

The pile of slices on the plate was a yellowish gray goo with pink and brown cubes suspended inside. It looked shiny, gooey, and a bit wiggly. I dutifully took a small piece and placed it as far away from the other things on my plate as possible to avoid the chance of contamination. Gently leaning toward Mum I whispered under my breath, "Mum, what is this stuff?"

Her reply was, "I don't know. Just don't eat it!"

This lovely concoction was called head cheese. Freshly made by Aunt Cecil just for our visit. Apparently she used an old family recipe and considered it to be one of her specialties. For those of you not familiar with this "delicacy" it consists of pork chunks (typically aquired from the head of a pig...hence the name) suspended in a savory aspic jelly. It resembles cheese, jello or any jelly you may be familiar with in no way, shape or form. It smells like no cheese, jello or jelly you have ever smelled before. It is also one of the last foods on earth you ever want to be served for dinner if you have any shred of sanity.

I tried to pry the meat from the jelly to no avial. It was everywhere. The only defense I had was to mangle and mash it into smaller pieces and spread it around my plate so it would appear as though I had eaten it some of it. It was the same defense I had used to conceal brussel sprouts in the past with some success and was well worth a shot. Lucky for me, no one noticed my lack of head cheese consumption and no one forced me to eat it.

On the ride home, Mum and I exchanged war stories about our attempts to conceal the unconsumed head cheese and our mutual horror that anyone would think to eat such a thing in the first place. Dad just laughed at us. We never thought to ask him if he actually ate the vile goo but in our book it went down in our family history as another dinner we never ate.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Hi, there!

I'm starting to write some of the stories I remember from childhood. Since both of my parents passed away before Hunter was born I want to give him a stronger sense of "family history" by sharing these things with him. If you find them to be enjoyable as well I'm happy to share them. If not, just close the page and there's no harm done. You never know...maybe they'll help trigger some of your own memories which have been lying dormant. By the way, I'm sorry everything is all one paragraph. It seems I haven't found the feature that will allow me to use tabs and hard returns yet.

The Dinner We Never Ate

Experience is what you get when you didn't get exactly what you wanted. That should have been the epitaph on my father's tombstone. He was a brilliant man who had a tendency to be a bit impulsive and launch into a new project without completely thinking through all of the possible consequences. A perfect example of that has come to be one of my favorite stories about my Dad.

One Saturday morning when I was around 11 years old, Mum and I were doing our usual household chores while Dad was out doing whatever it was he did on Saturday morning. When Dad came home he looked a little excited (never a good sign) and asked Mum and I to come outside with him. Dad explained he had a surprise for us (these were rarely "good"). He led us down the driveway to the spot he had parked his early 1970's boat of a car (not the normal spot...again...not a good sign). Walking around to the trunk of the car Dad told us both to follow him and began to arrange us precisely where he wanted us to be. He handed Mum the key to the trunk and told her to wait a minute. Next, he handed me the end to a rather short string which was dangling from the closed trunk.

Knowing my Dad, and knowing that his surprises weren't of the normal sort, I gingerly pinched the tip of the string between thumb and forefinger and prepared to run. The string was too short to get a good runners block stance but I was as close as I could be to Olympic form. Finally, victims in place, Dad issued the order to open the trunk. Mum said something to the effect of "Oh, for goodness sakes, Ralph. What have you done now?" and I just took a deep breath.

The key was inserted into the lock and there was a low clunk as the mechanism opened. The old trunk springs groaned a little and sent the trunk lid skyward. What followed can only be described as a possible winning $10,000 video for America's Funniest Home Videos had we actually been recording it. The trunk was still in motion toward it's apex when I took off down the driveway holding the string. It came with me quite willingly and with no drag whatsoever. As I reached the bottom of the driveway I turned to watch the show.

Now that the trunk was open its contents were free to spill out. With a huge cacophony of hissing and honking a very large, very disgruntled white goose threw up its head and spread its wings across the edges of the trunk. It only took Dad a second to realize that the string I was holding, which had formerly been attached to the leg of the goose, was now at the bottom of the driveway with me. It had been intended as a leash so I could gently "walk" the goose out of the trunk and possibly take it for a nice stroll through it's new neighborhood.

"Oh shit", he said and slammed the lid of the trunk back into place simultaneously bonking the goose on the head and trapping a couple of wing feathers in the process. Mum looked at Dad with the incredulous look I had seen on her a million times.

"Precisely what were you planning to do with THAT?" she asked.

"I thought you could wring it's neck and pluck it so we could have it for dinner" he explained.

Mum pursed her lips and gave him a smoldering look. "You thought WRONG!" she replied and turned on her heel to stomp back into the house.

Dad looked at me and told me to come and help him put the goose into the garage. It wasn't difficult to convince the goose that the garage was preferable to the trunk and he eagerly exited into his new digs. Dad explained it would be my job was to feed and water our cranky future dinner guest until such time as he could figure out what to do about it.

The condemned goose was fed by my launching his food in through a window I managed to pry open and watered by barely opening the door to slide the garden hose into his bowl. I much preferred the hose being attacked than being on the receiving end of a goose tirade every day. After about a week, I suppose he thought Mum would change her mind in that amount of time, Dad loaded the goose back into the trunk and took it down to his friend's river camp. Once there the goose was free to roam around and serve as a watch dog/house alarm for Dad's friend.

We never saw the goose again but can only hope that his life without us was a good as our life without him. Growing up with my Dad was never dull and packed with the experience I got when Dad didn't get what he wanted.