Tuesday, February 20, 2018


DO NOT be misled by this innocent face:

I am fully aware that, to the uninitiated, this stuffed rabbit might appear to be just a cute, cuddly little kiddie toy that elicits sweet smiles and choruses of elongated "Oohs" and "Aahs." In reality, however, it is a cruel instrument of torture and frustration. You shrink in disbelief? Allow me to explain.

A Christmas ago, Bootsie received the gift of a make-it-yourself kit purporting to contain all instructions and supplies needed for an "8+" child to sew her own furry companion. Right there, in bold black letters, the box proclaims itself to be "FULL OF FUN!" Lying in ambush inside, indeed, were thread, fabric, stuffing, manual--items necessary to save the manufacturer from a class action false advertising lawsuit. Certainly nothing to raise your eyebrows at--yet.

My suspicion was first aroused by the disclaimer that "Scissors and Sewing Needle [are] NOT Included" (in a kit that presents itself as "complete"?)  But even the most disciplined eyebrows rise with the opening of the instruction manual, a segment of which I offer as Exhibit A.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I submit to you that these instructions prove quite difficult if not downright impossible for a child of eight to understand, much less execute. (Bootsie was six at the time, but that is beside the point.) "Sew all the parts of the head on the reverse side of the fabric using the overstitch." Yeah, sure.

Or better yet, "To finish the head, sew the side pieces together from the nose tip to the neck opening on the reverse side of the fabric of both pieces." Say what? Even I, with three years of home economics on my high school transcript, had to think entirely too hard about what these words and diagrams mean.

Let me pause here to testify that the enclosed thread came in a tangled wad, the cut fabric pieces were hard to differentiate among, and the fabric itself frayed easily. Consider the fact that the finished bunny was only nine inches tall, and maybe you can imagine the intricate nature of the handwork required and the utter inappropriateness of this for a child seamstress.

My daughter Cookie is smart. She took one look at the contents of the bunny box (After all, it said, "Come on, OPEN ME!") and claimed it gave her a headache just thinking about it. I get that. She has her hands full with four children, a household, and a truckload of music students. But Bootsie wanted her bunny made, and, well, how could I resist those big blue eyes and that plaintive little voice. "Googie?" she said. "Would you sew my bunny for me?"

And this is where I summarize--where I squeeze into a few poignant words the entire year it took to make myself sew up this awful thing. Beginning on a recent mid-afternoon while Pa-pa was out of town, I stitched, cursed, ripped out, and repeated that process more times than even I, in retrospect, can imagine.

I found a pair of buttons to use for eyes in place of the worthless rivets that refused to pierce the face piece. The red thread for the nose refused to pull through, so those extraneous loops became whiskers (four on one side and eight on the other, but who's counting?). The enclosed ribbon for the bunny's neck wasn't long enough to tie in a bow, so I had to scrounge up another one.

Determined to finish the project for our next visit to the kids, I stitched and stuffed relentlessly through everything late night TV had to offer, including two episodes each of Perry Mason and Alfred Hitchcock. Even Hitchcock's horror couldn't equal mine, until finally, around 2 a.m., this motley collection adorned the arm of my recliner.

A little over an hour later, the dots were connected and "Frankenbunny," my own little creation of mismatched, improvised rabbit parts, was born. It was about a twelve-hour job altogether. Right then, I was sure I would never take on another such project, even for a grandkid.

But then, in her Frankenstein, Mary Shelley writes, ". . . if I see but one smile on your lips when we meet, occasioned by this or any other exertion of mine, I shall need no other happiness." Bootsie was thrilled when she first laid those big blue eyes on Frankenbunny, and Shelley got it right.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

How To Rock a Valentine Party

When I was a school kid in the '60s, the classroom valentine party was something I looked forward to so much that I could hardly finish the day's installment of Dick and Jane. Like the stories, the parties were simple then, usually hosted by two "room mothers" that I considered equal to royalty.

About a week before the party, we would bring from home shoe boxes we had covered with construction paper and hearts (crepe paper and doilies when I was older and learned what those were). We would cut a slit into the top or side for the simple paper valentines our classmates would bring for us sometime the week prior. Only occasionally would someone's mom splurge and give us all an actual cardboard valentine with a juicy, red sucker affixed.

I don't remember making anything or playing anything, only getting to skip geography or some end-of-the-day stretch of boredom to open our valentines and eat mouth-watering heart-shaped, iced, decorated sugar cookies that the moms made. We usually got a paper nut cup of those little conversation hearts as well, along with a cup of red Kool-aid mixed right there in the classroom.

When my own children were in school and I had somehow myself risen to the ranks of royalty, the treats were pretty much the same (read: many opportunities to stay up past midnight spreading icing and tossing sprinkles). The decorated boxes, though, had been elevated to major art projects, and we had added a game or two and maybe a small take-home treat bag.

Since then, however, things have changed. Sadly, for safety reasons, treats from the royal kitchen have given way to pre-packaged, store-bought snacks. In the interest of equality among children (which I can understand and take no issue with), the valentine receptacles are decorated paper bags, all the same size, designed to hold cards and candy from those children whose families choose to participate. In addition, the parties are likely to feature take-away craft activities and games.

This information is all new to me. This Valentine's Day, I got to attend a kindergarten class party as Beenie's guest. In spite of the changes these parties have undergone over some fifty years (over three generations) or more, I found the event to be delightful. Following are a few suggestions in case you ever find yourself in the position of king or queen in charge of an elementary classroom valentine party.

1. Plan a couple simple "make-and-take" crafts. Of course, in the age of Pinterest and subject-specific blogs, these are easy to find with a google search and a few quick link clicks (try saying that three times). I got to assist Beenie with two well-chosen crafts that made use of supplies I recognized from Hobby Lobby. One was a hanging ornament, which demonstrates Beenie's tendency to "think outside the heart."

The other was a very cute "love bug," or butterfly.

My perusal of valentine party websites after the fact led me to the blog onecreativemommy.com which, in an article titled "25+ Fantastic Valentine Class Party Ideas" (posted 01/23/16), even shows a craft designed similarly to Beenie's bug.

2. Plan a couple easy team games. Unfortunately, I got to see only one of the games because I was helping a couple kids glue their love bugs while the other one was going on. But Beenie and his classmates loved a "Minute to Win It" game that involved teams of four or five moving around a table to build a stack of conversation hearts as high as possible in a minute's time. As each child reached the stack, he or she added another heart. If the stack fell, the next child would begin a new one. The team with the highest number of stacked hearts (in this case, five) at the end of a minute received a valentine pencil as a prize.

Here, Beenie is adding his heart to his team's stack. (They are using the small hearts, but I think the larger ones might work better, especially for younger children.) I found references to this game and lots of other good ones under the heading "15 Valentine's Day Party Games for Kids" on the site thebalance.com by Stacy Fisher and also on makoodle.com.

In surfing these websites, I found another one to be very good in its inclusion of both game and craft ideas and other suggestions for a successful party. "35 Valentine's Day Classroom Party Ideas" on makeandtakes.com (posted 02/09/12) was especially helpful in its grouping of activities into age-appropriate categories from grades 1-8; its recommendation to set up activities in classroom "stations" for the children to rotate through; and its diverse suggestions for crafts, card-making, snacks, and stories appropriate for Valentine's Day.

3. Offer some uncomplicated pre-packaged snacks. In Beenie's case these consisted a Capri-Sun-style drink and an individually packaged bag of mini-brownies.

4. Climb a tree on the way to the car after the party (optional). 

Of course, Beenie and I are likely the only ones who finished our valentine party off in this manner. But you can tell from his smile that this was a fitting activity to end our celebration.

As it turns out, though, this wasn't quite the end. There was a paper bag, decorated like an owl, that had to be emptied on the kitchen table and foraged through the minute we got home. Beenie received lots of good treats from his classroom friends, and--shhh! don't tell him--even I got a chance to sneak a miniature Hershey's dark chocolate bar!

Friday, February 9, 2018

Now and Then

Used to be, Feb. 2 wasn't an especially notable day on our family calendar. Although it did mark the end of another long January, it was, for the most part, only a time to pay lip service to a lazy Pennsylvania rodent and think about ideas for Valentine boxes.

But that was before the arrival of Grandkid #2 (Grandson #1) and a total renovation of Feb. 2. Now, there is excitement in the way we rip off the January calendar page and revel in the anticipation of Pooh's birthday. Last Friday was #9 in the series, and last weekend was nothing less than a glorious two-day party.

Here, the birthday boy prepares to extinguish his nine candles after his "dinner of choice," which, for the record, consisted of taquitos, shrimp, oysters, and sardines. (Let the record also show that I opted for a shrimp salad.)

We first used this delicious chocolate cake recipe for family birthdays some thirty years ago. I came across it in a Redbook magazine in the doctor's waiting room when son Teebo was imminent. It still exists in my recipe file in its original form, scrawled in red ink on a page torn from my bank book. But I digress. On to the presents.

Because Pooh's favorite school subject is science, it seemed like a no-brainer when, at Hobby Lobby, I discovered a junior "chemistry" set named "Test Tube Adventures." Although his mama cast a somewhat disapproving glance in my direction when this jewel was first unwrapped, I couldn't  imagine why any child wouldn't love such activities as "playing with touchable bubbles," "making a super bouncing ball," "making yards of worms," and "growing bright jiggly crystals."

As it turned out, the little "experiments," at least the two that I supervised, were entirely harmless and totally age-appropriate. I can honestly say that no floor, furniture item, or sibling was harmed in the production of touchable bubbles or super bouncing balls. At this point I have not heard just how many yards of worms materialized or just how "jiggly" those crystals were, but I'm sure this information will eventually trickle down.

For a game/group activity we got the maximum fun possible from a $4.99 Melissa and Doug hat-making kit (google Melissa and Doug Simply Crafty Adventure Hats) containing four sturdy, adjustable hat templates with stickers for embellishment.

Pooh chose a pirate hat for his headgear wardrobe, while the other hats made Sooby a princess, Bootsie a court jester, and Zoomie a Viking. To make matters even more pleasant, each child picked a different hat the first time, with no arguing. I still don't know exactly how that happened.

Pooh's ninth birthday celebration was a far cry from his first one, when he looked like this.

But although that was then and this is now, some things haven't really changed at all. Now, as then, we celebrate the blessing of being Googie and Pa-pa to this great kid. And, what's more, the cake is still chocolate--and the party still rocks.


Tuesday, January 30, 2018

A Fresh Look at the Nativity

Everything about Bootsie exudes originality. In considering the four children in her family, we have, at different times, referred to this energetic first-grader as "the quiet one," "the devious one," "the helpful one"-- and the list goes on.

Although Bootsie is not the only one of the foursome to demonstrate talent in the visual arts, you can always depend on her artwork for a certain--well--the best word I can think of is quirkiness. Nowhere has this ever been more apparent than in the one-of-a-kind Christmas card she drew for Pa-pa last month.

But wait--let me prepare you for Bootsie's unique spin on the traditional nativity scene in small doses. Here she is at Googie's on the day after Christmas, showing off an angel she captured in blue dry erase marker on marker board.

As you study this drawing, you are likely to notice in short order that Bootsie's angel does not appear to be addressing shepherds in the field keeping watch over their flocks by night. She does not seem to be singing "Hallelujah!" or anything else, for that matter. No, not quite.

It is unmistakably apparent from this thoughtfully-drawn piece that this angel suffers from a bout of the stomach flu. Euphemism aside, this angel is throwing up right there in the highest or wherever she happens to be at the time.

What we have here is a biographical influence at work. Bootsie herself had come down with the bug just four nights earlier, and two nights later her brother Pooh had done the same. Knowing this helps us understand why the artist chose to place this angel in this particular predicament.

Interestingly, Bootsie's manger scene, a graphite work on the cover of Pa-pa's Christmas card, is not so conveniently explained. Here is that masterful piece, followed by a few appropriate words of review.

At first glance, the scene is familiar and predictable. The tableau is complete with stable, star, Mary, Joseph, and the Baby Jesus. The Baby lies smiling on a manger bed; Joseph sports a staff and a beard; a sheep looks on.

And then you see them--the animals on the periphery of the drawing. Standing by Mary in complete wonderment and awe is--a chicken? And if that is not enough, peering in from the other side (outside the stable, fortunately) is none other than a dinosaur.

If you ask me, Bootsie's work of art is at once simple and profound. It juxtaposes anachronistic concepts of time. It surprises and delights.

With a creativity that even the artist herself can't realize, the drawing incorporates the unusual into the familiar in a way that evokes emotion and thought. It may exhibit a minimalist technique, but I look at it and see nothing but joy.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Pooh's Haunted Castle

Take a clean white sheet of paper and a pencil. Add creative children mixed with a little holiday vacation time on their hands, and what Googie gets are imaginative, delightful keepsakes from last month's Christmas. They are more than enough to lend some much-needed warmth and cheer to the sub-zero temperatures that have socked in with a vengeance here at the northernmost tip of the Missouri Ozarks.

One of the neatest things about the Christmas just past is the fact that, for the first time, the three oldest grandkids gave me and Pa-pa gifts they had made themselves. Sooby, 10, made a bright multi-colored tissue paper flower, complete with the scent of her mama's perfume, that I stuck in the dirt alongside my Christmas cactus.

Pooh capitalized on his love of Hardy Boys mysteries to write five "chapters" of his own story, Fred and John in the Haunted Castle. Either because he got tired or because he ran out of time, Chapter 5 ends with a cliffhanger that, in an introductory note, Pooh instructs me to resolve and finish.

I may not be entirely objective, granted, but the story so far seems pretty advanced for an author who is in only the third grade. Consider the following synopsis.

Fred and John (last name--Scott) are contacted by police chief Francis Key. (Am I the only one humming "The Star Spangled Banner" here?) The chief has received a call from millionaire theatre owner Jim Divenport, who reports his concern that a medieval castle on his New York (a state older than we previously thought) property may be haunted by his ancestor, King Robert. And just like that, the Scott brothers have a new case to investigate.

The brothers then accomplish the one-day drive from their Colorado home to New York (hope they had a radar detector), where Jim greets them with an English accent and has his butler (uh-oh--a suspect already?) drive the three of them to the castle (by a lake, of course) in his luxury limousine.

"It was a large stone castle," Pooh writes. "High turrets stood at each of the four corners. Mr. Divenport inserted the key into the rusty old lock and opened the huge wooden doors." Then, a few lines later, "Suddenly metal walls slammed down in front of all the exits." At the edge of your seat? Read on.

Warned by a mysterious, threatening voice that there is no chance of escape, the boys note with dismay that Jim has disappeared and a rusty piece of metal, which turns out to be an ax, protrudes from the dirt floor near them. After a struggle to retrieve the ax (reminiscent of a scene from The Sword in the Stone), they find a secret tunnel, accessed by a now-collapsed trap door, where someone truly sinister has stashed Jim.

It is then that Jim lets the boys in on a family legend. He speculates that robbers have used the ax to break the trap door and search for the fortune in gold thought to belong to the royal Divinport family of medieval times.

At this latest plot wrinkle, Fred declares that a stakeout is in order for the evening. But just as the boys are lifting Divinport from the hole, "BANG!!!!!!! A shot rang through the air." Clearly, the Divinport heir and his two youthful sleuth buddies are under attack--but a quick survey of the immediate area turns up no one.

And this is where the story, in its present state, ends and Pooh's note comes in. "Dear Googie," he says. "I wrote this book myself . . . . I made it in a special way where you can finish it. Love, [Pooh]."

In my opinion, Pooh's idea of joint authorship sounds like tremendous fun, so I will pick up the story where he left off, all right. I am thinking perhaps a flashback of some sort might add some depth and background and, maybe, lead him to consider a new fiction technique.

Then, when Pa-pa and I go to his house to celebrate his ninth birthday with him in a couple weeks, I will throw the ball back in his court and tell him to write the next part. There are quite a few pages left in the little 6 x 8-inch notebook. Who knows what drama and skullduggery might ensue?

Charming as it is, Pooh's creation is not my only Christmas keepsake. His younger sister Bootsie drew Pa-pa a Christmas card that depicts a delightful manger scene--and I'll bet my boots and yours there has never been another quite like it.

But I'll save that story for next time. Right now, I have some other important writing to get started on.

Co-author of Fred and John in the Haunted Castle

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Unwrapping Christmas

I think it must have been the tree--the seven-foot-plus Kennedy fir pre-strung with 600 multi-colored mini lights to illuminate our new home with holiday spirit. Or maybe the inspiration came from the move itself, with its promise of a chance to regroup, re-settle, re-think priorities, and, in essence, reshape our lives and lifestyle in these retirement years.

Whatever the reason, I decided right after Thanksgiving that THIS Christmas would be different. This year, I vowed to do away with my usual "Ebenezer Scrooge" Christmas mindset and give the season its rightful due. I would embrace every preparation it demanded, right down to the sprinkles pelting my last sheet of sugar cookies.

So, in record time--pay attention, Guinness people--I finished the shopping and sent out cards to inform everyone of our new address. I bought the new tree, put it up, and dressed it in all the old family ornaments that surfaced when we moved. I cooked an early Christmas dinner for Pa-pa's brothers, then wrote and directed a play for the church kids.

By this time, I was unstoppable. I saw a professional production of A Christmas Carol (Scrooge reformed in that one, too), drove through the light displays down on the harbor, and went to a couple Christmas parties. Finally, and still a good week before the big day itself, all I had left was wrapping the presents.

Now normally, in my former life as Scrooge, this would involve throwing the presents for each grandkid in a big holiday bag and calling it good. This year, however, I swear that my gorgeous tree, from its perfect place there in the great room corner, whispered to me, "Wrap! Wrap! I am too beautiful for cheapskate shortcuts. You must wrap!"

A trip to yet-unpacked boxes in the garage led me to three unopened rolls of blue and white snowman wrapping paper from various years of my former life. Three hours of deliriously happy snipping, folding, taping, and ribbon-curling later, my new tree looked like this.

For several nights afterward, with Pa-pa already down the hallway dreaming of sugarplums, I sat up in the tree-lit living room by myself, admiring my work. There were 36 presents in all, including four--wrapped separately but bundled together with ribbon--for each of the six grandkids.

Fast-forward to Christmas Day, with the traditional holiday meal devoured, the dishes in the dishwasher, and the kids piled in the floor with their stacks of presents. "Let's open them one at a time," someone said, creating a delightful alternative to the massive, chaotic upending of six huge bags.

It was great fun to watch the suspense build and the surprise register as each gift was meticulously unwrapped. At ages four through ten this year, the kids were old enough to be patient and wait to unwrap their own next presents in turn.

For me, it was a fitting culmination of a season in which I, too, had been patient enough to give each preparation its own time while contemplating its own special meaning in the sequence of all things Christmas. This year, unlike many before, I unwrapped the Christmas season myself in a way that helped me see it better, appreciate it more, and actually enjoy it.

Yesterday I packed up the ornaments and took down my beautiful tree. I hit the after-Christmas sales for deep discounts on cards, wrapping paper, and a few new ornaments. Instead of feeling only exhausted relief that the season is over, I surprised myself by beginning these modest preparations for next year.

I have found--or perhaps re-learned--that the weeks leading up to Christmas do not have to bog down in a tiresome flurry of obligatory activity. Begun early and savored one at a time, each preparation for the season can be a mini-celebration of its own.

This new year, I resolve from here on out to allow the Christmas season the joy it deserves. In that regard it would seem that I, like Mr. Scrooge himself, have some lost time to make up for.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Where Heritage Lives

Three months ago Pa-pa and I left our home of 21 years to set up housekeeping a half hour south of there in a lake subdivision near the small town where he grew up. For him, and for me as well in the nearly 42 years since I have known him, this place offers a dynamic rich in family, old friends, old stomping grounds, and treasured memories. 

This little town is where our children came to visit their grandparents and where numerous aunts, uncles, and cousins still reside. It is where, as a teenager, Pa-pa worked summer jobs on the river, played basketball in the community building, and graduated from high school. For our family, it is a place rich in heritage.

As a bonus, it also offers something of heritage to our grandchildren, as Sooby, Pooh, Bootsie, and Zoomie learned on Oct. 21. When they came to spend that weekend with us, their visit coincided with a gorgeous Indian-summer Saturday that fell during the Warsaw, Mo., community's 35th annual celebration of Pioneer Heritage Days.

Although Heritage Days certainly has its commercial aspect, it also offers a nostalgic look at arts, crafts, relics, and survival processes of the rural Ozarks of the 1800s. Although the modern crafters selling their creations along Drake Harbor downtown are interesting and abundant, it is the wooded area behind the Harry S. Truman Dam Overlook on Kaysinger Bluff that captivates us, sparks our imaginations, and shows us the lifestyles of those who made a living from these hills, woods, and waters generations before us.

Watching the kids immerse themselves in the sights, sounds, smells--in the "feel"--of the past was one of the most exciting, rewarding things we have experienced since the move down. But here--I'll let them show you some of the highlights.

Here, the kids model a horse-drawn carriage--minus the horse. 

Pooh, Boots, and Zoomie check out a new way to roast pork. I love the looks on
their faces in this one! 

The kids learn that draft oxen weigh as much as 3,000 pounds. 

A "mountain man" builds a small animal trap using sticks and stones. 

Pooh hams it up before "Fire in the Hole!" warns that the old cannon is about to fire. 

There was so much more to see and do than what these few photos show--the live bluegrass music, the one-room school, the soap making, the wood carving, the super-soft rabbit pelt that Sooby bought (unknown to us) with her own money, even "Abe Lincoln" delivering the Gettysburg Address.

But maybe we should leave something for you to discover yourself in the event that you attend next year's celebration on Oct. 20-21, 2018. At the price of $7 for adults, $4 for kids 6-12, and younger kids free, we highly recommend this opportunity to take a step into the past for a taste of the heritage that belongs to us all.