Sunday, December 30, 2012

The basement train line

About the time my little brother, Mel, could put his finger tips over the edge of a table and pull himself up for a better look my dad started the freight business from the depot outside his shop, around the basement, through the steps.  The open topped fright car delivered a load of soap under the steps for mom to put in the washing machine and came back to the depot, to the utter delight of the little boy peering over the top of the plywood platform.

With a man and two boys for underwriters, the train business grew.  The square footage available at the large plywood station in the corner multiplied as the train tracks went up the hill against the shop wall, through a tunnel, stopped for crossings, went down a hill into the switching yard, to the round house.

The Lionel™ engine left the round house under a full head of steam, climbed the slight grade along the drive way wall, rounded a nice curve to the backyard wall, still climbing.  She headed straight through the open steps, stopped at the platform by the set tubs to off load mom’s scoop of soap and whistled along the down grade of the track on the next lower step, down, down, down, back to the yard.

I remember helping my mom with of loads of laundry while three guys whooped it up over their trains, which were a major source of entertainment for several years.  Then interest waned and the trains were boxed up on the shelf.  We kids still whiled away a rainy afternoon having marble races on the downhill track.  Two cat eye shooters can race side by side on O gage track!

Eventually all the rolling stock and equipment from the train yard in the basement was long donated to the train museum in Akron, and I thought no more about trains until my uncle was cleaning out his basement and gave me a Lionel™ locomotive he thought he’d borrowed from dad.  It had been run hard and put away wet, but I suppose that is the fate of steam train engines, the engineer and fireman’s combined ages not exceeding twenty one years.

I asked my brother Walt, the original engineer, to build a glass box to showcase the old war horse.  It was missing the cow catcher, saddest of all, and we had to buy a piece of O gauge track on line.  He built a wonderful glass box with walnut trim the glass panels slid into. I could interest none of my children or grandchildren in having the extremely heavy paper weight, so I took it to a nursing home.  It went on a ledge in the common room and had an audience of men in wheel chairs reminiscing, when I left.

With thanks to Bill Lisleman, who visited a train yard any engineer could love.

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Big House

Our house is on old farm land, part of the pasture for a large dairy operation and cheese factory across the road.  The factory suffered a fire in the twenties and never reopened.  The land was sold off and in the ensuing decades homes were built on acreage on both sides of the farm lane.  In the forties the six families on the lane petitioned the township to assume responsibility for the lane; the usual assessments went out, the road was paved. 

Few of the houses are visible from the street, their access drives go through the wood and up the hill.  In the summer only we and the neighbor immediately down the hill have a house visible from the road.  All the foliage obscures the houses up the hill. 

From the back of our house, in the winter, we see The Big House. Mary has it lighted like a fairy wonderland in the winter, and she has cheered many a dark winter night at our kitchen table.  Like many houses on the street, this one just grew.  A small cottage, another room added, a wing put on by another owner and then one last owner, like Mary, who pulls it all together.

The Big House is visible, in the winter, through all the north facing windows of our studio.  Back when we were weavers we had ten hand looms in the studio and more weavers than ourselves.  One was Marge, a lovely old woman who loved to wander and talk, and never understood why she always made minimum wage, instead of the piecework rate of other weavers.

I loved Marge.  She always wore Mary Janes, and I loved her little feet treadling away under the loom. She turned on her hearing aid and asked if that was a joke we were laughing at, and please repeat it for her. The Big House, twinkling up the hill, fascinated her.

There are no city services in our township; every property has a well or a cistern, or both, and a septic system.  Because we fulled so much woven fabric we had our septic tanks emptied twice a year.  Angus was in dog heaven then, bouncing around the septic truck on his tigger springs, inhaling deep doggie breaths.

Of course the sewer smell would seep into the studio, which overlooked the septic tanks, and anyone working would breathe shallowly for twenty minutes.  “What’s that smell?!” Marge inquired very sharply the first time she worked on a septic day.  We explained the tanks were being emptied, then we explained septic systems, then we explained what they do, then we explained why there were no sewer lines in our township to an increasingly skeptical Marge.

“Well,” she said.  “I know The Big House wouldn’t have a septic system.  They’re on city water!”  And her little Mary Janes treadled faster.  She never understood why her paycheck was bigger that week, so I explained piece work again.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

On the road with Mom

Mom passed most of her driving skill genes along to her kids, and I’m pleased to say I sent those genes, at least, on to my kids.  Both are very good drivers, unlike their father. (I knew him before the term Road Rage existed; that’s the descriptor, I’ve come to understand, for his passing a driver who irritated him, cutting back in front and hitting the brakes.)

When I was young I had no idea my parents drove well.  We never broke down, had an accident or were stopped by a policeman, so there was nothing to hear on that score except a remark on the wrong doing of anyone observed pulled over to the curb by a policeman.

Mom was more obsessed with speed limits than dad, especially concerning his love of beating a train to a crossing.  Any 1950’s road he tried this on could not sustain more than 35 mph, and he certainly would not have defied flashing red lights or descending gates.  I think she disliked the impression he might impart to three children bouncing in the back seat, urging him on. 

This is the same woman whose father taught her to put a car in neutral at the top of the hill “to save on gas.”  And certainly the same woman who did not protest when Dad speeded up a hill to give three jumping kids the thrill of being air born at the crest.

In thinking back on her stories, a lot of Mom’s driving skills came from her father, who I did not know, and her mother, my Grandma Rolf who took me on many trips with her.  Her dad loved cars, loved to drive and saw as much of the country as he could back in the twenties and thirties.  He taught Mom how to drive those big Buicks across country or through New York City.

Mom’s big city skills were impeccable. She was an excellent leader of a caravan of cars and took good care of her train.  For instance, my first rotary, in Boston.  I was following mom; we were in the wrong lane, and needed the rotary to stay on our route out of town.  She applied a firm rule:  my plates are out of state, let me in.  I followed in her slip stream; there was no metal on metal and not even loud application of brakes, we did it.

Her finest skill was “making the hole.”  She kept her caravan together, or changed leaders of the pack, by dropping back slightly and allowing another of us to pull in ahead of her.  We would return the favor if we needed to swap leaders.  Occasionally she would see the need of another driver, drop back and wait.  “Good, he saw the hole!” Or, “Come on, I’ve made a hole for you!”

The penultimate driving statement remained:  “My plates are out state.”   “Our plates are out of state.” “Can’t you see these plates are out of state!”  We saw the USA before interstate highways were invented.  Our plates were out of state!

My Uncle's caption.  Mom in the front seat, watching her father's progress.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Bus 39 will be at least half an hour late

The only person in the house who wished for snow.

Still wishing?

Good grief; she's taller than another pair of pants.

"If I had snow pants I could make snow angels."

Santa has been notified.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Stockings are hung by the chimney with care…

Our tree is up.  Tom has to have a tree, and Laura helped with ours a couple of weeks ago.  Like last year, it has lights, but no ornaments.  Tom hung little candy canes, and most of them are Toby’s toys now.  Laura investigates under the tree occasionally; ostensibly to be sure Toby has not opened a package that does not have his name.  She usually announces if she found more packages to inspect.

Tonight Laura wondered about the stockings.  Surely it was time to hang them.  Stockings have been quite the tradition at our house since we all moved in together.  Jan and Tom, mom and me.  Almost twenty five years ago.  Mom and Jan made stockings for the four of us, and a few to spare. 

Even back then gifts we exchanged fit in our Santa sized stockings. Add that no one needed much of anything, and gifts among the four of us became bars of soap, toothpaste, chocolates, Jordan almonds (yum!).  The last Christmas she was alive mom put a wonderful wooden pencil in my stocking. Santa with a flowing beard carved the length still hangs by its gold thread on my bulletin board.

We retired mom’s stocking and spread out the remaining three:  Janice, Tom, Joanne. I suppose Mom's worked its way to the bottom of the stocking box, but I never gave it much thought.

Because Laura couldn’t wait another minute Tom sent her deep into the cubby under the eaves to retrieve stockings.  Little girls are just wonderful to have handy!  She came down with five and began placing them on the mantle.

I looked up and said “That’s not mine.”  Laura looked startled but Jan smiled and said “You’re Grandma now.”  And, Jan is inspired to go puff paint shopping tomorrow to get Emily and Laura written on the last two stockings on the mantle.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Patty ate her sleigh

We told the girls Santa may arrive by boat this year.

Nevertheless, one rainy afternoon Jan and Laura set out to make some sleighs.

Candy cane runners, Hershey Crackle™ candies, and, of course, a glue gun.  Jan saw it all on the internet.

Pulling the parts from stock for assembly.

Several hands required.

Ready the bow.

Final assemblies, ready for teachers and friends.

Their friend Patty ate hers right from the mantle.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Krueger’s big chance

I had a cat named Krueger, back when I was in college.  Krueger lived in Akron and I was in college in Cleveland.  This was 1961, and didn’t involve a nightmare, saving perhaps Krueger’s.

The house at 729 Moraine was built on a lot several feet lower than the lot of our next door neighbors, the Coles.  A stone retaining wall ran the length of the lot, and in our backyard orange tiger lilies cascaded down the wall every summer. 

Our grape arbor flanked that wall in our back yard.  The grape arbor was built of several whitewashed phone poles with cross arms at the top and chicken wire forming a roof for all the grape branches.  The grape clusters hung down for picking every September.  They were nearly six feet overhead; Mom had to reach up to pick them.  Dad had a bird feeder hanging down from the heavy grape branches and he kept it filled every winter.  Krueger, of course, sat under the feeder waiting for a bird to fall into his mouth.  One never did.

I was home for Christmas vacation.  It was a winter that couldn’t stop snowing, and the snow my brothers’ shoveled from off sidewalk from the back door to the garage grew steadily deeper on each side of the walk.  The retaining wall stopped the wind from blowing the snow away, and it just kept accumulating.

The snow cover in the area was so bad that dad wondered where the birds were finding food, and made sure he kept his feeder filled.  When he could no longer reach it, he threw cups full on top of the snow, which had reached shoulder height on that side of the yard, under the grape arbor.

I looked out the back window one afternoon and saw quail at the feeder, which sat on the five feet of snow accumulated under the grape arbor.  I reflected how bad the winter was for them that they had come up over the hill to forage at a bird feeder. 

Then I saw Krueger.  The big black cat had sprung to the top of the snow pack and was slinking along the surface, going to get him a quail.  Should I run to the back door and yell at him?  It was two rooms away, would there be time?

Dad stopped behind me at the window.  He tapped my shoulder and pointed a little higher.  There on the wall, beyond the quail under the feeder, sat another quail, coolly taking in the situation.  The quail on the wall watched Krueger get closer and closer and closer.  Then he said, in quail language, “Now, boys.”

Those quail fell on Krueger from a feet first descent, then wings pounding.  There was five feet of snow available and they put him down about four feet before they dusted off and left. A very subdued cat emerged and slunk away.  I didn’t feel the least bit sorry for him.

Bobwhite quail.  I have not heard a bobwhite since I have been an adult.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Artist training

Long ago, when she was 18, my sister ran away from home.  I asked the plant foreman of the little manufacturing company where I worked if he would interview my sister for a job opening I knew existed.  He did, he hired her, she came to live with me.  In the four years she was there she went through all the plant’s manufacturing jobs and popped out in engineering as a draftsman trainee.

Back at home she was always drawing.  There was an artist supply store up on Mentor Avenue where she bought a lot of stuff and asked a lot of advice.  Nothing she drew or painted really pleased her.  I remember art boards with bright acrylic colors in the trash.  Lots of scrunched up paper.  I smiled; she was my little sister.

One day my friend Carol asked a favor. She would be out of town on registration day; would I go through the line at Lakeland and register her for the next semester. As I paid up for Carol I had the epiphany.  I found a listing of all the classes for the semester, found Art-Drawing 101, went back through the line and enrolled Janice.  It must be something to be learned, I reasoned, if it was taught.

A couple of times each week Jan drove to Lakeland for her art class. She learned stuff like proportion, perspective.  Artist stuff.  I have no idea, she has the right brain.  Mine is left.  I offered her another art class when Drawing 101 ended but she declined.  She knew what to do, now.

This pencil work for her class featured my octagonal dinner plates, a chicken egg from the fridge and a finch egg from Carrie Nation.  It was the first thing I didn’t see crumpled in the waste basket, and I framed it for her.

She became a pen and ink person.  Boxes of nibs.  Bottles of ink. One day a friend got up close to inspect some of the art hanging on our walls.  Then she turned around and said “You did all this!” She only knew Jan as a weaver turned quilter.

One of my favorites.  I photo shopped around with the glare and the flash and quit while I was ahead.

These days, beside designing and making quilts, and quilting, Jan is fooling around with something called Zentangle™. It’s a one line at a time technique. That’s what she told me.  I’m the left brain.  I’ve also heard her say something to the effect of what she could have done with these Micron™ pens forty years ago.

A page of Zentangles™.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Word verification and cataracts

My first pair of glasses came at age ten.  Until then I didn’t know I couldn’t see.  But once I could see, I had to see it all, perfectly.  That from someone with 20/200 uncorrected vision, and astigmatism. All my ophthalmologists have been happy to ask “Better one or two?” until I came back to 20/20 vision.  My biggest problem was finding a nice pair of new frames to go around my new lenses every year or two.

For more than ten years I’ve heard about my little cataracts from any doctor who put a light into my eyes, including the ophthalmologist.  Little things.  Scarcely a mote, according to the doctors who mentioned it.  I know I cannot tell navy blue from hunter green and seldom need sunglasses, and assume that is due to the cataracts.  I could have worse problems.

This past year, though, the little buggers gained on me.  If I needed to read a road sign accurately and in time to know what it meant, I just dropped my right eye out of service and went with the left.  I knew I would be seeing the ophthalmologist in November and I could get that eye sorted out.

Not so fast, the doctor said.  There is eye surgery and there is eye surgery.  To correct vision a tiny slit of cornea is lifted, a snip here and there to make the lens more perfect, a little astigmatism work, plop the cornea back, done.  Ten minutes.  With cataract surgery an ultrasound probe goes into the slit to blast the cataract to smithereens so it can be vacuumed out.  Then a permanent lens is inserted. No cataract is removed before its time.  Dangers outweigh benefits and all that.  Not time for mine, yet.

We did go through the better one, better two drill until the doctor was satisfied I could see better through the cataract.  Thanks!  New glasses next week.  Purple with a little bling.

Which brings me to word verification.  Nobody likes it.  People with cataracts probably like it even less than nobody likes it.  Those numbers catch me up three and four times in a row.  Maybe bloggers who use word verification could give comment moderation a go.  We can wait to see ourselves in print.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Sherbondy Hill

My dad and his siblings were orphans, for all practical purposes.  For reasons I can’t know my grandmother married a man fifteen years older than herself, left home and lived with her in-laws while her husband travelled as a railroad man.  In every other year there was another baby, the oldest my father, until in 1915 my grandmother packed up her four children and came home to Ohio from Pennsylvania for the birth of the fifth.

My grandmother sued my grandfather, probably for desertion, and he posted bond in Pennsylvania guaranteeing his appearance in court to answer the charge.  Instead, he “jumped bond,” went west under an assumed name and died of consumption fifteen years later.  Letters from his daughters begging him to return were found in his wallet, revealing his original identity.

Were these not real people the story could be maudlin.   The family lived in the overcrowded childhood home of their mother, with her parents and those of her nine siblings still at home.  In her journal my Aunt Laura mentioned the terrible overcrowding that  sent them living in a succession of houses, moving when the rent came due.  Eventually four of the children were taken to the Children’s Home and from there our Uncle Bill was committed to Orient State School for the Insane.

My dad occasionally lamented the wasted potential of each of his siblings.  The absolute truth concerning my Uncle Bill, but the children, Bill included, played the hand dealt. 
Memories of the children’s’ lives during those years are scant.  My dad told one or two stories; Aunt Laura wrote about her brother Johnny as the director of the little band of children, feeding them bread soaked in coffee for their evening meal before bed, their mother absent. 

Aunt Laura set her hand to poetry, and I have a little self-published booklet of poems she dated from 1927 through 1964.  Most are love letters to her husband; she and Uncle Frank indeed were soul mates.

One of Aunt Laura’s poems, Their First Day Late, dated 1928, when she was seventeen, probably draws on a memory of her favorite brother and his favorite sister.

He with his wavy hair of brown,
She with her locks of gold;
They both stand at the schoolhouse door—
Each other’s hands they hold.

Her fresh white apron, her beauty displays,
But her face is bathed in tears.
The little fellow at her side
Cannot dispel her fears.

The big schoolbell had pealed its call,
The echo has died away.
The little maid and her brother
Are late, their first time, today.

They fear to enter the classroom
Where lessons have begun.
And they stand there on the threshold
Wishing the day were done.

Another poem Aunt Laura wrote in 1928 probably more accurately describes the schooling of her brother Johnny, and the uncles of the same age they grew up with.  “Pa” was her maternal grandfather, and a mean drunk from whom the women of the family hid the Four Roses bottle.

School Days

Johnny was a little boy
Who wouldn’t go to school.
He wouldn’t mind the teacher
Nor obey the Golden Rule.

He wanted to play hooky,
Like most the big boys did.
And got a spanking every night
When he was just a kid!

He used to go a-fishing,
Instead of going to school.
And when the days were long and hot,
He played in the swimming pool.

He’d come home late in the evening,
Scared and shivering, too!
Don’t you s’pose that you’d be scared
If “Pa” was up waiting for you?

Although he was spanked most every night,
And “Pa” warned him o’er and o’er,
Johnny scarcely set his feet
Inside a schoolhouse door!

John Lytle, my father, was born in Coalmont, Pennsylvania, in 1907. His mother brought the little family back to Akron, Ohio in 1915.  In 1924, days after his 17th birthday, he left Akron a member of the United States Army. He spent nine childhood years in Akron, from the age of eight through sixteen.  They were rough and tumble years, deep in adventures with his uncles, his mother’s brothers his own age, and at the same time holding together the little family that was his brother and sisters.

Dad told of sled riding down Sherbondy Hill in the winters. The city was built on four hills, with many lesser hills joining the whole.  Sherbondy Hill, very near his grandparent’s home, leads up to a park today.  At the turn of the century it was paved in cobbles, the better for horses to navigate.  In the winter the snow covered road was impassible, except to sleds. The hill has a grade of almost thirty percent, with several turns.  In telling of their exciting rides down the hill Dad wondered that none of them were killed.  Of course they weren’t.   

Sunday, December 2, 2012


In the dollar store one day Jan picked up a pack of eight ping pong balls, thinking the cats might like to chase them.  At first sight they were Toby’s balls.   Ryon’s exquisite paranoia will not permit him to touch one, but occasionally he watches Toby’s antics with trepidation, poised to escape if the little white sphere approaches.

Of course the little balls escaped to unreachable places, under the chest, under dressers.  Worst of all under the fridge where no grabber reaches.  The old folks in the house seldom went looking under dressers, and the ball numbers decreased.  Toby’s reprieve was the arrival of short children this summer.  They love him, he loves them and they often ferreted his balls out from dark places.

Jan was able to keep four reserve balls in the bag on the top bookcase shelf.  One day Toby begged and she reached up for the bag.  Only three!  She gave him one, but nobody would confess to giving in and releasing the missing ball to the ball monster.  Then Jan went around the corner and caught him, back paws on the chair, front paws stretched waaay over to the book shelf, and the last ping pong ball in his mouth.

Whenever we found an errant ping pong ball we put it in the little elfin ware vase on the mantle.  It held three nicely, and now Toby sat on the hearth and stared determinedly up, waiting for someone taller to see his need and release a wonderful ball.  Of course one day there were no balls in the vase that held three the night before. But, we had a mantle walking cat!

Toby was on his own.  If Emily or Laura would go searching with him he had ping pong balls.  If not, oh well.   Laura would always get down and look.  Sadly for Toby, she is in school all day

I eventually had to wonder what would happen if Toby had more ping pong balls than he could deal with at one time. Would he retreat, backing away from the onslaught of the mass of balls until cornered, he went under. 

A bag of a gross of balls brought out the best of Toby.  He reached under the bag, in case balls came out from there.  He patted the top of the bag, looking for the opening.  He held the bag firmly down with his left paw and used the right paw switch blade to slice down to the treasure. He only took one ball.  He thinks he knows where he can find the rest.

Clue:  they are no longer on the mantle.