Thursday, January 28, 2010

Stone Soup

We were coming to the end of our time in South Dakota. My husband, Art, interviewed in Oregon where we stayed at a church elder’s home. His house was surrounded by trees, where mists settled into lower winding paths, softening their edges. It lent a postcard quality to the place. One night we were treated to an all church get together. Our host’s sister made a huge tomato based stew, full of eggplant, peppers, zucchini, green beans, onions, and carrots. Someone else baked crusty loaves of homemade bread and supplied butter. It was a very pleasant time. The stew was good, we were still slightly sleepy from jet lag, the house was warm, and conversation mellowed into a soft hum. It wasn’t until we settled into bed later that night I realized there was no meat in the stew, and remembered the stew maker was between jobs.

A Depression era actor, when he finally got a gig, invited all his friends over for soup. He supplied the soup-bone, pot and water, and everyone else brought a vegetable gift for the pot. Some were pilfered, some purchased. One latecomer found her onion arrived too late. Everyone had eaten, and the pot was empty. Feeling sorry for her, the host revealed his secret. Instead of a soup bone, the pot contained one very well-scrubbed rock.

Friday, January 22, 2010


I don’t understand. At least my dad had a reason, he was a child of the Depression. And dear Uncle Lou, whose oft repeated vow, “This year I’m going to clear out the cellar”, brings smiles to those of us with similar tendencies. But what prompts the rest of us to collect like a bunch of love sick Bowerbirds? Are we gerbils frantically shredding up nesting materials? Is it survival tendencies gone awry?

The closest I came to an answer was a comment from a very tidy, organized friend. “Most of my stuff holds no emotional attachment for me”. Horrors! Everything means something, doesn’t it? Those envelopes containing our boys’ baby curls, a flipping acrobat toy I picked up at Woolworth’s when I was ten, my marble collection. I can tell the story of each one. To totally strip objects of emotion means, wow, you could live like a hermit, and it wouldn’t make any difference. Or is that it?

God didn’t make flowers in black and white, food doesn’t taste like cardboard, birds sing real songs. All very good, and meant to be enjoyed. All reflective of their Creator, and shadowed mirrors of the future. But it’s not the thing itself but what it means that gives it value. So somewhere there’s a balance. Where you own the stuff, but it doesn’t own you. Unlike Citizen Kane, who, in seeking to possess all, lost Rosebud.

So I’m thinking, savor while you have them, but hold lightly. And need be, let these go. All will pass away. There’s something even better ahead.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Uncle Rocco Had Style

I never met him. As a matter of fact, I haven’t even seen his photo. But I have been told about him so many times, that a vibrant image comes to mind. A dashing figure. A fine story teller. A man of wit and charm and good looks. He could draw and paint and play many instruments. He gave lessons. He had a following, and was invited to parties. His siblings adored him as someone with a “great gift”. You knew when he entered the room. Scarlet lined cape flipped over a shoulder, soft Fedora at a jaunty angle over one eye, sporting a hand carved cane. He filled the space. He had presence.

But in his heart of hearts who was he? In the down times, when left to himself? Sure he came to family functions on occasion. And if you know anything about Italian family functions you know the warmth, and food, and good times that entails. But in the end, all my mom could tell me is he married a barmaid and they had many children. Mom never met them. The family always stayed home.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Crazy Quilt

On Art’s day off, during our prairie years, we went places. Mostly to the McDonald’s in town, for the ten cent burger special lunch, splitting a large soda between the three of us, (with free refills). Or to Ziegler’s, the thrift/antique/oddball place run by a family we knew. Several times a year we’d trek the hour and a half to Pierre, to a real shoe store, and get John’s problem feet fitted. While visiting the “big city” we’d tuck in some sites. South Dakota’s State Museum was air conditioned in summer, pleasantly warm in cold weather, quiet, and free. My favorite case enclosed a crazy quilt festooned with small oil paintings, embroidery, fair ribbons, and bits of cloth advertising. The varieties of silks, velvets and fine embroidery spoke of a more gentile life. Fair ribbons hinted at the realities of cattle farming, miles between neighbors, frostbite winters, and blasting hot summers. I recall Art and John impatiently pulling me a way from that display after a long look see. I so wanted to embed that image in my heart, to understand the woman who drew her disparate life-parts together.

My own attempt at quilting started innocently enough. While helping set up a yard sale, I spotted a 1940's red rayon tie in a pile of donated clothes. It shimmered ruby-like with blue and orange highlights in the white sun. And it was only 25 cents. Opening seams and ironing it flat, it yielded about eight inches of fabric at the widest spot. All in all, it took over forty ties for the quilt. Each had a story. One was my dad’s, a narrow woven black and white checkered number he wore in the seventies. Another came from a friend back home in Pennsylvania, a crazy red thing with gold threads woven through it. Most were silk or rayon, in various reds, given by individuals through word of mouth, or carefully collected at yard sales. Strips were arranged and rearranged side by side onto squares taken from a worn bed-sheet, then pieced, and assembled into wide panels. Panel over panel until a substantial rectangle formed. Then framed with swatches of drapery fabric, sandwiched with batting and another sheet, and finally quilted. Though not expertly done, it’s richly colored, and keeps us warm. And like the one in the museum, it tells a story, of places, family, and friends.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Looking at it Sideways and a Little Upside Down

The whole thing started by accident. In 1898, German chemist Hans von Pechmann heated diazomethane. It left a waxy residue which his colleagues dubbed “polymethylene”. For years nothing came of his discovery. Then in 1933, two British chemists, Reginald Gibson and Eric Fawcett combined ethylene and benzaldehyde under extremely high pressure and produced that same waxy plastic. It was easily molded and looked commercially promising. The trick was reproducing the process, as their equipment sprung a leak during pressurization, skewing results. Another chemist, Michael Perrin, finally reproduced the experiment in 1935. Perrin’s work became the basis for commercial production of “polyethylene”.

In 1939 polyethylene replaced metal in British radar components. This innovation enabled severely outnumbered Allied planes to carry on-board radar, giving them an advantage over Axis aircraft. After the war, chemists attempted to replace high pressure with chemical catalysts. In 1951, Americans Robert Banks and J. Paul Hogan, added chromium trioxide. It worked alright, but try as they might, they couldn’t get uniform quality. Tons of off-spec “Marlex” pellets filled Phillip’s Petroleum warehouses. So the product was laid aside again.

Backtrack a bit to 1948. Richard Knerr and Arthur Mellin started a slingshot company in their garage. These powerful little numbers tossed chunks of meat into the air to train falcons. As one might suspect, business was slow. That is, until one of the partners went on a sales trip to Australia. There he observed kids exercising in a school playground with wooden hoops. In 1958 Knerr and Mellin approached Phillip’s about purchasing their plastic. Phillip’s was delighted to get the stuff off their hands.

That odd marriage was a rousing hit. The former slingshot company,“Wham-O”, sold twenty million hula hoops in six months.