Uncategorized

Going somewhere? How to pack and prepare for traveling

Traveling is exciting – but it requires some planning. After all, we want to be comfortable away from home. Here, I outline some of my own rules for packing – learned after 50 countries, 22 trips to Europe, 5 to Asia, and lots of places in between (not to mention a thousand conventions and conferences within the United States).

Traveling for business or leisure (or a combined trip) has some things in common and a few differences. I will address as many as I can. NO matter what sort of trip is coming up, one thing that applies to all packing, and is your first critical decision is…shoes.

SHOES

You will be miserable if your feet hurt. And I would caution against buying any new shoes, unless you are weeks away from departure, and you can really really break them in and ensure they will not give you blisters or worse.

  1. Decide on the right sort of shoes for the trip. They must be comfortable and versatile.
  2. Never travel with ONLY the shoes you are wearing in transit. Something could happen to your shoes. Like stepping in bubble gum on a sidewalk. Like having your feet swell and the shoes become too tight.
  3. Packing a pair of flip-flops is a good idea. You can wear them in the shower if needed, to the pool, as bedroom slippers, or home if suddenly your shoes do not fit (Yup, that happened to me – all the way home from Greece. Good thing it was not winter).
  4. You may need one pair of shoes for a special event, like a reception. Shoes take up lots of space, especially for men, so consider carefully.

COLOR SCHEME

Plan your clothes in a color scheme, so mostly everything can go with mostly everything else. Most things in your suitcase should be versatile, with the possible exception of some special outfit for a big event (like if you are accepting an award, or chairing something fancy). Here are some suggestions.

  1. For women – a scheme of black and white with an accent like pink or teal; blue and white with a few red accents.
  2. For men – A palette like navy and khaki; Consider one very nice blazer, in either tan or blue with pants and shirts favoring the other color. Other schemes might be blue and gray, for example, or black and tan.

PLANNING THE WARDROBE

You will need one outfit per activity day -but some items will be used more than once. Then, one way to dress up if needed (especially if it’s unexpected); one way to dress down for exercise or the ride home. If you are gone for more than one week, plan on getting laundry done once per week. All hotels offer laundry services. If you are in an rural eco-setting, pack soap to wash essentials. This keeps your luggage light.

  1. Start with something to sleep in. A raincoat could double as a bathrobe. Flip flops could be slippers.
  2. Always have one extra shirt in case someone spills their wine on you, or a waiter trips and spills fish sauce on your clothing.
  3. If that blazer or sport jacket is leather – it is easily wiped off if something spills. A good investment for traveling.
  4. Women travelers – carrying a wool or pashmina shawl can serve multiple functions. Throw it over your coat for added warmth on a chilly evening; Throw it over yourself on the airplane when the air is too much; it’s available to create an evening wear outfit if needed.
  5. Consider the fabrics in your wardrobe. Many travel fabrics require no ironing. Silk is a wonderful fabric for travelers – men and women. It has minimal wrinkling, can be warm or cool, and dries quickly in a hotel bathroom overnight when needed. It takes up very little room in a suitcase. If purchasing something new in silk, wash it prior to travel to ensure it does not shrink. Travel catalogues like Travelsmith and Magellan offer helpful travel clothing and gear.
  6. Dress for where you are going. Consider the weather, temperature, and customs. For example, in much of Africa, local women never wear pants. In much of Europe, only children wear shorts – not adult men and women.
  7. A lightweight packable tote bag – not just for shopping (many places in the world do not offer plastic or paper bags for shoppers); but for long touring days, it can hold a water bottle, and other things you need with you for the day.
  8. Consider packing one plastic hanger, a length of string or bungy cord, a hand-sized towel.
  9. Anything liquid should be within a zip-lock bag.
  10. Nail clippers could also cut a tag, or piece of tape if needed.
  11. A small roll of duct tape. Your luggage could become damaged in transit. Duct tape will generally help it get home in one piece.
  12. For women especially, don’t pack a suitcase you cannot easily lift. There isn’t always help available.

PLANNING THE PERSONAL ITEMS.

These are different for every individual. What medicines are needed? Toiletries? Makeup? These things will help determine if you are comfortable on your trip.

Medicines – Make sure you have what you need. Any controlled substances need to be in their original containers. Pills – have always 102 extra in case one drops onto a floor, or you are delayed getting home. With any medicine, be sure your supply is ample to accommodate delays.

Traveling Outside the United States? You could be sensitive to local water. In a developing country, water may not be safe for travelers. Ask your primary care provider for a prescription of CIPRO, which you would take if you ingest unsafe water by accident. Ask questions about the water where you are going. Drink bottled water where the cap is still clearly factory sealed.

ALL important items must be stowed in your carry-on bag (which of course may end up under a seat or in an overhead space in transit). Especially medicines. If you are traveling for business, and there’s a presentation in your near future, or meeting, have what you need in your carry-on.

THE CARRY ON BAG

Traveling far? To an remote area? Put one change of underwear and a clean shirt in your carry-on bag, sealed in plastic, perhaps lining the bottom. Luggage can get lost. The farther you go, the better chance of its delay.

Remember to avoid anything prohibited by TSA if traveling by air. Carry a small container of clean water (after you have been through security), snack foods (schedules are subject to delays), anything you need to remain comfortable. I pack a book, a small notebook, pen, hand cream, chap stick, a paper towel or handkerchief (yes, they still make them), tissues, phone, items for entertainment (like ear buds; crosswords). Some frequent travelers always carry a sleep aid, in order to adjust to time changes more quickly (by getting to sleep when it’s time).

Probably you don’t need a full container of most things. Often people buy a new bottle of shampoo for a trip, for example. Unless you bought the little travel size, you probably don’t need that much shampoo. Instead of packing a full container, pack a nearing-empty container, which can be disposed of in transit.

The little zip-loc types bags are available in most pharmacy stories. You may want to pack some just-in-case Tylenol, or Advil, or Melatonin. Or, use these to organize vitamins you take daily. A sharpie pen can write on the plastic. See the photo.

The longer the trip, the more likely delays. Have some food with you. Nuts, granola bars, dried fruit are all good options if they work for your diet needs.

IF you are presenting shortly after you arrive, or have other business responsibilities, everything you need for the meeting or presentation needs to be in that carry-on, such as your laptop, ipad, USB drives (always prepare more than one, they can break after your first presentation when you have four more to go).

Caption: In this picture, note the tiny plastic zip-loc type bags useful for packing small amounts of pills.

THE 3-1-1 BAG

For air travel, the 3-1-1 bag is required for liquids and gels. Check your airline website for details. If you take liquid medicines, like eye drops, that bag can get filled real fast. Often health food markets carry hair shampoo that comes in a bar like regular soap, and therefore does not need to go into that little bag. Any liquids in your luggage should be additionally secured with a plastic bag in case caps fall off.

POWER DIFFERENCES

United States small appliances will probably not work in countries outside North America. Travel sites sell step down chargers/adapters (which convert the power) and outlet plugs with the correct configuration of pins. If you skip the charger, you may ruin your appliance (tablet, razor, hair curler, phone, etc.).

THE LUGGAGE

Whatever sort of luggage you select, the same principles apply.

First, anything in packaging takes up more space that the items alone. Foe example, perhaps you bought insoles for the trip, and they are still in the box. Or maybe you bought last minute tylenol, and the bottle is also in a box.

The more structured the container, the more space it uses. Things in pouches that can flatten out are better options.

Plastic bags with baffles can be useful. Some travelers put each outfit, or at least clean shirts in one of these. You lay the garment flat as possible in the bag, which in the case of a dress shirt would be carefully folded to avoid wrinkles. Then, you roll up the bag. The baffle lets out air, making the finished back very flat. See the photo.

Caption: These bags are a good tool for travelers. One photo shows one empty, the other with a shirt inside. They are available in travel stories.

The principle for packing most stuff is the least amount of folds possible. In other words, do NOT fold tops. Fold pants minimally. Lay things in one at a time, folding over a sleeve for example, but keeping most things flat.

There are travelers who believe strongly that rolling items is a better idea. You decide.

Pack your suitcase at LEAST the night before, and stand it up. Gravity will pack things down and give you a bit more space.

It’s not a bad idea to pack the suitcase well in advance, to ensure the things you need fit, then take it apart, and repack it with what you really need.

MONEY, SAFETY, SECURITY

Always have some local cash, especially if you are going far. You may need something right away, like a bottle of water, or a luggage cart, which can only be purchased in the local currency.

Nearly all credit cards work around the world – as long as you inform your card company of your plans. Generally a phone number on back of the card will give you access to the information you need.

Some cards charge still fees for foreign transactions. Check to see if your card does, because you may need a different card for travel.

Caption: Pouches like this with multiple compartments work well for packing jewelry, or dealing with multiple currencies. They use less space that rigid containers.

Always travel with at least two cards in case one is lost, stolen, or stops working. Keep them in two entirely different places. Have your card numbers and those needed phone numbers on the back of the card in a location you can access while you travel. Some folks put all this in an email to themselves.

Cash machines, which go by different names, are available in most areas of the world. Consult your bank to ensure which ones will work prior to departure. You may need to swipe or insert your card to gain access to a money kiosk which is secured behind locked doors. Take out cash before venturing into a remote or rural area where machines are less likely available (such as on an African safari, or exploring the Australian outback).

In transit – especially if you may want to nap, consider carrying money, cards, passport, and anything else critical in a pouch you wear all the time – even tucked inside clothing.

Caption: This money pouch goes around your waste and slips under clothing.

NEVER leave a purse, briefcase, backpack, camera case, or tote bag unattended while you sleep or move around.

Women travelers – NEVER hang your purse on your chair back in a restaurant. Place it at your feet, keeping one handle around a foot, or ankle. Pickpocketing and petty theft are common in some countries.

NEVER leave your purse at the table when you go to a buffet in a restaurant unless you leave it with a trusted person who knows it must be attended carefully. A common tactic among thieves is for a group to enter a restaurant and cause a distraction, and while you are looking to see what’s going on, someone else is collecting purses, wallets, cameras, etc.

Caption: Here are some wearable items to carry valuables around your neck at all times (except when going through Airport security).

HOTELS AND OTHER ACCOMODATIONS

Staying at an interesting hotel is great fun when traveling. Know in advance that credit cards are often charged in advance for a booked stay in most countries outside the United States, even long before departure. Changes in itinerary, such as a delayed flight – you will probably still be charged, and there is nothing you can argue about. Never use a debit card for a hotel booking, as the card will cease to work until after your departure.

Two-star properties (**) are often a good value. They maybe family owned, quaint, and less expensive. Travel memberships, such as Best Western, Choice, Starwood, Hilton Honors can assist you in making bookings and, when it’s time, to use your bonus points.

Bed and Breakfast Inns are often a delight, with quaint accommodations and helpful innkeepers. When choosing alternate accommodations such as “Home Away” or “AirB&B” it is important to keep in mind you may have little or no contact with anyone in hospitality – no one to make recommendations, help you know where to go, where not to go, help with your return flights, assistance if you lose your purse, luggage, or are the victim of a crime like pickpocketing.

Airbnb is an option. However, no hospitality services accompany many properties. So you may not have any help finding your way around, making further bookings, communicating with your airline, etc.

TRAIN and BUS TRAVEL

Train and bus travel are sometimes a better value than air travel between countries. Europe, for example, observes First and Second class distinctions and prices on trains. Be sure you know in advance what countries your train crosses, as some stop trains and demand additional fares in cash from travelers. The cleanliness and condition of land travel transportation in various countries can be different. Guide books and sites can inform you in advance of what you need to know.

TAXIS

Taxi service varies greatly around the world. Much of it is unmetered. In other words, you don’t know how much the ride costs until you arrive at your destination. Consider asking your hotel for help calling a taxi, finding out the exact price in advance, and have exact cash prepared. Many taxis around the world do not have the capability to take credit cards and other online entities, such as Venmo.

One common Taxi scam if, for example, you give the driver a $20 (or equivalent in local currency, for them to hide the $20 and claim you only gave them a $10 (which they have conveniently handy). If you suspect a driver, take a photo of the driver and the license tag as you depart the vehicle. Some countries have tourist police dedicated to keeping visitors safe.

Know Before You Go!!

EATING AND DRINKING

Sampling local foods is a joyful part of traveling. Be thoughtful about what you put in your mouth. Lower GI distress has ruined many a vacation or business trip.

If water locally is unsafe, eat things like soft boiled eggs rather than scrambled (they may have added water); bottled wine or soda or beer; well cooked meats. Do NOT order drinks with ice cubes, mixed cocktails, or salad (it was washed in local water). Cooked veggies are probably all right. Always ask if the water is safe for brushing your teeth. In a city like St. Petersburg, Russia, for example, the mass graves from World War II have leeched into the water supply, making the water non-potable for teeth or anything on your face, but suitable for showering (if you can keep water out of your eyes and mouth).

Hot coffee and hot tea are generally safe.

Consult a guidebook to find out about tipping is restaurants. In Australia, for example, servers earn real wages and are not supported by any tips. In other countries where tips may be expected, they must be cash and not added to a credit card.

Once you’re out of a big city, vendors and hotel workers may speak little or no English. Be careful ordering, and never assume something where you are is the same as back home.

Example 1 – I was eating at a nice restaurant in Cape Town South Africa and a teacher friend ordered Ostrich steak. She didn’t like it, so asked for something else. She was shocked when she was charged for both meals. The server pointed out she had eaten some of it, and they could not resell the ostrich steak. She had to pay for it. Another person at the table requested A-1 steak sauce with her steak. The server had no idea what she was talking about.

Example 2 -In a small danish village, the menu was arranged by numbers, and each number was a complete three course meal – no mixing and matching. My co-traveler wanted the broccoli from Number 1, the meat from number 2, the dessert from number 3 and something else from meal number 4. If it was even an option to mix and match, certainly the server knew little or no English and my dear friends was brought all four complete meals. The table wasn’t even big enough for all four plates (and I had already ordered just a single meal). We still laugh about this today. It was an expensive lesson because, of course, she had to pay for all of them.

TOILETS

I cannot express my surprise the first time I went into a public restroom (I was in Singapore) and opened the door of the cubicle, and there was nothing but a hole in the floor. So you don’t feel like an idiot, the protocol is you stoop over the hole, facing the door. Paper is sometimes provided. Hard on knees!

It’s a great idea to always carry tissues or a partial roll of toilet paper wherever you go. In many places, rest rooms have an attendant, and you are expected to put some local coins into a dish on the sink. Still other places (like Thailand, for example), you purchase a small wad of toilet paper prior to entering the cubicle.

Some public restrooms will have one cubicle with a traditional toilet, if you know to look. There may even be a picture of a toilet on a door.

Carrying hand sanitizer is another good idea. Soap may or may not be available.

I have often thought a great title for a travel book would be “Fifty Ways to Flush a Toilet.” You may have to really look around to find how to flush. It could be something above you, on the floor (something to step on), behind the toilet – anywhere. Or, in a rural area, it might be a scoop and a pail of water.

CUSTOMS

This topic is enough for a course. I strongly recommend consulting and reading a guidebook before you travel. Often, guidebooks are available to download to your kindle app on your phone.

One thing I will mention is especially for unmarried women traveling without a male partner. Marriage is so strong in many cultures that single women make no sense to local people – especially in African countries, Middle Eastern countries, and anywhere where the Muslim faith is dominant.

Ladies, consider going to an estate jeweler and purchase yourself a simple wedding ring and wear it during travel depending on where you are going. I do not think men need to be concerned with this.

Other customs to read about in advance: tipping, restaurant manners and protocols (such as you may never be handed a bill for your dinner until you request it).

ATTITUDES

Be a humble traveler. Never talk down to local people. They will notice. Never act like you are better than anyone else because maybe you have more money than local folks. Treat everyone you meet with respect. Don’t be surprise if they know immediately where you are from. Clothes, shoes, jewelry, and even smiling are all cues to locations (Lots of folks are not smiley, which may have to do with the condition of their teeth, or just what is locally normal).

GESTURES

Be careful what you do with your hands in a foreign country. Giving a thumbs up, for example, may be something sexual. Observe what local people do.

Caption: This gesture in the US means “okay.” In Turkey, it means you are a gay man looking for a partner, according to one informant.

DECLARATIONS

Jewelry, scarves, bookmarks, throw pillow covers, table linens are all very packable for the trip home. If you intend to buy art, consider packing a collapsible art tube. Most things can be shipped home of course. Something breakable? Either pack it separately and carry it on, or embed it in your own clothing for the journey home. A decorative plate or tray can be slipped about in the middle of your suitcase so it is cushioned from the top and bottom.

In countries selling carpets, I have been informed the carpets are considered art and are not dutiable. Check with locals to find out what is considered art, and what is not dutiable.

On the return from a long trip, I make a list on paper, such as in a travel journal or on your phone, of all my purchases with approximate prices (because they may have been purchased in a different currency). Save receipts from a larger purchase, such as gold jewelry. I think overall, it’s a good idea to be honest with the customs desk when you return home.

Once I brought home a great deal of books. I explained to the customs agent they were for educational purposes, he waived the duty.

When you read this, you may want to share some travel anecdotes on the comments. Please feel free. I will love reading them.

Essays, Uncategorized

Thinking of you, Valeriy

Ukraine flag

In the mid 90’s, following the fall of the Soviet Union, Kent State University, where I taught, began getting cohorts of students from former Soviet countries. They were all on Soros Scholarships doing advanced degrees in leadership. I was host and mentor to a vibrant, middle-aged wiry man named Valeriy. Val was born and raised in the Ukraine but spoke and identified as Russian. He characterized the change – with the fall of the Soviet Union – as an identity crisis. “I had to stop thinking of myself as Russian. I am Ukrainian.”

Val’s first challenge landing in the U.S. was how many choices he had to make. When he arrived, I took him to TJ Maxx to buy himself a coat. He was overwhelmed there were so many to choose from. When he found one he liked, it turned out to be reversible, and he stood in front of the mirror in the men’s department giggling with delight. “People back home will think I have TWO coats,” he declared.

Val also wanted to buy a camera, so we went to Wal-Mart. Again, he could not wrap his mind around making choices from many different makes and models. The final selection came down to which camera used batteries that would be available back home. Same scenario at the shoe store getting him boots. Then gloves. Then a hat. It was exhausting.

I suggested we grab dinner. We sat in a booth and were handed a twelve-page menu. His head started spinning again. “Order me something, please.” So, I did, but then the server asked him if he wanted baked, mashed or fries (and he didn’t know she was talking about potatoes); then she recited five different salad dressings and asked his preference. Again, he had no idea of what she was talking about. “Give him ranch,” I said to the server.

But, after all this, it was especially telling on another day when we went to a bookstore. It was Border’s books then – a large spacious store with two stories, an escalator, a café, and many, many books.

When we walked through the entrance, he stopped in his tracks, looked all around, and then burst into tears, covering his mouth, aghast.  Val had never seen so many books.

“Is it allowed to touch them?” He asked me.

“Yes, of course,” I said.

“Can you bring me back here soon and leave me here for the whole day?”

“Sure,” I said, trying to take in the enormity of what his tears meant.

Val also liked going with me to Sam’s Club.

In the store’s book aisle, we passed boxes of encyclopedias for $20 per set. Val stopped to examine them like rare jewels. “I need to buy these,” he was emphatic.

“Val, the reason they are so cheap is that now everyone uses digital references. They’re out-of-date,” I said.

“Yes, but where I live in Ukraine, these would be very helpful.” I talked him out of buying them.

But, he called the next day. He begged me to take him back to Sam’s club so he could buy three sets of encyclopedias, and soon –  before they might be gone. Two classmates from Soviet countries also wanted them desperately. We went. He bought.

One really big deal at Kent State University is the liquid crystal institute which hosts meetings with scientists from around the world. When Val heard of an upcoming event, he volunteered to be a translator. Three Russian scientists attended. Val invited those scientists to his dorm room, where he served some drinks and snacks, keen on the opportunity to make them feel welcome. The three scientists saw the three boxes of encyclopedias in Val’s room and begged to buy them from him. He relented.

Val called me the next day to share all this and express his urgent need to get back to Sam’s club to buy more sets of encyclopedias. We went. He bought more. He was ecstatic.

During Val’s academic year in Ohio, he had an opportunity to visit Washington, D.C. Upon his return, he was eager to share with me two entire rolls of photographs of the “Voice of America” building. There’s nothing at all special about the “Voice of America” building – architecturally, that is. Except what it meant to him.

He explained that he began listening to it in secret to the Voice of America when he was 17. He’d asked a teacher if this was allowed.  The teacher did not answer the question. His response was evasive. So, he felt he understood that the teacher was in a delicate position, and could not make a recommendation.

 In sharing the photos, he extolled – as if testifying to me, about the role of this radio station in the demise of the Soviet Union. He tuned in and came to understand things – things different from the information being doled out on official Soviet stations. He said all his friends began listening, without sharing with adults, what they were doing.

In his opinion, the Voice of America and the Chernobyl nuclear accident were the two biggest things that toppled the U.S.S.R. “It had been a beautiful day – the day of the accident. People were enjoying the out-of-doors. But suddenly on all television and radio stations, there was no programming – except the playing of classical music.” People wondered what was wrong. He went on to explain when they learned of the accident, they also learned the leaders of the Communist Party had evacuated all their own families to places far away from the radioactive area. That single self-serving act broke the back of the rhetoric that the government cared about its people. There was no way to spin that selective evacuation into something good for all Russians.

Going back to his trip to Washington, D.C.  he could not get over that he was allowed to tour the U.S. Capitol buildings as a foreigner, and that Congress was in session, and he was allowed to sit in the balcony, and nothing was being conducted in secret, behind closed doors.

Val’s academic year ended in May, and the Soros scholars prepared to go home. But Val didn’t show up for the ride to the airport. He went missing. This sort of thing happens regularly with foreign students. But no one knew where Val was. Perhaps others in the cohort knew but would not say.

Weeks later, Val telephoned. I was surprised and relieved to hear his voice. “Why are you overstaying your visa, Val?”

“I wasn’t ready to go,” he explained simply.

“What are you doing? No classes are in session.” I probed.

“Oh, I’m staying with a friend, and every day I go to the library, and I read.”

“This is what you have been doing for weeks?” I probed again.

“Yes,” he admitted. “There are so many books I want to read.”

This is where I was forced to explain that he’d put me in an awkward position. As a state employee at a public institution, I really could not condone his overstaying his visa.

“But call me when you need a ride to the airport. Not until then.” I concluded.

As a Professor of Reading, and a book lover, I could not fault his zest for books – and his desire to make up for what learning had been denied to him at home.

It was not a sweet ending to our friendship, however. Still, I am thinking about him now, every day, wondering where he is, and if he’s safe.

Val, if you ever hear this, I hope you know I am thinking of you.

Grown-up Topics, Uncategorized

Searching for Love Poems – Full story

W.C. Kasten

            Another Sunday dinner is over – just the two of us. My 90-year old father shuffles down my hallway, then struggles with his jacket and zipper. He picks up the sack I have stuffed with leftovers for his Monday meal, dons his frayed Dutch cap, reaches for his cane, and gingerly totters to his car, every movement in slow motion. With Mom now in a nursing home, this is the best I can do, trying to make his life more normal.

            Each morning he gets up at his independent-living apartment, and makes his way to the social café for the breakfast buffet. Every morning, he has his oatmeal, orange juice and coffee. Then he gets into his car in the underground parking garage, just to drive the thirty yards across the parking lot to the nursing home. Then he finds her, his wife, my mother, somewhere in the hallways. Her soft skin jiggles a little as she smiles at the sight of him. My mother’s crisp white hair bounces as she tries to remember how to back up and sit down in a chair. Then they sit together in one of the lounges, doing nothing in particular. He sits with her until they call her to lunch.

            Two people come to help her get up. She leans into the walker, takes baby steps, and creeps to the dining room, her oversized pants pulled a bit too high, belying the plastic padding beneath.  She says almost nothing, and nothing she says makes any sense.  “That is…” and the rest of the phrase is stuck somewhere inside the crumbling mind. “I’m worried…” and she cannot find the other words.  “Sometimes you just…” and the remainder is never uttered.  Sometimes I try to help her. “You just what, Mom?” “What is it you are worried about?” But no amount of effort can lasso the elusive, the lost.

            Dad rises and escorts her to the dining room, and then leaves to go find some lunch for himself. Mostly, he ends up at the Senior Citizen Center where lunch is only a dollar. Dad has always loved a bargain. But the center is not open on weekends. He hates eating alone and so sometimes he just doesn’t bother. Afterwards, he might stop at Walgreens for one of their many prescriptions, or a stop at Urgent Care to have his Coumadin levels checked. Then, Dad returns to the nursing home.

 Once again, he finds my mother, sitting or wandering, or sometimes napping in someone else’s bed.  Again, he sits with her, or walks with her up and down the hallway. These rituals last until dinnertime, when the staff again call Mom to eat, and Dad goes back to his apartment to fend for himself and read the newspaper.

  Tomorrow will be a carbon copy of this.

            Another Valentine’s Day has arrived. This February 14th, Mom is in a hospital bed, coughing for her life with double pneumonia. I’d brought her some chocolate, which normally she loves. But in this condition, she’s hasn’t eaten anything much for days. Dad and I are standing at her bed, and she’s so deeply asleep, we decide not to disturb her. 

            I know for each of the last 64 years, Dad has written Mom a love poem for Valentine’s Day and also their wedding anniversary in June.  I don’t ask what he’s written about, or where this year’s poem is.  But suddenly it dawns on me that there are at least 130 poems. Love poems to my mother.

            “Dad, where are all the poems you wrote for Mom?” He shrugs his shoulders looking quizzical.

            “I gave them to her,” he says with resignation.  The thought of more than a hundred love poems either hidden or lost troubles me. We discuss cleaning out her things still at the apartment and trying to find them.

            On a subsequent evening, I go to Dad’s apartment to start cleaning. Dad has never lived alone, and his housekeeping is dreadful. So, fist I stop in the little apartment kitchen where I collect used yellowed paper napkins, polystyrene cups, and plates that are encrusted with old food, I deposit them in the trash, amidst his admonitions of “Hey, those could be used again.” Or, “That’s still good, I can eat it tomorrow.” I fear he will accidentally kill himself eating spoiled food on unclean styrofoam. Dad’s entire generation never recovered from the great depression.  Wasting anything is a sin.  I ignore his rants and I make my way to Mom’s drawers.

            First, the four drawers of Mom’s jewelry chest. I pull out the top one, set it on my lap as I sit on the edge of their bed with a large trash can poised nearby. What I find instead of jewelry are lots and lots of rusting hairpins staining the velveteen lining; an assortment of toothpicks; an occasional button or penny; old clothing tags with the price still almost visible; name tags from the “Sun and Fun” RV Resort Park in Sarasota, Florida; used up pencils and a crochet hook. The one gem I find is Dad’s U.S. Navy dog tags from the War. He smiles at the sight of them, as he hasn’t seen them for years.

I do this for each of the four drawers, and I find an occasional single earring back, a broken gaudy pendant, a plastic turquoise necklace. But somewhere stashed in one corner of one of the bottom drawer I find four of the love poems, brittle, torn, and mended with yellowing tape.  I stop and read them.  One of them is titled “May it Never End.”

I’ve said it very many times,

In many ways throughout the years,

Whether straight or set in rhymes,

Whether in laughter or through tears.

It’s been at night and during days,

So it may not sound very new,

Still I do not know other ways,

To once again say “I love you.”

            A couple of hours of this type of searching yields a few more poems, some glued to the inside of an old greeting cards.  Some are on a scrap of notebook paper, or an index card.  Some are typed on an old Underwood typewriter.

I searched for her throughout the world wide,

Crossing each continent from side to side.

Hoping that somewhere and someday I’d find,

The special girl who’d be loving and kind.

Failing I gave up nevermore to roam

To find my Valentine waiting at home.

A corner of the paper is ripped off on this one, so I don’t know the date, but I am guessing it was soon after the War.  We are still only up to twenty poems. Over a hundred more to find.

Scouring her dresser drawers yields a few more poems. These, hidden in an old purse, among a dozen pair of pantyhose all with runs, and among the now sticky decomposing nylon prosthesis Mom was supposed to wear where her left breast used to be.  Even back then, she said it was too hot and too uncomfortable. “I’m over 70,” she’d said more than a few times after the cancer surgery. “What do I need two breasts for?” When she wanted a left breast on occasions, she’d stuffed her empty bra cup with tissues, fabric, or a sock.

I think back to the last time, in earlier stages of Alzheimers, that I dressed them up for dancing. Dad had bought tickets to a big ballroom dancing event on the campus where I taught. Dad was in the designer second-hand suit that a friend had given him. This was the nicest most dashing suit Dad ever owned.

 Mom wore the frilly pink organza dress, also second hand she’d been given by a friend in the ballroom dancing club.   My parents got dressed at my house, and I helped Mom with her pantyhose and the buckles on her silver dancing shoes.  I had insisted she wear her prosthesis for this event, and so we had spent some time in front of the bathroom mirror, trying to ensure that the fake breast was aligned with the real one, and not four inches higher.  We never got it quite perfect, but close enough.  I took a snapshot of them that night, together in front of the closed draperies of my patio slider door, like two excited teens poised for their senior prom.

#

Following Easter weekend, Mom had rebounded from pneumonia, but with a decreased quality of life. Dad and I decided to move her to a different nursing home where there might be a higher level of care. Where her face used to brighten with the sight of us, there’s was almost no reaction now.  Yet, in the midst of her decline, there were mysterious moments of lucidness. I never knew what brought them on, but we both lived for them. The day we were settling her into the new surroundings, she turned and looked at Dad as he was leaving and said, “You know, I have never stopped loving you.”

During all this searching, we’d found a wonderful old photo of Mom. The photo was damaged, but it was of a seventeen-year-old, beautiful dark-eyed woman, hair curled around her face, and printed in an oval of light like the “Breck Girl” on the back of the old McCall’s magazines. My brother Tom visited that weekend. He had taken the photo home, scanned it, doctored it, and sent it by attachment back to me. I printed it and gave it to Dad. A tear slipped out of his left eye.

 “She really was beautiful back then,” he said as if he needed to convince me.

Another evening, I stop at Dad’s and continue my search for the poems. Even though I knock before I enter, he’s stretched out on his sofa, a crumbled paper napkin from Subway in his hand. He’s been listening to audio tapes of their old dance music.  I tell him I’ve got a little time to do some more cleaning of Mom’s things. That perks him up.

I start cleaning out Mom’s nightstand drawers. This time an entire drawer is devoted to over stretched out headbands in a variety of widths and colors. I find one poem on yellowed typing paper.  It’s dated 1986.

To My Wife

Now that life is in its downward journey,

When my day of living lies in the past,

I’ll be happy living in memory,

Because you’ve given me love till the last.

I’ll remember your smile and things you said,

I never forget your traits, both bad and good,

I see you laugh with a toss of your head,

As you teasingly in the doorway stood.

Shadows will flee as I think of your smile,

My thoughts will find cheer in the years we spent,

My dreams will travel along every mile,

Lingering on where together we went.

Though material wealth was not my own,

You brought me richness with the love I’ve known.

  Pausing to take it all in, I swipe a tear on my cheek. Then I find a good sweater that shouldn’t be in the drawer. So, I go and hang it in the walk-in closet. Mom’s side of the closet is getting empty, as I have been getting rid of clothing she will never need in a nursing home.

The frilly pink organza dress hangs at the end of the row all by itself.  The last time Mom wore it, almost three years ago, was at her Grandson Peter’s wedding. This wedding was elegant, in a fine hotel.  Dad dressed in the same dashing suit, and Mom in her pink dress they’d worn to the ballroom dancing gala seven years earlier.

  While Mom had absolutely no idea who was getting married, she could tell from the setting it was a wedding, and commented how lovely it all was.

 “They tell me you are my grandson,” she’d said re-meeting her grandson Peter at the reception.

“Of course, I am, Grandma,” he’d replied in good humor, giving her a hug.

We were at one of the biggest family events in decades and no one had remembered to bring a camera So, earlier in the day I had gone shopping and bought my first digital camera. Throughout the day, I was desperately reading directions, learning how to use it. Once we got to the reception, I kept it handy at my table.

At one point, the band did a cute number and had all married couples get up to dance. As each segment of the song passed, the bandleader would announce to have all the couples married less than 2 years, 5 years, 10 years, and so on to sit down. As the crowd was mostly young, I could see where this was going.

And so it went.  Soon Mom and Dad were alone on the dance floor. All eyes were upon them, the lights were dimmed, with the glittery ball spinning above them made prisms flit around the floor.  Dad forgot his aching knees, and led Mom in a waltz. Mom could follow Dad. They smiled and swirled and dazzled the crowd. At the end, the bandleader presented Mom with a nosegay of flowers. She had no idea why someone was giving her flowers but thought they were very lovely. Dad beamed radiantly.  I took the picture.

I returned to the nightstand and cleared out the last of the garbage. A few dozen pens that didn’t write. More hairpins, rollers, dirty tissues, rusty paper clips, safety pins, an occasional name tag, receipt, and a brochure.  In this session, I only found a single poem in a faded pink satin cosmetic bag.

To Mary

My love is yours through good and bad

It’s with you when you’re glad or sad.

A truer love will never be,

As everyone can plainly see.

Our love has stood the test of time,

For I am yours and you are mine.

From Henry

When all the drawers were cleaned out, there were still a hundred poems to go. I wondered where to search next.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep feeding Dad on Sundays. I’ll keep visiting my mother, watching her walk back and forth in the hallways with no destination. Dad will keep sitting in the nursing home with her for hours at a time. Until the next crisis when the next infection appears, or until the coughing resumes and we’ll go through all of this again, not knowing each time if we should be saying our goodbyes.  Each time as I’m leaving, I kiss her cheek, and tell her to sleep well, and to remember she has a family who all love her.

#

Mom passed first in 2006 at age 89. Dad was in poor shape with a heart barely pumping. His doctors had instructed us to take away his car keys. He learned to get around his neighborhood on a scooter. But, he was in agony without her, especially when Valentine’s Day came around. I think he didn’t know how to cope with their special holiday alone. So, he wrote Mom a poem, addressed the envelope to her, but sent it to my home address.

When I took in the mail that afternoon, an envelope addressed to my mother in my father’s handwriting made little sense. I sat down and stared at it for a few moments before I could bring myself to open it. There was just this inside:

ON LEAVING

You finally left this earth missing me,

To me, you and I shall remain just we.

Dying is a part of living and life,

Through all eternity you’re still my wife.

In all and everything I do each day,

Our togetherness will forever stay.

Dad passed a few months later. I only ever found 29 poems. His final request was that their ashes be mixed together and scattered in Vermont, where their married life had started. Tom and I fulfilled their wish the following summer. My brother read the last poem at our little ceremony. A fitting end to a very long love story.

Short Pieces and Essays, Uncategorized

Remote and Distance Learning during Covid-19: Lessons from Australia

Before there was Zoom, Microsoft teams, Go-to-meeting, Webinars, and all these exciting new tools which enable remote experiences, there was (and is) Australia – a country of large, wide spaces, very long distances between people. Some Australian ranches are larger than some U.S. States. Families live on them, and often, children are raised in these settings. Australia has been practicing distance learning long before Covid-19 came along. While I lived in Australia, I learned much about how they operate. In these models, there are ideas to meet our new demands of teaching children who may not be able to physically come to school.

In earlier times, when these far-away homes had children, instruction was accomplished with two tools – the two way radio, and the mail (and sometimes materials were delivered by airplane). Periodic packets arrived. Some learning was self-directed. Other learning required adult assistance. But a key element was the appointment each child had individually with their teacher – sometimes once every two weeks for about 30 minutes. For ranches (and actually they don’t call them ranches, but you get the idea) without electricity to the outside world, those two way radios were run by someone pedaling them.

Even when I lived in Australia in 1992, distance learning was alive and well. University (called “uni’s in local lingo) researchers were beginning to add some computer instruction in instances where families had desktop computers, and fax machines which enabled assignments and feedback to reach students more quickly than only through mail.

One of my university classes I was assigned to teach was a distance learning class (through the Burwood Campus of Deakin University). An office at the campus was dedicated to assisting with distance learning. I would prepare the packet of instructional materials for teachers seeking an advanced diploma. Those were mailed. My teacher ed students returned assignments by mail, which arrived to the distance learning office, and where I would go and collect them.

Three times during one term, teachers met in person with me for an entire Saturday. For them, it meant a long drive. A location was selected that suited most. Others had to come Friday evening and book a hotel room, and maybe stayed Saturday night as well. Each teacher had to pack all their own food, as there were no food services in even the semi-remote location where Saturday classes were held. These sessions were enjoyable, social, and packed with learning to make the most of the opportunity.

All in all, you could say these “Uni” classes were a hybrid model. They mixed remote and in-person learning.

Not all students in rural Maine have computers and internet. But they probably get mail and have telephones. Maybe even facetime, or skype, or facebook messenger on a family telephone.

Throughout this pandemic, people the world over have had to get creative and resourceful and consider other ways of doing things. That’s been one of the redeeming qualities of an otherwise dismal period of time for businesses and education. It’s becoming increasingly clear that this crisis will not be over until we are all vaccinated against this dangerous organism in our midst. SO we need to continue to innovate to do what we need to do, and to do it safely.

Any educator who wishes to discuss this with me further may leave a comment and I will respond. Perhaps a good conversation can generate idea and solutions.

Wendy C. Kasten, Ph.D.

Professor Emerita

School of Teaching, Learning, and Curriculum Studies – Literacy

Kent State University

wkasten@kent.edu
Belfast
Short Pieces and Essays, Uncategorized

Remembering Tomie de Paola

March 1982. I was a new grad student in the Ph.D. program at the University of Arizona. I worked for Dr. Yetta M. Goodman, who would also direct my dissertation during these years (81-84). Yetta had, some years prior, initiated the Arizona Young Author’s Conference, in which hundreds of local school children, grades k-8, would come to the Tucson campus, with something they had written in hand, and meet a guest author – in this case, Tomie de Paola. I was in charge of that conference. Yetta assigned me to spend the day with Tomie prior to conference day, and take him out to the Tohono O’Odham (Papago) reservation schools for a visit. It’s a long ride there and back, and so it began a friendship.

Tomie was an entertaining and energetic guest for the Arizona Young Author’s Conference the next day. And when I left for my first professor position in 1984, and was asked by my new Dean at the University of South Florida to begin some young author’s conferences for gulf-area Florida (which became the Suncoast Young Author’s Conference), I booked Tomie as our first guest author (and a few other things over the years). I saw him now and then at events, but then, we discovered this weird sort-of family connection between us.

My uncle Anton was married to my Aunt Mildred (Aunt by marriage). Aunt Mildred was an only child, and so formed a sibling-like bond with a cousin named Kay. Kay and her husband ran an Inn in new England (was it Vermont or NH?), and happened to live next door to (and became best friends with) Flossie – Tomie’s mother!

When Kay and her husband passed away, it was Aunt Mildred who had to travel to New England to clean out Kay’s things and settle their estate. She was helped by Flossie in the process. Aunt Mildred contacted me. “I have all these books I don’t know what to do with. They’re from someone named Tomie DePaola. Do you want any of them? The neighbor says he’s quite well known.”

I replied YES I would take any or all of them, as we were friends, and I taught children’s literature, and who wouldn’t want more books by Tomie? The real gem that arrived in the package is pictured below. It was Tomie’s thesis at Pratt. He chuckled when I told him I had it. He said that was fine, he didn’t need it (there were multiple copies). Here it is.

I’ll miss him in the world. No more Strega Nona books. No more new editions of Nana Upstairs, Nana Downstairs. No more Christmas cards. Here is the last one!

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Re-vision

Me with glasses. Saying goodbye to them!

I am over the moon happy. Today is day 2 of no-longer-needing-eyeglasses. My first cataract was removed last Tuesday. By Sunday, I noticed my glasses no longer worked. That, and noticing how colors are so much brighter ( to the point where I need sunglasses often). My glaucoma was also treated in the process, and a teeny tiny stent means that I will not need so many eye drops any time soon. My vision went from 20/80 to 20/25 in my right eye. Unbelievable!!

Monday is cataract surgery number #2! Left eye-my weaker eye. Cannot wait for more “re-vision.”

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Why I live in Maine…..

Reasons I love living in Maine…

  1. From my windows, I see no one else’s house. No other house can see me. The privacy and the quiet is aesthetically pleasing.
  2. The last time I was caught in traffic was July, 2019, and for about 10 minutes.
  3. I can eat nearly all locally produced fruits, vegetables, eggs, and meats, and nearly all of them are raised organically.
  4. Even when it snows, it’s still beautiful.
  5. I lock my car doors and house doors out of habit (After all, I grew up in New Jersey), but I don’t really need to.
  6. Because it’s a smaller population, it’s easier to make changes, it’s easier to know your government officials on a first name basis, it’s easier to become involved, and to make a difference.
  7. I see the ocean just about every day. I see beauty almost everywhere I look.
  8. Prices on some things are cheaper (haircuts, car repairs, etc.)
  9. I can eat lobster pretty much any time I want to.
  10. When I go into shops, mostly someone in there recognizes me, and remembers my name.
  11. Neighbors help care for neighbors here.
  12. I see the incredible celestial heavens every clear night. It’s over a mile to the nearest street lamp.
  13. (I’ll add more later).
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The Intersection of Culture and Invention Part III

I’ve been an educator since 1973. In that time, I taught elementary children, middle school students, and teachers. Mostly teachers. Once I was in higher education, the opportunities to experience and visit different countries and cultures fed my intense curiosity about peoples of the world.

I visited 50 countries (so far). But, moreover, I visited schools in many parts of the US, but also Canada, Thailand, the Bahamas, Denmark, Sweden, China, Taiwan, Kenya, South Africa, Cuba, Italy, India, Turkey, Jamaica, Barbados, Australia, and New Zealand (so far).

Additionally, over the years, and enjoying working with international colleagues and students, I have made friendships or have mentored folks from Japan, Taiwan, Trinidad, Korea, the Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, India, South Africa, the Philippines, Malaysia, Egypt, Morocco, Ecuador, Brazil, Turkmenistan, Turkey, Kyrgyzstan, Australia, New Zealand, France, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Indonesia, and Bangladesh.

All these experiences inform what I am about to say.

How we raise our children and young people, both in homes and in schools, matters greatly. I don’t mean just what they learn, but how they learn it. And, how the curriculum and instruction reflect the deepest and underlying values of a culture.

If you sit all your children in rows, and they are wearing the same thing (uniforms), and their hair is cut the same way, and you teach them the same things, and test the exactly the same way, and discourage dissent, disagreement, or “standing out,” then what are the chances of having a new idea? An inventive thought?

Many schools around the world believe strongly in uniforms. It’s said that it ‘equalizes” the children, economically and socially. Chuckle if you must, because it does not work. In the Bahamas, children wore the same uniform, but then they were seated by their test scores from one corner of the room all the way to the other.

I feel certain in any setting the children know their hierarchy, whether it is economic or academic. When I was in 7th grade in a large urban junior high school, we were tracked academically, using test scores. The administration had scrambled the 16 section numbers to hide the hierarchy. We’d all figured it out by the end of day 1.

If you think, in the name of fairness or equity, all children need the same lessons at the same time in the same way, then where is the room for creative thinking? Questioning? The room for invention?

If you think all students need to read the same books or stories, chosen by some “other” authority, then where is the space and the attention to “grand” conversations – one in which readers see the mirrors of themselves, and find their identities in what they read?

If the most important thing in your culture is tradition, and honoring the past, and honoring the ancestors, and fitting in, then isn’t too much emphasis on tradition an antidote to invention? Can you want something your ancestors never had? Does it dishonor them? Does it violate some dearly held ideas? Can you have a new, radical, revolutionary idea (I don’t mean like a war, but more like a cellphone or a computer)?

One summer, colleagues and I had a short conference in Denmark. The Danes were wonderful hosts and I think we loved every minute of getting to know them. We were housed in a type of school building where students board. We ate our meals in the sort of cafeteria where students ate.

We came from a long session, hungry, to find a wonderful buffet of meats, cheese, and breads. We were all Americans or Canadians. We took a plate and picked things we liked and went to a table and made ourselves sandwiches.

We were not the only folks staying in the facility and eating there. Some were local. The Danes stared at us. We didn’t know why.

Later, we learned from an American who had lived overseas, that we were not supposed to make sandwiches. We were supposed to eat those things separately, AND in a pre-determined sequence. She showed us a Danish child’s lunch box, with individual trays stacked inside a box, each for the correct part of the meal. Of course, we didn’t know.

If you have to eat your meals in a certain order and there are rules attached to how you eat (other than manners), how does this influence thinking? Invention?

Let’s mention China. I greatly respect the many Chinese colleagues I came to know in my career. We know many world inventions came from China, like silk making and gunpowder.

BUT, all those were very long ago. What sort of inventions are coming out of China since the “cultural revolution” and under Communism. What happens when during a political event, your academic elite are …..missing? How does that influence national and cultural thinking for the next century?

I believe there are indeed intersections of culture and invention. I think under closer examination, one would find that the countries with lots of inventions value diverse thinking. Value new ideas. Value positive changes. These are expressed in their systems of education. These shape the people their children become.

I would dearly love an academic conversation on this topic. It’s been on my mind for decades!

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Just Stuff

Just Stuff- WERU Esoterica

Just Stuff

 

By this time of life, people my age have already said goodbye to all members of the older generation in their families. That’s true for me and most of my friends. We all have tales of woe cleaning up after the life of parents, aunts, and uncles. Every single thing must be liquidated, assigned, sold, placed, or donated.  Of course, generally we are all doing all this while grieving for whomever has passed on. And those belongings can be a mine field of emotions and memories. And, fortunately, a few laughs.

My mother passed first. She’d had Alzheimer’s, and her remaining belongings were just as odd and bizarre as some of the things she would do and say during those last years. Like the time I visited her during the evening in the nursing home and found her sitting in the lobby near the entrance.

“Oh, I am so glad you are here,” she began, unable to recall my name, but certain I was familiar. “Have I missed my train?”

“No, Mom. You have plenty of time. I’ll check the schedule.”

“Good,” she said, relieved of her agitation.

After she passed, I sent all her clothes to a thrift store. But cleaning out her drawers and closet was difficult. I tossed pantyhose with runs, stained cosmetic bags, rusty hairpins, and the pink rubber rollers she had once used on my hair when I was small. There were pens that had been out of ink for decades, broken pencils, brochures, dirty tissues and stretched out headbands. But most amusing was an entire drawer full of prostheses for her left breast following a mastectomy when she was 70. Medicare provided a new prosthesis every two years. She lived to her late 80’s. So there was an entire drawer of fake boobs.

“Why don’t you use them, Mom?” I’d asked her once before Alzheimer’s had entirely set in.

“Oh, they’re too hot,” she replied, explaining it was easier to stuff the empty bra cup with a sock. “And I don’t want to wear them out,” she’d added. “Besides, I’m over 70, what do I need two breasts for?”

My father passed a few months after Mom. Then it was important to vacate his two- bedroom apartment before the end of a month, or we’d be charged another month’s rent. I found a Mom with 6 adopted kids that could use all the furniture.  Little stuff like dishes and knick-knacks all went to the thrift store which supported a local hospital.

Dad had a lifelong love of books. He’d culled books when he’d left his last house. But not enough. He was adamant that the remaining books were valuable, and that I should get a good price for them. He thought he had something very precious because he had every book Jack London had ever written.

A kind man, a specialist in antiquarian books, graciously agreed to peruse Dad’s collection. After half an hour, he pronounced that the books were still good for reading, but that they had no monetary value.

Most of us are not privy to the romantic side of our parents. I always knew my folks had a strong love story. But I got a good laugh when I found a stack of vintage Playboy magazines in Dad’s closet.

The process of cleaning out someone’s stuff is tedious and dreadful. But what I learned is that in the end, it’s all just stuff. Just stuff. What someone values has little to do with money.

Now, I try to look at my home this way. Everything I have, everything I will have by the time I die, it’s just stuff. My stuff. Stuff that means something to me, and probably not to anyone else. I will try to remember not to collect so much stuff.  Because, in the end, it’s just stuff.

W.C.  Kasten

low light photography of books
Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

 

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Salute to the 70’s

(This is a response to a darling play I saw last night titled “The Seekers” written by Kristin Frangoulis and produced at “Elbow Room” at the Waterfall Arts building in Belfast, ME.)

The 70’s were my “granola” days. I cannot claim to be part of the “back to nature” movement which took place in Waldo County in the 70’s, because I had a job teaching 6th grade. I lived in a shabby little house in Frankfort, Maine, which was purchased by a spouse and myself for only one reason – we could afford it. It was situated at the major curve in the main road, Route 1A, between Stockton Springs and Winterport.

I did identify with many of the traditions of the time. The little house was heated with wood, using a Scandinavian wood stove we had purchased from Frank Raftery’s wood stove store on High St. in Belfast. By necessity, I learned to bank a stove for all day coverage, because teachers cannot run home for lunch. I had some propane backup, but it was bloody expensive to use it, so I rarely did.

The picture that follows shows the house before we bought it. My father, the carpenter, arrived a few times with tools and doors and wood and cabinets. Dad made the place more livable. He installed a front door without a hole where the knob was missing. He added a mudroom and porch on the front. He enclosed a back deck making a place for firewood storage out of the weather. He added a bathroom with running water and a place for a washing machine. I had not been fond of the “inside outhouse” at the far corner of the woodshed.

He arrived with lovely cabinets he’d made to make a real kitchen where there was just a sink and small gas range. He’d made them from American Chestnut, his favorite wood, which he’d hoarded whenever it could be found. He gave me bright red counter tops, and I was delighted with how bright and cheery they were. I loved how the red counters looked with my white and black Bennington pottery and my red placemats from Willey’s General Store in Greensboro, Vermont.

The little house sat close to the Marsh River, too close for a septic system. We settled on a composting toilet called an ecolet. One had to mount two steps to be seated and so it stood like a throne in the new bathroom. It was far better than the outhouse.

In those days, being dirt poor (teachers did not earn enough to make sends meet), I made my own yogurt, baked my own bread. I joined the newly formed Belfast Coop, and had to put in my hours once a month working there, meting out one pound bags of prunes from a large cardboard box, weighing bulghur, rice, and oats.

I ate lots of tabouli and soybean soup and lentil loaf back then.  My many bulk foods were stored in large jars on the top of the cabinets, and they added interest and color to my red kitchen.

The little house had once been a general store. So the layout was odd. Local people remembered sitting around a potbelly wood stove, and scooping bulk foods like flour and rice from barrels right about where my kitchen table sat. The owners would have lived upstairs, which explained why I found a dry sink in my upstairs hallway. There had been stairs once upon a time on the outside of the building to the second floor quarters.

My favorite time there was when my good friend Martha, another teacher, moved in with her toddler, dog and cat (I had one cat, too) It took two teacher salaries to cover the basic bills. I managed the inside of the house. Martha managed the outside. She enjoyed mowing the tiny lawn. She planted a few flowering bushes, and cultivated a small vegetable garden. We were over the moon delighted when we heard that the green onion plants we had been given came from Scott and Helen Neering’s garden!

Our only Thanksgiving there was memorable. I had a good table with two leaves. I made the splurge purchase of a harvest gold tablecloth, which I still have. I had a set of china but no silverware to speak of. Martha, who had no china, had inherited a service for 12 of sterling silver, never before used. Between the two of us, we had created a wonderful looking table. We invited a few friends to dinner.

The most memorable part, though, was the atmosphere. You see during the summer prior, I had gone down to MDI to work for the summer as a waitress at the “Head of the Harbor” restaurant in Southwest Harbor. Teachers didn’t get summer pay, of course. So summers meant finding work. With the house empty for two months, mice had moved in.

I had an awesome cat then, who’d gone to Southwest Harbor for the summer with me. Once we returned, she went to work. While the house had been empty, mice had moved in. My cat  honed her mousing skills. Each night I would hear her hunting, I would hear a squeak and a pounce, and then find a dead mouse in the morning. This went on through the autumn. The last time I heard her hunting at night, I had never found the dead mouse. I looked everywhere, emptying the woodpile, behind cabinet drawers -I pulled the house apart.

I may not have mentioned that I didn’t cook much in those days. Especially things that required an oven. Turkeys require an oven. So when I preheated the oven for our Thanksgiving turkey, I located the dead mouse.

The smell of dead burning mouse was unforgettable and unappetizing to say the least. Once removing the carcass, we tried to air out the house. But, it was 5 degrees outside that day. Opening the door could only last a few seconds. And the wood stove was working overtime to heat up the house. So we found some scented candles, and that made it all bearable.

The following year, the chicken industry folded in Waldo County. I was laid off along with two other teachers after many families with children moved away. I went off to grad school; Martha found a quaint cottage home in Stockton Springs. She still lives there. I rented out the house in Frankfort. The tenants never told me the ecolet stopped working. They used something, maybe a camper potty, and buried the waste in the tiny yard contaminating the well. I got back from school to find a letter that my property was condemned.

I gave the house to the town for the tax deduction. It was the only course I could think of. They sold some contents, then let the volunteer fire department burn it down. Now there’s something far uglier there than my little house.

So much for the 70’s!

It took me until 2009 to get myself back to Maine except for visiting. As much as I loved the place, I was so sick of being poor. So I accepted jobs elsewhere, and returned to retire. In a sense, I had to leave in order to afford to come back.

I loved it when I went to get my Maine drivers license again. They gave me my old license number and said “Welcome home.”  I was home, truly, and I still am.

[The picture that follows in the little house on Route IA in Frankfort. The photo at the start of this piece is me, while working in Bar Harbor for the summer, sitting on the rocks of Acadia National Park near Thunder Hole.]

IMG_0561 (2)