Good Capitals, Bad Capitals

An apartment search service called “Rent Hop” has declared Chicago the “Rat Capital” of the United States.  Rent Hop did a study of rat complaints and concluded that Chicago received far more rat complaints than other American cities — 50,963 in 2017 alone.  That’s a 55 percent increase since 2014, and factors out to 1,876 complaints per 100,000 people.  Even worse, the neighborhoods with the most rat complaints also tend to be the neighborhoods with the most uncollected dog droppings.

6432106That’s really a lot of rat complaints, when you think about it.  If you’re a renter in Chicago — particularly in some neighborhoods — you’re pretty likely to have a rat encounter.

The Windy City blew New York City out of the water in the Rat Capital race; the Big Apple logged only 19,152 rat complaints last year, which put it well down on the list on a per capita basis.  Second place on the per capita list went to Washington, D.C.  That should come as no surprise, although it’s not clear whether the D.C. count was limited to only four-legged rats, or also included the two-legged variety.

Fortunately, Columbus didn’t make the Rat Capital list.

Cities used to declare themselves “capitals” as a mark of civic pride.  When I was a kid, Uhrichsville, Ohio — where the Webner part of the family hails from — had a sign boasting that it was the “Clay Capital” of the United States.  (I’m not sure any other municipalities were vying for that distinction.)  Akron was the Rubber Capital in those days, and even now on the highways you’ll see corny signs saying that one town or another is the Friendly Folks Capital or the Smile Capital or the Lobster Capital.

I doubt that Chicago is going to put up a sign about the Rat Capital designation.

Cookies With Dope

IMG_7632No, not that kind of dope!

My grandmother on Dad’s side of the family, Bertha Webner, hailed from Uhrichsville, in eastern Ohio.  Her speech was littered with interesting words that you didn’t hear anybody else use, like calling a coat a “wrap.”  And she made a special kind of icing she called, simply, “dope.”

I’m not sure exactly what the recipe for dope was, but it was great icing.  I’m guessing it was made with brown sugar as an ingredient, because it had a certain thickness and coarseness to it.  Grandma used to lather it onto her specialty:  angel food cake, baked for everybody’s birthday.

So tonight I tried to make a little dope, experimenting with brown sugar, whole milk, and confectioner’s sugar, and used it for icing some Dutch spice cookies.  It turned out pretty well, but it’s really not a patch off of Grandma’s concoction.  Her dope wasn’t illegal, but it was addictive.

A Father’s Little Mysteries

On this Father’s Day, I’ve been thinking about my father and wishing I knew a little bit more about certain parts of his life.

It’s not that Dad was a person of conscious mystery.  It’s just that, for the most part, he was a quiet man who kept his earlier life to himself.  He didn’t dominate the conversation when we sat down for dinner at night or regularly regale us with stories of his childhood in Uhrichsville and Akron or talk about his college days.  As a result, there are parts of his life that are a bit of a mystery to me, and those little mysteries will probably never be solved to my satisfaction.

IMG_3910For example, when he was a young man Dad had the nickname Lucky Pierre.  I’ve now inherited the 60-year-old caricature drawing of Dad that shows it.  Mom says that when she first started dating him, she thought his real first name was Pierre, because that’s what Dad’s fraternity friends and other members of their crowd always called him.  In those days, the frat guys would invite their dates over to the frat house and put on little comedy skits and shows for entertainment — something that it’s hard to imagine the father I knew doing — and in the skits he was called Lucky Pierre.  He played basketball on a team with his friends and had a jersey with Lucky Pierre on it.  It obviously was a moniker he liked.

These aren’t things Dad ever talked about; they are little bits and pieces of his life that I’ve heard about from others over the years.  So, how did a regular guy named Jim living in Akron, Ohio come to be called Lucky Pierre?  Mom doesn’t know, she says.  I have a vague sense that it involved some kind of vulgar fraternity humor that twenty-something guys find hilarious — but what incident was responsible for him getting that name in the first place?

I’ll probably never know the complete answer to this question, and a bunch of other ones, too.  Maybe it’s good for a man to have his little mysteries, but on this Father’s Day I wish I knew a little bit more about the back story of the Dad I knew and the course that his life took before UJ, me, Cath, Margaret, and Jean arrived on the scene.  It would help to round out my understanding of this man who played such a huge and essential role in my own life.

Bertha Webner

January 20 was the birthday of Bertha Webner, my paternal grandmother.  She lived well into her 90s and, when she finally went to join her sisters in the Great Beyond, left some indelible memories for me and her other friends and relatives.

Bertha Webner, in her later years

Gramma Webner was one of those people who exemplified the complexities, and contradictions, of the human spirit.  She was a fun, supportive person with a great sense of humor who was always patient with and encouraging to her grandchildren.  She could laugh at herself, and the photo attached to this posting aptly captures the twinkle in her eyes and ready smile on her lips.  At the same time, however, she was a judgmental person who could slice you into ribbons for a badly played bridge hand or a refusal to go to church on a pretty Sunday morning.  At times, her sharp comments about cooking or housekeeping would reduce her daughters-in-law to tears.

Her life story is an interesting one.  Born to a large family in Uhrichsville, Ohio, she was close to her four sisters, who knew her as “Buss.”  Her life changed forever in her childhood, when she suffered an accident on a playground.  She was up in the air on a teeter-totter when the child at the bottom stepped off; she came crashing to the ground and her hip was shattered.  The doctors in her small town set the bone in a way that left one leg permanently shorter than the other.  For the rest of her life, Gramma wore special shoes, one of which had a five or six-inch raised heel, walked with a pronounced hitch in her step, and was in constant discomfort.

She didn’t let her physical condition bother her, however.  She had obvious musical talent, learned how to play piano “by ear,” and went to Bethany College to study music.  Sixty years later, she could still entertain everyone at family gatherings with her piano playing.  She played the piano for hours at Mom and Dad’s Ohio State football game parties and in the get-together the night before Kish and I were married.  I’ve met many people with amazing talents and abilities, but Gramma’s ability to play the piano “by ear” ranks pretty high on the list.  You could simply hum a song and she could convert it into a beautifully rendered piece that people just wanted to sing along to — whether they could sing or not.

She married my grandfather, had three sons, reared them during the Great Depression, and saw all three sons get advanced degrees.  She was a wonderful cook who made great, old-fashioned comfort food like baked chicken, mashed potatoes, and tapioca pudding.  The kitchen in her home on Emma Avenue in Akron, Ohio was a wonderful place for a kid, filled with mouth-watering smells and all sorts of pots, pans, spoons, and utensils to play with.  For years, it was a family tradition for every birthday to be celebrated with an angel food cake that Gramma baked — a cake that was always partially collapsed on one side, to be (unsuccessfully) filled in by an extra lathering of sugary icing.

My grandfather got lung cancer when he was in his sixties, and she nursed him in their house as the disease took its inevitable, horrible toll.  After Grampa died, she picked up and moved back to Uhrichsville to be with her sisters; they spent their days playing cards, gossiping with friends, going to church, and having Sunday brunch at the old Buckeye Hotel.  Still later, after her sisters died, she moved to Reston, Virginia, where my uncle and aunt and their family lived.  At that time, Kish and I were living in Washington, D.C., and on Saturdays we would go to her retirement complex and take her out to lunch.  During those lunches she loved to share a laugh and a good story about family members — the more salacious, the better.

While she lived in Reston she had to be hospitalized, and everyone expected the worst.  Her indomitable spirit carried her through, however, and during our visits she delighted Kish and me with her funny stories about the weird happenings and odd smells at the nursing home where she regained her health.  There is no doubt in my mind that her sense of humor was one of the reasons she recovered quickly from a debilitating condition, even though she was in her 80s.  She ultimately left the nursing home and moved back into her apartment at the retirement community, where she was later named Woman of the Year.  When, well into her 90s, her heart and her health finally began to fail her, she was comforted by her strong religious faith and happy that she would soon be seeing her sisters who, she was sure, were waiting for her in a better place.

It’s hard to capture a person in a short blog posting, but I am not sure that I could capture Gramma in a tome the length of War and Peace.  I just know that when I see her picture every morning I smile.