Sunday, April 20, 2008

Mother’s and My Trip to Visit Harvey in New York, Spring 1967

I wrote this piece in July 1992, with the following intro:

I have come to realize that many things about this wonderful trip are fading from my memory. Maybe I've worn out the scenes by accessing them too much. Harvey's photos have helped because they capture so many of our activities. Quite a few of my memories are things the camera "saw." The trip provides some of my few recollections of Mother and is in many ways my example of what a trip should be: interesting, well-paced (for a five-year-old's endurance), and paid for by someone else.

PLEASE SEE ACCOMPANYING SLIDE SHOW: http://picasaweb.google.com/sarahbowieme/NYTrip1967

***

I really enjoyed that childhood feeling of things seeming so big. A tall table is something to hide under, a playhouse. Everything is dramatically large, like stage scenery or action on a movie screen.

I saw few movies as a child, and the ones I did see totally absorbed me. To my small-town viewpoint, everything was new and exotic: what people wore, how they talked, even cars and food. I believed that every city was different and required special knowledge for survival.

I used to marvel at the way adults found their destinations on a car trip. My perception was that you had to know all the roads not to take; I didn't realize that you continue forward until it's time to make a turn. I was overwhelmed by the responsibility I thought adults must bear--constantly having to evaluate situations, making careful decisions. ("What shall we have for dinner?") I didn't understand the way most people really exist, coasting along. ("I'm too tired to go to the store, so we'll have leftovers.")

***

The trip to New York took place before I started kindergarten. I was five, but my birthday came after the school year began. There were few children my age in our neighborhood. Getting together with my friends required a drive across town!--really about five minutes away, but sometimes hard for Mother to squeeze into her schedule. I saw kids my age every Sunday, but in church school there wasn't a lot of time to connect. The little boy who most interested me spent half the hour crying for his mother and then sullenly played blocks alone.

I loved spending time with Mother, although I'm not sure what our activities were. I think I followed her around on errands--the grocery store, church (to organize her classroom or for organ practice), Aunt Martha and Ella's house (Aunt Martha made some of Mother's clothes), etc. Mother had her "to do" list and I had mine. Since I couldn't read yet, she would draw pictures for me: a broom, a mailbox. (I was considered too young to wash dishes.) Or she would draw a picture of things I could add to the grocery cart when we shopped--apples, bread.

I was excited to spend a whole weekend with Mother in New York. The only disappointment was that Mother was her usual practical self. She wasn't transformed into my playmate but remained the person who told me to brush my teeth.

***

Mother had a big pink carrier bag made of linen-like fabric. At one point she had to use a stain remover on the bag. The product was a cream that dried and had to be brushed off. Its color (on the pink bag) and flakiness made me think of medicine on a scab. Yuck! I was easily disgusted at that age.

We flew to New York on Delta and back to Houston on Braniff. I had the idea that Braniff would be the better airline, but Delta turned out to be more pleasant. I liked the sound of the name "Braniff" and thought it sounded fancier than "Delta". I don't think my prejudice was caused by anything I overheard. It certainly seems unlikely that my parents would discuss airline preferences.

I really admired the Braniff flight attendants' uniforms, red and navy plaid. (As most of my dresses were flowered, I considered plaid to be very grown-up.) However, the ladies weren't very friendly and the plane was crowded and stuffy. There was also a lot of turbulence, which didn't frighten me because I had so little conception of flight that air turbulence, to me, was like driving a car through ruts.

Mother had motion sickness on both flights. Her skin literally turned gray in the cabin lighting. I was impressed by the airsick bag. How did people know where to find it, tucked between the magazines? And wasn't that crimped/fold-down closure like the Chips-Ahoy cookie bag?

Mother had bought me several comic books for the trip. Timothy and David picked out action adventures when they went to New York with Daddy (a month or so earlier), but I had Baby Huey and Archie Comics. I believe that was my first introduction to Baby Huey. We didn't get very far with him because I couldn't figure out anything from the pictures and Mother was too sick to read aloud much. I thought Baby Huey was quite strange. I knew that animals don't really talk, and humans don't talk when they're babies, so...?

Better in-flight entertainment was embroidery cards. The "thread" was a cross between shoestrings and yarn, fuzzy wool with stiffened ends. The cards, a little larger than playing cards, had pre-punched holes you could thread the yarn through--no needle required. Of course half of my attempts got knotted up, but I always hoped that the next card would come out perfect. I didn't like that the yarn only came in yellow, red, blue and green, since my favorite color was purple. (I once left a purple crayon in the pocket of a purple-striped smock that went into the dryer--whoops! I don't think I was even drawing that day but had pocketed the crayon because I liked the way it matched the fabric.)

***

I always swore that I saw Harvey at the terminal window "as our plane was coming down." Of course Mother said later that this couldn't be. I may have seen him as the plane was taxiing to the gate--any plane movement I considered part of the flight. This is the intellectualization, but my image was the plane curving down from the sky and Harvey waving through the glass as we continued down below his level.

How was I able to recognize Harvey? I didn't know him very well, and I'm sure there were many smooth-faced men in beige raincoats at the airport. Yet even at that age I had a radar sense of "there's Harvey."

Ordinary motion seemed almost magical to me, since I couldn't even ride a bike yet and had absolutely no idea of how people made cars start and move forward. Our cab ride into the city was almost like flying or sailing. I saw rolling images as we moved, like the credits of "All in the Family" where the camera moves through the Bunker's neighborhood.

It was very different from car trips to Houston with Mother. Those were wild drives on the freeway. As I stared down from the busy overpass at office buildings and hamburger stands, it would occur to me to mention to Mother (with no convenient exit for several miles) that I had to go to the bathroom. Things were much flatter in Houston, so the sloping outskirts of New York, with stoops and stone walls, was exotic.

One of the first things we did was buy gifts for Timothy and David. Mother stopped at a little store with a cluttered display window. I didn't like the small, dusty store, being used to shopping in malls with the smell of roasting popcorn and disinfectant. I think Mother got Timothy and David a mechanical top, though I may have mixed up what she bought with the souvenirs they brought back from their trip.

***

When we got to the Hilton, our room wasn't ready. We looked into it briefly, and I saw the mussed sheets and towels. This disturbed me, the sense of "strangers were sleeping here." Instead of waiting for that room to be cleaned, we had a shorter wait for a different room. Harvey was disappointed that we had to give up our view of the Empire State Building.

Walking past the lobby gift stores, I saw something fabulous: stuffed-toy gingerbread men. These were shaped like cookies, almost flat with brown fur and glued-on pink yarn icing. (There was a bakery next to the store in Houston where we always bought our shoes. The first few times we went to the bakery I requested gingerbread men--it seemed the cultured thing to do, with gingerbread people in so many of my books--until it struck me that brownies taste much better.) The toys were arranged in groups by size. Of course I wanted the largest size, and I sensed that Harvey would have bought it for me. (It appealed to his sense of the dramatic.) But my mother or some other voice of reason prevailed, and I ended up with the next-to-smallest. Actually, it was a cute size and easy for me to hold. I tried calling him "Gingie," but that name revolted even me and I switched to Gingerbread Man.

The hotel provided Fun Packs for children, but we didn't get mine until the next day because of the confusion about the room. I had been eagerly anticipating it (Mother and Harvey should have never have mentioned its absence to me--delayed gratification) but was disappointed when it arrived with our room-service pancake breakfast--most of the games were for older children. I could, however, do the coloring-book pages and some of the "Find the Objects". Mother read me the jokes, which were about as comprehensible as Baby Huey.

Our bathroom must have had beige tiles, because I remember it as "gold." It seemed very clean and shiny, compared to our ten+-year-old bathroom at home. Our bathroom at home was long and narrow--the hotel's was a square, which felt much bigger. And there was an ice chute right in the bathroom. It was a real-life set for playing Princess, my favorite make-believe game. Mother had brought along her usual little packages of alcohol-wipes ("We may not find a nice bathroom with soap"), artificial sweetener and Koolaid. These were laid out with the hotel Woolite and soap packages. We had also brought some doughnut-shaped butter cookies (the only kind Mother would buy, because they were plain and cheap--and would have been hard to make from scratch), so it was also like playing house or playing kitchen. (With an adult perspective, I would say playing bartender.)

***

I don't remember watching TV at the hotel. Maybe Mother only had on news programs, which I found too boring to count as television. I have a very clear memory of looking in the full-length mirror our first night in the hotel, critically analyzing my appearance. I wore white Mary Janes with ankle socks. The socks were wrinkled, as always (it must have been something about my ankles), and the shoes were slightly scuffed. Mother had made me a new gathered skirt with crossed and buttoned shoulder straps. The fabric was small white flowers on a blue-green background. (I thought of them as Edelweiss, in honor of “The Sound of Music”.) With it I wore a white blouse that I think was also home-made, since it had the Peter Pan collar of Mother's favorite pattern.

Where my bangs met my longer, braided side hair, there were always wisps that sometimes required two sets of barrettes to restrain. Mother and I would try to match the barrette colors, and that night we had managed to find two white pairs: flowers and bunnies, or they might have been seashells.

I wanted to look sophisticated--whatever my conception of that was. (Mother was never sophisticated enough for me either, but I was used to being disappointed in her in that regard.) I remember being unhappy with my appearance that night. I thought my home-sewn clothes would be obvious to everyone, and I didn't like my chubby cheeks or my hair color. Mother had just started reading to me Little House in the Big Woods, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. The young Laura despairs that her hair is mud brown, not golden blond like her sister's. When I heard "mud brown," I instantly visualized the potholes in our dirt driveway after a heavy rain. The wrap-up of the chapter, where Pa consoles Laura with a quiet "My hair is brown, too, Laura," didn't do much to restore my confidence.

Mother would always have a mad dash to finish sewing clothes before the occasion. (At least once she hemmed my new dress during the drive to someone's wedding, as I sat mortified in my slip.) I remember Mother measuring the shoulder straps and sewing on buttons for the New York outfit. I hated having sewing fitted, having sleeves and hems pinned. You always felt at least one pinprick. The good part of having clothes made was planning the outfit, but this was followed by a big letdown when I would realize that due to our choice of fabric and my figure and face, there was no resemblance to the illustration on the pattern package.

***

I have gotten dressed up to see Uncle Harvey’s off-Broadway musical, "The Fantasticks." (It had opened the year before I was born and ended up playing in the same theater for 42 years.) Before the show, we went to a little restaurant attached to a clothing store. There is a photo of me looking at racks of bright, pastel (60's colors) dresses and hats, with Harvey and his camera--captured in a mirror--skulking in the background. Mother supervised my ordering a hot dog and a chocolate ice-cream drink. Of course these items were not like they came at our (hamburger) restaurants back home. The hot dog was very large and had chili on it. Spicy chili, not like Mother made. (I used to be mystified by the concept of chili cook-offs--the hottest recipe wins--because Mother's recipe was ground beef, canned beans, salt and pepper, and a sprinkling of McCormick chili powder, weakened by several years in the kitchen cabinet.)

The chocolate drink came in a brandy snifter and was topped with whipped cream. In those days I considered whipped cream something to be scraped off (like the chili from the hot dog), but I did admire the overall appearance of the drink in the glass. Grainy with ice cream crystals, it was a lovely chocolate color, with a centered dollop of whipped cream and chocolate shavings. It had to be eaten with an iced-tea spoon. (Not like the drive-in version, which you just stirred with a plastic straw until it was soupy.)

I think it was at the same restaurant/boutique that Harvey bought me a little Merry-Go-Round, wooden horses that fit on a base. Painted wooden riders notched onto the horses, and the whole thing would revolve if you pushed it gently--if you pushed too hard, everything would spin off. The shapes were primitive and flat. I liked choosing which color riders to put on which horses. Sometimes I liked the pink rider on the red horse--another time I might feel that clashed and put it on the gray horse.

***

At age 24, on a return visit to Sullivan Street, I was amazed at the smallness--and dinginess--of the theater. At age 5 it seemed, like almost everything else in the universe, quite large. As at other stage performances I had been to (i.e., the Tomball Winter Festival at the high school auditorium), I couldn't see over the head in front of me. The darkness of the theater during the performance, or being in a strange city where almost no one knew us, made me bold enough to sit in the aisle. (Of course, I considered this being reasonable, not being bold.) I remember Harvey telling us that the cast had seen me and "played" to me. I was shocked that I hadn't been as invisible as I'd thought and felt rather guilty that they hadn't played to a more appreciative audience. I never had a clue what the characters in the play were so excited about. Now when I see the size and intimacy of the theater, I wonder that I could have felt invisible. I guess another part of that childhood feeling is considering yourself to be unimportant; thinking that if the adults do notice your presence, they will disregard you.

Going backstage was also wasted on me. "A lot of grown-ups in raggedy clothes" was my main impression. I was very surprised that the mute could talk, since I had been really pitying him. I was always disturbed when there was "something wrong" with people and tried very hard not to stare at them.

***

Harvey suggested we go to the Empire State Building after the show. Maybe he didn't understand about children's schedules and attention spans. I whined, "I'm too tired!", but Mother made me go. I sulked all the way there and in the elevator. It took a long time to go up so many floors, and I felt claustrophobic. However, I forgot all my irritation when I was hit by the impact of the view. Harvey held me as close to the guard rail as I would allow. The sky was beautiful, blue-black with yellow lights, and the air was humid and cool. Since nothing around the Empire State was near its height, there was a real feeling of openness. I think a part of me still believed people could fly from buildings, like Mary Poppins.

After this I got kind of a second wind and back at the hotel room was ready to play with my new Merry-Go-Round toy. Spin, spin, spin...pick up the fallen pieces and put them back in different places. For several years after our trip Mother would tell everyone, "Sarah said she was too tired for the Empire State Building, then she wanted to stay up all night playing!"

***

At FAO Schwarz either Mother or Harvey bought me a painted wooden apple. It came apart in halves, and inside were wooden cups, plates (painted with a red border and leaves), and a three- or four-legged table. The table was in pieces; the legs were pegs, and the round table top fit into the widest part of the apple opening. It used to drive me crazy that the cups and plates would just barely fit on the table. You had to place them on with very delicate fingers or they would slide off the edge. Sometimes one of the legs would come loose, the table would tip over and you'd have to start over anyway. Daddy suggested I glue the legs on, but that would have ruined the concept of coming apart and fitting inside the apple.

What I really wanted was a playhouse. FAO Schwarz had several models on display. I had immediate fantasies about making one my permanent home, in our backyard. I could get a mini-refrigerator and a little sofa and chairs... The item "Play House" appeared on my Christmas list for several years (to no avail).

***

For the first decade of my life I had a phobia about escalators. I would wait and wait, my raised leg quivering, for the perfect time to step. I had a bad case of that child's fear of getting sucked down somewhere below...as well as a real lack of physical coordination. Mother would have to find an elevator to use, or if desperate for time she would grab me up and place me on the escalator. Then I would have several seconds of terror till we got to the top, "How will I get off?!"

I don't remember much escalator fear in New York (because there were so many other things concerning and amazing me). There was a wide expanse of carpet between the Macy's entrance and the first-floor escalator. After walking across the carpet, touching the metal sides of the escalator (I was too short for the arm rests) gave me an electric shock--not just a brief one, but several long, painful shocks.

Macy's had displays of flower arrangements and centerpieces near the escalators. There must have been some kind of fad at that time for varnished fruits and breads as decorations. A braided loaf and several rolls had pieces bitten out of them. I asked Mother, "Wouldn't it taste bad?" (Not that I was tempted myself.) She warned, "It probably made those people sick, eating that shellac." (I knew the word "shellac"--it was what you used to decoupage Bible verses and pictures of Jesus onto wood blocks.)

***

The hansom cab we rode is linked in my mind with the Coach House restaurant (horses/coaches, etc.), although I'm not sure I experienced them on the same day. In its day the restaurant was elegant, but I remember it as the place where I had my first baked potato with condiments. What glittering style--the shiny foil on the potato, and the silver condiment tray. Because of the potato, I ranked the Coach House right up there with Still's Chicken Shack in Tomball, which opened a few years later. I always ordered Still's fried chicken child's plate, which came with a baked potato.

I know that we went to The Automat, but I don't think we ate there--maybe just looked around inside. I remember Mother and Harvey giving it a big buildup, but it didn't compare favorably with my favorite restaurant in Houston, the One's-A-Meal Sandwich Shop, where I would always order a grilled cheese sandwich. The One's-a-Meal grilled cheese somehow always tasted better than they did at home--something about the grease, or maybe the juice from the accompanying dill pickles soaking into the bread. I thought the Automat food looked kind of pale through the glass windows; I preferred my sandwiches fried.

I believe it was on our second day that we had lunch at another elegant place, where I ordered a ham and cheese sandwich. This sandwich was served unassembled with two little paper cups of sauce. I of course assumed the white stuff was mayonnaise and spread it thickly on the bread. When the sandwich became inedibly hot, Harvey realized that I had used horseradish and called the waitress over to bring me another meal. I was tearful and felt terrible that I had ruined my sandwich. Mother said, "No, Harvey, she can just have the part that's OK." But she did let me order another one when she realized there were few uncorrupted parts of the sandwich.

One morning we ordered pancakes from room service. As we only had them for supper at home, they were a treat for breakfast. I liked eating in my nightgown, sitting propped up with a pillow in a soft chair. In fact, I ate so many carbohydrates that I was sleepy enough to go back to bed after breakfast.

***

I admired the skating rink at Rockefeller Center but felt the view was spoiled by the surrounding buildings, being from a town where there were few things behind other things--a church would be in the middle of an empty lot, etc. Harvey bought me a book about the Rockefeller Center tree. I thought the rink looked better in the illustrations because the backdrop--the skyline--was simplified. I remember being a little disturbed by the gold statue. What was it?--a person wouldn't be that size. I had learned in church that God doesn't like pagan statues (golden idols).

Our trip to Rockefeller Center was the first time I saw a naked-boy fountain. I'm surprised in photos to see the brilliant, beautiful flower beds around the boy/cherub, because the statue was pretty much all I noticed at the time. (I realized it was not the only one in the world when Harvey displayed his "Parents in Europe" photos a few years later.)

The part of Central Park that Harvey wanted to show us was closed, but he lifted me so I could sit on the top of the brick wall. I remember a big rabbit--from Alice in Wonderland?--and miniature castles. I couldn't really concentrate because I was nervous about being held so high.

***

On our last morning we were invited to breakfast at Harvey's apartment. I didn't know the word "brunch," so if Harvey called the meal that, it went over my head. I was told, "Elaine Morfogen will be there!" Unfortunately, I didn't remember having met his artist friend Elaine before and didn't quite know what to make of her. Slim and elegant, she certainly dressed differently than anyone in Tomball--I had never before seen a woman wearing coordinating, accessorized beige separates.

I had also never seen a living room decorated in orange and purple. Harvey had set the table in front of the brown brick fireplace. He told us an anecdote about his maid rearranging the jars on the mantel. I considered that a pretty sophisticated problem to have. I thought his kitchen, too small to really use, was very glamorous, and I was also impressed by the pottery and linens, since we used scratched white plasticware and paper napkins at home. Harvey made tuna salad with lots of onions and black pepper, and he persuaded Mother to make sweet (cinnamon) rice. I created a sandwich with the tuna and a large round seeded roll. I expected great things from the bun because it was so large, but it was disappointingly dry.

***

We took a helicopter back to the airport. I was surprised that we went to the top of a building to board the helicopter. My thought was, if it's to take us up, why must we go up to get on it? I was also surprised how many passenger seats there were--helicopters look so tiny from the ground.

One of my favorite photos shows me with Mother at the airport eating Chock Full O'Nuts brownies. Mother is in her beige raincoat and I'm in my pink cloth coat. We both look very tired. I had been excited by the idea of Chock Full O'Nuts, which I thought was a store selling only brownies--but how boring, they also sold sandwiches and coffee. And the brownies did not measure up to what I thought brownies should be, what Mother's were. (Mother's recipe was one Daddy had reduced down from Army baking--it called for 6/7 cup of an ingredient. Those brownies were made with cocoa, kind of dry but perfect for eating with ice cream.) Of course I ate the Chock Full O'Nuts brownies anyway, though I was further disgusted that they got wadded up in the waxed paper. (Mother's brownies kept their brick-like shape, no matter how many of them you stacked together.)

***

On the return flight, Mother ordered a Coke for me. I dozed off before it was delivered, and Mother didn't wake me. I was really angry when the flight landed and I realized that I had missed my treat. (We almost never had Coke at home.) I guess I was in that fussy waking-up state, realizing that the trip was really over. I knew Mother had just let the drink sit there, getting warm and watery, until it was picked up by the flight attendant. Mother wasn't a Coke fan. When I "helped" her work at church (organizing her classroom or practice the organ), we would go to the vending machine and get a Coke or a Fanta for me and always a root beer for her. I thought of root beer as a drink for adults, like coffee, because it tasted so bad.

When Daddy met our return flight, he had my new (adopted) sister Rachel with him as a surprise for Mother. At the time of the trip, she hadn't been in our family very long. Only in retrospect do I appreciate how hard it must have been for Mother to leave a baby at home. I think we dropped Rachel off at Virginia Radeke's house on the way to the airport. (Virginia was a very nice lady who helped us with cleaning, ironing and babysitting. She made her own black velvet paintings from kits--my favorite one was Chinese coolies in a flower garden.)

I knew that it would be a long time before I left Texas again, and in New York I had all the benefits of home--i.e., Mother--and none of the drawbacks--having to share her attention with others. I was pretty sad to be home.

Selected, Selective Images of Mother

In my 20s I was only interested in idealized images of my mother. In fact, I kind of preferred images of the young Evelyn that didn't much resemble the mother I remembered. I had these two young images blown up and put them in decorative frames, although they brought back no memories of my actual life with Mother.
















In later decades I've been more attracted to images of Evelyn as a (young) mother. Uncle Harvey has collected many albums of family photos, lovingly enlarged and copied in sepia. This one of my mother visiting her mother's house with my two brothers makes me want to hug her, and offer to wash some of the diapers in those diaper pails--with two boys born a year apart, she clearly needs help.




























And here is one of the best images of all--my mother holding me. Finally, a daughter! (Not that I didn't generate as many, or more, diapers and hassles than my brothers.) Her sharply flipped hair somehow echoes the vivid joy in her face.

















Goddess in Pink Cotton

For the past 4 years I have attended a monthly spiritual writing group. The purpose of the group is not necessarily to make us better writers--the act of writing is just a way to express our thoughts and feelings on assigned topics. Originally we worked our way through a spiritually-oriented book of writing prompts but our themes have broadened since then and now include all kinds of women's issues and other self-exploration. I have written a lot about my mother in this group--the piece below is one of my shorter and more accessible ones. It was written in response to a prompt about personal metaphors and images of the sacred.

***

Remembered images of my mother and her mother come close to the sacred for me. Both of them died before I reached my teen years so admittedly, the images are fuzzy, but partly because of this fuzziness, more godlike. In my mind they're alone, doing household tasks. I have to think harder for images of them standing beside their husbands, usually only when dressed to go out to a church-related event.

They always dressed in faded florals and pastels, recycling the same cotton shirtwaist patterns in those pre-polyester years. I especially remember a lot of pink and soft blue in their clothing. They had large noses, imperfect hair and both wore glasses, but they had gentle, intelligent expressions. I remember these now-gone women with the sun behind them, or an evening lamp as they did sewing projects--or maybe it's almost the glow of a halo effect. There truly was some kind of upper-body glow, despite their wrinkles and their yellowing skin (Texas is not kind to dry German skin).

These ladies radiated belief and sincerity and lived with ritual and mission--church, housework, childcare and family care. They were healers, with love and creativity--Mother used to make sickroom trays for us children with muffin cup compartments for our pills and crackers. Holidays and birthdays were marked with family-tradition celebrations and gifts. I never felt that Mother was getting out the Christmas decorations just for us--it was something very important to her too.

Grandmother was more of an old-fashioned memorize-Bible-verse type, but both ladies demonstrated--not just respect for education and diligence in learning--but also humility in achievement. Both Mother and Grandmother stayed very focused and only occasionally showed pettiness or negative emotion. They modeled good works with a good attitude.

Grandmother was meeker than Mother and seemed more fragile. From a very young age my mother was her backup in the family, a sturdy little housekeeper and "mother" to her two younger brothers.

I recently came across a very early photo of my mother that shows more youthful grinning joy than most of her other images. She was wearing a dark short coat with broad rows of shiny buttons, little pants (unusually sporty for the 1920s) and a soft floppy hat that had to have been her dad's. I was looking at an album with other family members, and we all let out a collective "Ooooooh!" sigh when we turned to this photo. We weren't just seeing a cute kid, but perhaps a young saint or goddess, enjoying the briefly carefree years of her youth before she realized the more serious parts of her life's mission.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Failed brownie muffins, the bra that looked like bread, and other retail misadventures (At the Mercy Of It All)

I knew better - I haven't baked much in recent years but I used to be an expert baker, and you don't really forget that skill and learning/instinct, or whatever makes someone a good baker - but in hungry/lazy desperation I took a chance on a recipe I found on Yahoo (yeah, a questionable source), in a feature on low-cal 2-ingredient foods. One of the three recipes was baked apples made with diet cherry cola (which should have encouraged me to ignore all 3 recipes), the second was broccoli slaw mixed with Paul Newman ginger dressing (I don't believe a person can go wrong with Paul Newman products), and my new nemesis was Yum Yum Brownie Muffins. My friend Sheila recognized the basic premise - a box of cake mix plus a can of pumpkin - as an old Weight Watchers recipe for low-fat cookies. This new version, from Yahoo blogger Hungry Girl's library, claimed to make a brownie-like muffin from pumpkin and devil's food cake mix - no other ingredients - no oil, no eggs, etc. I told Cousin Amy about it and she tried it within 48 hours (figured it would keep her from eating worse foods), but since she didn't have the original recipe she panicked when the dough looked oddly stiff (which the online version warned about) and added water. Probably that water was a good thing, since when I made it several days later, my dough was too stiff, but I insisted on following the actual recipe so have only my anal nature to blame. Amy said the muffins weren't too bad but she had tried to insert chocolate frosting in the middle (she is an expert foodie/cook and likes to fancy things up to a higher level), which floated up and burned on her pan. I figured I could avoid that mistake but my muffins did not turn out well either - actually the chocolate version was not too bad but I had hedged my bets (and wasted more ingredients) by making a "carrot" version first. I put the word carrot in quotes because I noticed the cake mix box said "carrot flavored" - a creepy term that made me read the ingredients list. As best I could tell from the fine print, the fake-carrot bits were made of a corn derivative doctored up with various dyes and "carrot powder." Sounded nasty but this was an experiment anyway and I figured it would taste like a spice cake, if nothing else. I ate half a Yum Yum (Not) Carrot-ish Muffin and threw the rest away - the flavor did not lend itself well to the gummy texture. At first I thought the gummy texture was OK for chocolate flavored yum yums, since even good brownies are rather gummy, but no...gummy is only good when the ingredients are good...cheap cake mix and pumpkin do not create a good gumminess. I couldn't figure out why my brownie muffins, made according to the online recipe (except I added some mini chocolate chips...and a spoonful of vanilla...and 1/4 tsp. cinnamon..none of which should have altered the appearance), looked so different from the online photo - but then I realized the online photo was probably not of the actual baked item! Duh! Some web geek just used a stock photo of a gorgeous, slim woman popping a luscious chocolate muffin into her mouth - and I was the zillionth sucker who bought into that particular fantasy. I can no longer find the model&brownie image but I've attached the one that's still online with the recipe - not as glamorous but still presenting a more attractive image than I ended up with. No real harm done...cake mix is cheap, and I'll just fall back on all the other carbs, dessert versions and salty versions, with which I have stocked my home.

I had originally wanted to subtitle the Sarah Bowie blog, At the Mercy of It All, a title that came to me in my early 20s as terrific for an autobiography and/or regular column - whatever way that Sarah would ultimately unleash herself upon the reading world. In retrospect the wording sounds more spiritually-oriented than my typical state of mind, so it's best as just a personal reminder - I've survived 46 years of Sarah goofs and will survive more - and not a public title. There does seem to be a special category of Sarah mistakes, a combination of things other people wouldn't attempt (not that the things are dangerous, just that they're a bit odd) and/or wouldn't get so puzzled by when the attempts fall apart. It's kind of a mix of absent-minded professor, small-town girl, cynic, and undercover journalist.

As an example...earlier this week I went to Target to buy an experimental ottoman for our living room/pub room. I say experimental because in a couple of different conversations and at least one trip to Target, I had been unable to convince Craig that an ottoman was just what we needed in the front window corner, a combination seat and storage chest to balance out the furniture in the rest of the room. I figured I could get an ottoman, position it in the room before Craig got home, and show the finished product - "Doesn't this look good?" If the answer was a resounding no, I would still have my receipt. The end of the story is that Craig did like the ottoman but we're now having to stow it under the pool table (not very decorative) to keep Marley from jumping on it. It only cost $69 but I don't necessarily want it scratched and covered with old-white-dog hair, and I also don't want more vet trips to fix old-dog-Marley's bad back, which gets worse with every jump.

That's the end of the story, but the middle of the story is my actual trip to Target... Of course I never buy just one thing at Target...I also bought socks and underwear. Readers probably do not want to read about my underwear, but there are aspects to the underwear need that are not just embarrassing but also (I think) funny. Recent low-cut pant styles fall below the waist line of my usual cotton underwear. I have few tops long enough to cover the shortfall so I had been limited to wearing my low pants around the house, where there was only Craig to see - and laugh. The especially low pants were a winter-time Target purchase, when in a fit of frustration over pants "shrinking" too quickly I bought two pairs of pants in a size too big in anticipation of shrinkage. The Target pants are super-comfortable and I paid to have them hemmed, but although they shrunk in length they have never shrunk much around the waist. They're OK right out of the dryer but after about half an hour of wearage, they stretch into ridiculous low-riders - I say ridiculous because such low pants look totally silly on a woman of my age and color. During my last night in Tomball I made a late-night trip to Academy, looking for replacement pants for Harvey (his had shrunk too small in washing - this problem runs in the family), and bought myself some pants in self-compensation for having dragged myself to 2 different stores and not found what Harvey needed. The Academy pants fit better than the Target pants (in fact, I wish they were looser in certain places) but the waists are still rather low. Now that I have a total of 4 pairs of low pants, I acknowledged that I needed lower underwear.

Having provided the underwear back-story, I can return to the story I started out to tell in the paragraph above. So...on my recent trip to Target (in Dallas...I should specify that, in case readers are lost with all the locations, dates and discount store names), I tossed two kinds of sock packages in my cart and one package of low-cut underwear. (Not bikinis, nothing really skimpy - just lower cut - picture men who pull their waistband below their belly bulge, and you get the general idea, although in my case I believe, hope, that it is slightly more attractive.) Target did not have such a thing in plain white, so I had to get bright colors, which I figured was all to the better in case anything showed above my pants. If a stranger observes an unintentional edge of hot pink, does that put me at least slightly into the trendy category of girls showing tattoos and G-strings and other once-private objects above their hip-hanging pants? (No response is required for this question - I had some fun just writing it although I know the sad answer.)

I hadn't realized quite how large the ottoman would be, and it took some time to wedge it into my cart. I made sure to position it so the cashier could scan the tag without my hauling it back out at the checkout lane. Of course the absentminded professor aka klutz part of me had not thought to pull the socks and underwear out of the cart before dropping the heavy ottoman into the cart, and I had some trouble pulling the small packages out from under the furniture at the checkout line, but I managed, slightly ripping the packages but what the heck, I was buying them anyway. In the parking lot there was a guy driving a little truck that towed empty shopping carts, and I was glad to see him drive near my car since I needed help with the ottoman - but silly me, he was there only to pick up nearby carts and listening to his Target headset and/or personal phone call, he seemed oblivious to my presence. Although my lower back was starting to have that I-shouldn't-be-doing-this-lifting by myself sensation, I got the ottoman into my back seat and threw the plastic bag of socks & underwear into the front of the car. The car had gotten hot while parked and I had gotten hot, and was getting tired, and wanted to get back to the office and start suffering through the rest of my day. Lunchtime errands always tire me although "getting out" is supposed to refresh people for the workday afternoon - my system must be totally out of whack, or maybe everyone gets as whipped from errands as I do and just pretend they are working hard afterward. I had barely started a fantasy of, wouldn't it be great if I just kept driving past the office and went on home, before I realized I had missed something...I had thrown into my cart 2 packs of socks and one pack of underwear, but I only handed the cashier 2 things besides the ottoman. I remembered setting two sets of socks, one white and one colored, on the counter, but I didn't remember a visual of the underwear...it must have been stuck underneath the ottoman where the cashier and I didn't see it. The word "shoplifting" immediately came to my mind, which didn't fill me with evil glee but didn't completely disturb me either. I had a subconscious memory of there maybe being a package left in the bottom of the cart (the cart was red, the package front was red, and the underwear was reddish pink) while my under-muscled back and I were wrestling with the ottoman, and if so I might be able to still get the underwear before the cart guy towed the empty cart back toward the store. I was only one block from Target and immediately turned my car around - not to re-enter the store and pay for the underwear, but to...is the proper word "steal"?...the unpaid-for underwear that I was sure was still in the bottom of the cart. Back in the parking lot the cart guy ignored me again, but this time I felt paranoidly that he might be watching me out of the corner of his sunglasses. Even if so, he wouldn't have known I didn't pay for the underwear I was grabbing out of the cart...but when is paranoia ever logical.

I called Cousin Amy, who thought the story was funny, and I told my office friend Sheila, who also laughed and proclaimed what had happened wasn't really shoplifting, but I could tell while retelling the tale that I was feeling guilty...I could tell this because I started weaving into the telling the promise that I would be returning to Target and paying for the underwear. What I was ashamed of wasn't so much that I hadn't paid, because I knew I would pay later (I did some wrestling over whether to pay that day or put it off a couple of days...soon guilty anxiety won over convenience) but that I had so easily slid across the honesty line, thinking I was too hot and busy to go back into the store. I was also disturbed by my experimental (though immediately horrified and guilty) thought that this, though accidental on this particular day, was a very effective way to steal things from a store.

After work that day I carried the stolen? shoplifted? accidentally-not-paid-for? underwear into the store, keeping my receipt and empty bag handy in case needed, but nobody paid any attention to my entering the store with merchandise in my hand. Amy had theorized how I could explain what had happened, an almost-truthful version that I had not noticed I hadn't paid for the underwear until I had left (leaving out the parking lot U-turn and cart grab) and now was making things right. This time I ended up with a different cashier though and her attention was on carrying out the purchase transaction efficiently with the use of only one hand and just a stub at her other elbow. She was very capable despite her physical limitations, bagging my purchase in the bag I brought with me (she didn't question why I already had a bag, probably thought I had just returned something and/or didn't care one way or the other) and counting out bills and coins for change. Despite or because of her efficiency I kept finding myself staring. It only occurred to me later that I had some kind of subliminal reaction to her missing hand. Please don't think for one second I am making fun of her disability, but somehow my brain made an eerie connection to the practice in some countries of cutting off hands as a punishment for...thievery.

I called Cousin Amy on my way home to tell her I had gone to Target and paid, but while talking to her I was checking the amount on my original receipt (whether the price was $5.99 vs. 4.99 vs. 6.99 seemed somehow important to the story) and had a panic seeing that my original receipt was for underwear and socks, meaning with with my second purchase of underwear I had paid twice for the underwear but not paid for one set of socks. The money would have averaged out about the same but since I had tried to set things right, I wanted to have really set them right. I was only driving about 15 mph in traffic but still, while juggling a cell phone and steering wheel, did not take the time to fully explore my purse for receipts. When I got home I checked both the new and old receipt and realized my confusion came from Target's abbreviations - one receipt was for lo-cut underwear and the other was for lo-cut socks (fun colored footies to wear under boring white ankle socks, making two comfortable layers that help my slightly too large Converses fit better). All lo-cut items were paid for appropriately.

How beautifully the themes of this post tie together...continuing confusion coming from the concept of "low-cut."

When I later told Craig the story, despite several variations of Devil's Advocate I couldn't get him to admit he would have completed the theft of the underwear and never paid. I'm not saying he would not have paid, I'm just saying I couldn't get him to say one way or the other what he would have done. His reaction was simply to state that I was de-emphasizing a key part of the story - that I had spent $100 total at Target and then gotten very concerned about a $5.99 item.

While planning this blog entry I remembered another At-the-mercy-of-it-all type retail story, from several years ago. And it synchs even better with my theme(s) than I remembered, since it has to do with pants too big.

From November 2004, here is the email I sent to a friend who works at Home Depot - not surprisingly, his response was that this dilemma was way out of his realm (him being male, and working at a hardware store). I also sent it to a female friend who despite loud long-distance electronic laughs had no real insights.

Last weekend I went to Mervyn's in search of some casual cotton pants. Not to get into gory details of weight, but I am between two sizes right now. Everything I tried on was either too big or too small for me. Finally I bought 2 different sizes of 2 different types of pants, figuring I would wash them all and see whether when they shrank (as most Mervyn's cotton does) they would fit better. Obviously I had to cut off all the tags to wash them, but I saved the tags in the Mervyn's bag. Two pairs shrank too much, and in the wrong places, to ever fit me, so I took those back on Sunday. Mervyn's credited my card with no problem.

Yesterday I decided to take back the remaining two pairs of pants, which had hardly shrunk at all and were thus still too big for me (unless I gain 15 pounds, which I should probably try to do, since that would be easier than losing 15 and much easier than continued shopping for pants). I got a different salesperson than on Sunday, and she immediately balked at seeing the tags were cut off. She said she could give me a credit but "Just to let you know, in future you will not be able to return any items with the tags cut off."

I guess in our mean & nasty present-day society they had to come up with this policy, but I was initially really shocked. Not only have I returned many washed-and-shrunk items over the years at Mervyn's and everywhere else, but I worked for 4 years at Foley's and we took anything back that the customer could convince us had ever hung on a hanger at the store, at any previous point in time. When I applied for a part-time job at Foley's I was assigned to the Lingerie department, which amused the heck out of people who know me well, since nice (or even well-fitting) underwear has never been one of my shopping interests. Anyway...one day there I had to give a lady credit for a once-white girdle that was so old and worn it looked like a loaf of whole-wheat bread. The customer knew how disgusting and ridiculous the return scenario was, and she had wrapped the "bread" up real tight in a wad of tissue paper so we could both avoid looking at it. How badly could she have needed $24.99 or whatever that girdle cost? But that was in Dallas, at the Highland Park store (picture a little old Highland Park lady, with scuffed designer shoes, long hair in a hairsprayed bun, and scary-bright lipstick), and the year was 1986. In Garland in 2004, Mervyn's does not give credits for un-tagged items.

Just to make sure I understood the new policy (I swear I did not have an argumentative tone), I said, "So even if I washed an item and it shrunk, and of course I would have had to cut the tags off to wash it, I could not return it?" Although the pants I had in front of me had shrunk too little, not too much, I gestured at them to illustrate the point I was trying to make about shrinkage. Wrong-o move-o... The saleslady immediately put down the receipt she had been about to do the credit from and started paging her manager. "Well, if they shrunk!, I will have to ask my manager!"

As we waited for the manager, I tried to figure how to explain that these particular pants had not shrunk too much without sounding like a lying, scamming idiot...I had made no progress in figuring out a valid explanation when the manager appeared. This lady looked very rough - frankly, she looked as if she lived on the street until last week and had hired on at Mervyn's to maybe get her teeth fixed and buy some food necessities. This sounds terrible to say, but her face had that weathered look that panhandlers get when they stand outside with cardboard signs. She did not like my "they shrunk" scenario and started spitting out phrases like, "We can't re-sell them like THIS!" and "We have to eat them!" (I knew she meant, the department would have to eat them financially, but the food metaphor seemed ironic, coming from someone who looked so desperate for survival.) She was so vehement that I started wondering (worrying) that her paycheck was going to be $60 short due to my returning these two pairs of pants. I lamely tried to say things like, "Well, I'm not saying they shrunk all that much...they would probably fit other customers near that size, they just don't fit me...you could probably re-sell them, most customers try on everything first anyway." The manager just shook her head angrily and hissed at the saleslady, "You'll have to write them up as M-O-S!"(which probably means, we're mad Over this Shit).

I really thought about keeping the pants and selflessly saving their department from financial ruin, but I was pretty sure the wheels were already in motion for me to get a credit, and I didn't trust whatever kind of half-assed apologetic lie-sounding thing I might have come up with to halt that process. I assured everyone that now I understood the Mervyn's return policy and would not try to ever return a laundered item again. For good measure, the manager repeated one last time, "Because we have to eat them!" I thought I detected a bit of additional attitude as the saleslady rang up the credit, "You want this back on your AMEX, right?", as if there was something horribly elitist about having my purchased an item with my high-dollar credit card that the department was now going to have to eat.

I think I violated my personal ethics at Mervyn's but I couldn't figure out at any point how to turn things around. I am a crummy liar - I think that is the biggest problem in this story. Actually I did something worse than this once, years ago I had a skirt hemmed and then returned it to Sears. I figured it didn't matter that my skirt was shorter than all the other ones like it, maybe a short customer would find it and be happy with it.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Back from Tomball (Whew...)










I recently spent spent 6 days and 5 nights in my home town, Tomball. Yes, I counted the days & nights, not because the trip dragged but because I was impressed by myself, this being the longest period of time I have spent there since going away to college in 1980. (See TOMBALL HELPERS list below for some of my coping methods - since I wasn't drinking alcohol I figured I could use the alcohol calories on fast food instead, with the result that I got even more bloated than I do from drinking.)

TOMBALL HELPERS (relocated from sidebar)

Daily dose of FRENCH FRIES (yes, I did start to feel like Morgan Spurlock in the movie Super Size Me, puffy & bloated)...sneaking out once or twice a day to eat McD's or Burger King instead of my dad's leftovers.

POWER BRACELETS...wearing several every day and playing with them on my wrist, feeling the coolness & weight of the crystals...I haven't memorized the different color meanings but all are positive - clarity, calm, wisdom, protection, etc. (The red bracelet pictured is a Carnelian Crystal Power Bracelet - it represents new life, stimulates change, helps promote sociability and warmth to others.)

XANAX...not every night, just some nights...combined with a dense but interesting book about the Human Genome Project - guaranteed sleep.

Gallons of DR PEPPER, secret stash of salty snack mix and oatmeal/chocolate chip COOKIES...I need something chewy & sweet to eat when I take my morning meds...one of the many medicinal uses for cookies.

Having my own PILLOW and PILLOWCASE - 100% cotton sateen - gold color, because I am The Queen.

Multiple trips to TARGET - errands for Uncle Harvey, impulse purchases for me (Mary Jane shoes, more colors of knit shirts).

***


There was a lot going on during this trip...doing what I could to help Uncle Harvey, who recently had a hip replacement, helping my dad with computer stuff, and spending time with my brother's family who were visiting from Michigan. I also got reacquainted with my sister, who has been less involved with family during the past year or so due to personal problems, and I tried to squeeze in a few hours of office work to avoid taking too many vacation days. My boss cautioned me not to be a martyr about working from Tomball, but I told her I wanted to try to work while there, as practice for future trips when my dad or uncle might need me...and I guess, although I didn't say this, to try to get some element of my work persona back if I needed that strength and confidence.

Obviously I was being utilized on a lot of levels, with many roles and many interpersonal situations. Craig was in Tomball for the first 3 days but then had to drive back to Dallas in order to leave for Chicago on business. It was great to have him with me, and of course he enjoys seeing my brother's family and my dad, but while he was there I was (however feebly) functioning as a wife on top of sister, daughter, aunt, niece, patient advocate, errand runner, computer programmer/Internet researcher, and court jester/standup comic/party hostess (trying to get my introverted family to loosen up a bit with each other).

And I'm not sure what my mode was with my 5 stepsisters, who with their 5 husbands and 11 kids (and one kid's brave boyfriend) were all gathered in Tomball for Easter. There were so many people at my stepsister Pam's house that my younger nephew, who doesn't see them often enough to even know who's in whose nuclear family, got overwhelmed and couldn't eat his lunch. My concern for him gave me a focus outside myself in a way that helped me feel, personally, rather social. Although this was the first time in many years that all of us were together at once, we forgot to take group photos. Maybe on my part that was a Freudian slip...I'm not sure what I would want to do with such a photo if I had it.

Uncle Harvey's situation is complicated because he has had several setbacks in the hospital and we're not sure when he will be released or what level of care he will need. What he wants is to go back to his own house, where he imagines he will have his privacy and independence, but no one but Harvey is convinced that's a realistic option. With no kids or wife to boss him around there is no clear Leader in his family - there are relatives and long-time friends who care a lot about Harvey but aren't available to be with him every day...and Harvey doesn't consider that any of us have any authority over him. Harvey's career and personality are that of a highly creative, affable but very independent person. Not to say that physical problems are easy for anyone to handle, but I think the institutional atmosphere of a hospital grates more on solitary-living Harvey than it would on other types of personalities. During the past weeks I have had many conversations with Harvey's part-time secretary and long-time friend (who lives in New York but makes regular work trips to Tomball, and who bears the brunt of most everything to do with Harvey), trying to help with ideas and general moral support.

I told my friend Susan, who has been making frequent out-of-state visits to her ailing father, that I felt like Super Woman while in Tomball but crashed - felt totally drained and disoriented - as soon as the trip was over. Somehow the sense of calm, positivity, and cheery self-talk and affirmations faded away when I got back to my office and my home. (And when I say home here, do I need to qualify, my adult home? Could home also mean Tomball, although I don't identify that way any more...or do I...) Susan offered the mixed metaphor that it felt to her, while helping her dad, that she was bushwhacking through thick brush and had no way to get clear while "on site." She could only see the whole picture and a possible path when she got away, but while away she had only phone access to her dad, other family, and medical professionals so felt less effective than when in-person. I tried (tried) to have realistic expectations of myself while I was in Tomball, but in net I didn't accomplish much for Uncle Harvey...and I didn't feel I spent enough time with my dad, or with my brother's family.

On top of every other type of angst, in the past year I have gotten to a psychological place where I'm a bit more in tune with my feelings of loss and love toward my deceased mother and oldest brother. I missed them while in Tomball last week...they were a huge part (and some of the best parts) of my childhood Tomball, and I really wish they could still be part of my Tomball experience.

God forbid I ever take anything at face value, even/especially, something pleasurable, and I wonder if my recent escalated purchases of soft cotton clothing and kid-type shoes (Mary Janes, colored Converses) are not just a middle-age giving in to sloppiness...but maybe the choices also represent a longing for childhood? But if I'm going to stretch the idea that far, I would also have to think that Craig's recent purchase of an old-style coffee percolator was part of a craving for his childhood summers spent with Grandma. I ran the Grandma theory by Craig, and his reaction was, huh?, he just thought the percolator would make better coffee. I said, no, all the recent styles of coffee makers, the ones that drip instead of percolate, were invented to make better coffee...but that was just my guess, I don't even drink coffee myself. I could do Internet research on this but I kind of like having the question open...maybe modern coffee makers were invented for speed and convenience, and the Grandma way was best for coffee after all. Craig likes how the percolator sounds and looks, and he likes the way its coffee tastes - he's happy with the percolator. (Yet another example of why my subconscious sought out Craig...he's such a great balance for my eternally questioning nature.)

(SEE 3/31 TOMBALL POSTING FOR PHOTOS)