Solving Family Mysteries, One Keystroke At A Time

It’s a legendary family story.  When Grandma and Grandpa Neal traveled to Ireland in the ’70s, they decided to take a carriage ride.  As the grizzled Irish driver was struggling to help my grandmother — a portly woman — into the carriage, he muttered: “You’re beef to the heels like a Mullingar heifer!”

Grandma, who had a wonderful sense of humor, thought it was one of the funniest comments ever — so of course we grandkids did, too.  But the driver’s jibe had an air of mystery and an almost lyrical quality that stuck with me.  A heifer was a cow, or course, but what, precisely, was a Mullingar heifer?

In those days, it would have taken forever to find out.  I suppose I could have gone to the reference section of the library, spoken to a severe-looking woman who probably would have been suspicious of my purported interest in Irish cattle, and with her assistance possibly located a massive book about bovine breeds that was available only in the library of the Ohio State University School of Veterinary Medicine.  It was too much work to satisfy a bit of idle curiosity, obviously, so I didn’t even try.

But then the internet was invented!  (Thanks, Al Gore!)  So when I was thinking with a chuckle of the Irishman’s comment the other day, I entered “Mullingar heifer” into the little box on Google, and lo and behold, I not only found pictures of the mysterious creature, one of which I’ve now posted here, but also learned that “beef to the heels like a Mullingar heifer” is a traditional Irish colloquialism typically used in connection with ladies with stout legs.  The latter discovery was a bit of a letdown, because for years I had been giving the Irish driver credit for coming up with a deft, original witticism.

Now that I’ve solved that decades-old mystery, it’s time to find the true origins of Mom’s exhortation to “put a little elbow grease into it!”

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Figurine Fan

IMG_5990I’m not a fan of most figurines. My mother and grandmother had a lot of those delicate china items, usually depicting women in gowns with umbrellas and kept on tables where little boys could easily knock them to the ground and ruin them forever. I simply have no appreciation for them, perhaps because I grew up afraid that I’d break them.

My grandmother also had some interesting carved figures of men and women from the Far East, dressed in traditional Japanese and Chinese garb. I’ve inherited them and keep them on my home desk, and they’ve helped to convert me into something of a fan of figurines. They are exquisitely detailed and — perhaps not coincidentally — sturdy and heavy. I’m not sure what they are made of (bone? ivory?) but they have the feel of age and quality and craftsmanship about them. I can’t tell anything else about them, because they only include Japanese or Chinese characters on the bottom of the base, with no English to be seen.

Russell, ever the artist, said something interesting recently. We asked him what he wanted from a particular place, and he said he didn’t care, so long as it was “something beautiful.” That concept stuck with me. It’s nice to have a beautiful thing or two around, to make you appreciate care and detail and inspire you to work a bit hard to bring quality to what you are doing, too.

Into Grandma Neal’s Collection Of Horror Stories

A woman died Friday night after falling from the Texas Giant roller coaster at the Six Flags theme park in Arlington, Texas.  It’s a horrible story, one that is a nightmare for everyone who likes to ride roller coasters.

Which is precisely why I thought of my grandmother when I read it — because it’s the kind of story she would have read with interest, remembered forever, and recounted with relish.  For a genteel woman with refined tastes, Grandma Neal definitely had an appetite for the bizarre.  She could converse endlessly about frog wars in some faraway land, or rabbits taking over the Australian countryside, or hardy crocodiles flushed down toilets in New York City that grew to gigantic size and roamed the sewers beneath the streets of Manhattan, ready to gobble up unwary workers.

But her specialty was stories especially calculated to thrill and terrify children.  Grisly thrill ride accidents were common topics for discussion when Grandma and Grandpa Neal took UJ and me to the Kiddieland amusement park in northern Ohio.  Whether the ride was a Ferris wheel or a roller coaster, the end result for any misbehaving patron was death.  In one yarn, a woman was decapitated after standing up on a roller coaster, and her head dropped to the ground with a thud right at Grandma’s feet.  In another, a boy who rocked the Ferris wheel too far tumbled out and was impaled on machinery.  And speaking of machinery, it was likely to catch on any nearby clothing, pull you into the gears, and leave you a crushed, blood-soaked pulp.  And while we’re on such topics, did I tell you about the boy who stuck his arm out a bus window and had it chopped clean off by a passing truck?  Now, who feels like some shoe string potatoes?

I still enjoy roller coasters, despite having my head filled with such stories long ago.  When I ride a roller coaster, however, I always double and triple check to make sure that my safety harness is well-secured, and I keep my hands inside the car.

Direct From the ’60s, I Give You The Light Blue American Express World Travel Service Bag

When we cleaned out Mom’s condo to get it ready for sale, we removed a bunch of stuff that had been stored in cupboards and closets and ignored for years.  The paraphernalia was distributed among the five kids, to be examined later.

Among the boxes and bags that I received were two very old movie projectors, an old slide projector, slide carousels, a Super 8 hand camera, and lots of old movies from the ’70s.  They are found in two light blue, high-quality plastic American Express World Travel Service bags.

IMG_3727Richard and I are going to have to figure out how to work the projectors, but for now I want to focus on the American Express World Travel Service bags.  They are chock full of maps, passport cases, American Express travel tip booklets (one is entitled “Priceless Travel Secrets” in Laugh-In era typeface) and other items that harken back to a day when travel was a great adventure, something that you dressed up for and anticipated.  In those days, you went to an American Express travel agent to help plan your trip, and the agent gave you “free” stuff that made the impending journey even cooler — stuff like these little blue bags.  They reek of the ’60s and early ’70s, these little blue bags, like props you might see to set the time period on Mad Men.

The American Express bags belonged to my grandparents, who loved to travel and paid careful attention to every tip and suggested technique.  I can just imagine them holding this bag stuffed full of cameras, film, itineraries, and booklets as they boarded a Pan Am prop plane for the transAtlantic trip, both wearing hats and dressy attire, passports secure in their passport case in one suit coat pocket, American Express Traveler’s Checks carefully stored in their special holder in another pocket.

It was a different time then.

From Grandpa’s Bookshelf: Grandma’s Book Of Sayings

Years ago, when Grandpa Neal moved into a retirement community, I inherited every volume on his bookshelves.  I took them because I love books and because I think the contents of bookshelves say a lot about their owners.

Recently I stumbled across a slim volume from their bookshelf.  Inside were pages of Grandma Neal’s handwriting, where she had jotted down favorite poems or sayings.  (As I’ve written before, she had an encyclopedic memory for verse.)  The passages are about life and death, love and disappointment, faith and motherhood.

Two pieces had particular resonance with me.  The first is from Sir Humphrey Davy:   “Life is made up, not of great sacrifices or duties, but of little things, in which smiles and kindness, and small obligations given habitually, are what preserve the heart and secure comfort.”

The second is the last stanza of Invictus by William Ernest Henley:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

There is something moving about looking at the pages of writing, in pen and in pencil, with cross-outs and insertions, knowing that my long-dead grandmother held this book and her hands brushed the pages as she wrote things that were meaningful to her.  I feel that I know her better, having read what she chose to write.