Tulip Time

We had some friends over for drinks last night, and Kish brought home these pink tulips to provide a pretty welcome for them. It’s always nice to have flowers in the house, and tulips are a special treat this time of year. On dreary March days, their beautiful colors and fresh scent remind us that, technically, the March equinox has passed and spring is here, and the real, blooming Midwestern spring is just around the corner.

Tulips also remind me of Grandma Neal, who had a taste for poetry and an astonishing ability to recall and recite poetry from memory. One of her favorites to recite when spring arrived was The Garden Year, by Sara Coleridge, which mentions tulips:

January brings the snow,
Makes our feet and fingers glow.

February brings the rain,
Thaws the frozen lake again.

March brings breezes, loud and shrill,
To stir the dancing daffodil.

April brings the primrose sweet,
Scatters daisies at our feet.

May brings flocks of pretty lambs
Skipping by their fleecy dams.

June brings tulips, lilies, roses,
Fills the children’s hands with posies.

Hot July brings cooling showers,
Apricots, and gillyflowers.

August brings the sheaves of corn,
Then the harvest home is borne.

Warm September brings the fruit;
Sportsmen then begin to shoot.

Fresh October brings the pheasant;
Then to gather nuts is pleasant.

Dull November brings the blast;
Then the leaves are whirling fast.

Chill December brings the sleet,
Blazing fire, and Christmas treat.

Memories By Maude

My maternal grandmother, Maude Neal, had a remarkable memory. Locked in her brain were hundreds, if not thousands, of poems, sayings, and song lyrics that she could summon and quote at will on any occasion. Her repertoire ranged from silly ditties she learned as a kid (“Kaiser Bill went up the hill to take a look at France. Kaiser Bill came down the hill with bullets in his pants.”) to sayings about hard work, fortitude, love, family, death, and just about any other topic.

Back in the ‘70s or early ‘80s Mom decided to sit down with Grandma, have her deliver some of her sayings, and make careful note of them. Mom then carefully typed the poems and sayings (with a few typos and strike-throughs) and assembled the pages in a handmade booklet, decorated with stick-on flowers and held together by yarn. All of us kids got a copy. We still have my copy, decades later, and keep it on a table in our upstairs study. It’s a cool piece of family memorabilia that reminds me of Grandma Neal and Mom whenever I see it.

And while I lack Grandma’s facility with remembering and quoting poems, I remember her reciting some of the poems in this little booklet. Like this one, which I first heard as a little kid when I came home and made some complaint about something trivial:

I do not ask to walk smooth paths

Or bear an easy load.

I pray for strength and fortitude

To climb the rock-strewn road.

Give me such courage and I can scale

The hardest peak alone.

And transform every stumbling block

Into a stepping stone.

Grandma’s poetic message was clear: suck it up, kid! It’s still good advice.

Red Sky In Morning . . . .

My grandmother had a poetic saying for every occasion.  UJ and I spent a lot of time with her during our childhood, and heard every one of her sayings multiple times.  They’ve become part of my permanent mental landscape and simply pop into my head, unbidden, from time to time.

Like when I saw this morning’s sunrise, shown above, with its striking red sky.  It immediately made me think of one of Grandma’s weather-related favorites:

Red sky at night, sailors’ delight,

Red sky in morning, sailors take warning.

To my knowledge Grandma never lived in a coastal community.  She didn’t have any close friends or relatives who were mariners, and I don’t remember her telling us any stories about receiving instruction from a grizzled sailor about his rules of thumb on the weather.  She may have been on a boat once in a while on her travels, but being on the open water wasn’t a regular part of her life in land-locked Akron, Ohio. 

Nevertheless, as a kid I believed that Grandma knew what she was talking about.  But these days I’m not so sure.  This morning the lobster fleet chugged out of port as it always does, without batting an eye about that red sunrise.  And my weather app indicates its going to be sunny today, with a high in the mid-70s.  Could Grandma have been wrong?

Or maybe the warning to sailors was about sunburns.

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!”

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.