As a child you witness moments between your parents that you don’t fully understand because the subtleties of the adult relationship are naturally beyond your youthful comprehension at the time. Surprisingly though, in my own innocence, during moments of nuanced flirtation between Mother and Daddy, I saw instances of very personal, private and special moments between them. They could be dancing, or laughing or just talking, but the one I remember the most was the banter back and forth between them when the topic of “the biscuit in a jar” came up.
This usually occurred while we were gathered around our small kitchen table and the skill and talent of Mother’s cooking came into question. It might have been a story about the accidental burning of toast (which was not uncommon in our house), the failure of a meringue, or the toughness of the T-bone steak broiled in the oven. Whatever the prompt, the bantering took on a familiar essence. Sometimes I viewed it as “being too hard on Mother” and at other times, I saw it as flirtatious teasing. “That biscuit is as hard today as it was the day she baked it,” began the familiar quote from our father.
Once we heard that statement, one of us would jump up from our chair and retrieve the old Mason jar from the top shelf of the kitchen cabinet, where that biscuit had resided for as long as I could remember. Dusty, crumbly and hard as a rock, the retriever would shake the jar as a testament to Daddy’s declaration, while the biscuit knocked back and forth against the glass in a contrecoup fashion, further releasing more dusty ingredients of yesteryear. We would laugh, the jar would be returned to the top shelf and our meal would continue. Mother took this teasing in great stride and other than exhibiting one of her famous smirks, she laughed along with all of us.
Regardless of the state of that first biscuit at conception and years later, Mother’s overall skill and success in the kitchen far outweighed that one failure. She was never much for recipes, unless they were written on a scrap piece of paper tucked in a drawer, or from the page of a magazine, torn out and tucked in perhaps a different drawer. I also don’t recall the existence of a cookbook in her kitchen. Overall her culinary attempts were more extemporaneous and experimental, rather than precise and calculated.
Nevertheless, her methods were effective, as through watchful eyes and repeated attempts, I learned how to make a cheese sauce, a cream pie, deviled eggs and many other tried and true dishes. No written recipe required.
Unfortunately, her famous recipe for cranberry relish escaped us all. Perhaps it was because she made it up, or it was so simple that she didn’t need to write down the ingredients or directions. Or its makeup changed from year to year. We will never know. You see, it was Thanksgiving when she left us, and her cranberry relish went with her.
It was not unexpected. We just did not expect it to happen on Thanksgiving. That should not be the day you say goodbye to your mother. It is a day of thanks when you gather around family and friends, and you give thanks for all that you have, and you eat turkey and dressing and pumpkin pie and cranberries, and sometimes bring out that old biscuit in a jar.
For the four Strange kids, our Thanksgiving feast evolved from the canned cranberry sauce of old to a deliciously crunchy relish made fresh from cranberries. Nuts, oranges, sugar and other ingredients blended together to serve as an all-important accoutrement to the holiday meal. It became her signature Thanksgiving dish and it was unequivocally the best cranberry relish ever. But, on that Thanksgiving day in 1990, there was no cranberry relish and we suddenly realized the importance of cranberries in our lives.
Each year, since that day we have been searching for second best. Sissy and I discuss our holiday menus for the day for our respective families in our respective cities, and we share the latest and greatest-so we hope-cranberry relish recipes we have found in this season’s Bon Appetit or on the Food Network-often asking the question “Did Mother put xxxx in her cranberry relish?”
At times, we go outside the bounds of a traditional relish and follow recipes with untraditional ingredients such as jalapenos or radishes-BTW don’t try radishes-they just don’t work. Or for me, I just try to make up my own recipe throwing in “a little bit of this and little bit of that” using Mother’s famous method of creative cooking. Sometimes the results are edible, and other times not. It’s definitely a crap shoot.
What I have learned in my quest, is that Mother definitely used cranberries, and there were nuts in that relish, and perhaps some kind of Jell-O. Which flavor? Only Mother knows. Beyond those ingredients, it is pure guesswork.
As you prepare for Thanksgiving this year, remember to tell your family and friends that you love them. Be thankful for all that you have, and be kind and generous to those with whom we share this earth and this life.
And, if you have any great recipes for cranberry relish, please send them my way. I am still on that quest and searching for the second best cranberry relish ever made. Maybe this year I will get it right!
In loving memory of Jean Quirey Strange
April 29, 1925-November 22, 1990
It is on this late Sunday afternoon in June, Father’s Day and the last day of the U.S. Open golf tournament at Shinnecock Hills in New York, that I am reminded of how much my father loved the game of golf. It was not unusual to find him in the backyard hitting practice balls, made of plastic, hitting ball, after ball, after ball. He used real balls at times, but after he accidentally hit me in the calf with a line drive, he switched to plastic balls which rather floated in the air and never went very far or with much force.
I don’t remember exactly when Daddy started to play golf, but his first set of clubs was a hand-me-down set from an acquaintance. His love for golf exploded and after that, anything related to golf was a great gift choice for Father’s Day. He never had the luxury of belonging to a private club where caddies were hired to carry bags, or battery-operated carts were used to take the players around the golf course. His children, my siblings, were his caddies-from oldest to youngest. At one time or another all of us had the pleasure or charge of carrying his bag, walking alongside of him at almost every public golf course in town. No carts, no hired caddies. Just his kids and his golf buddies.
We knew all his golf buddies and were entertained by stories about their rounds. One was a terrible cheat, according to Daddy. Another was a terrible golfer and always asked for a Mulligan. The ones that were better than him, were respected. He tried to teach Mother how to play but that didn’t work out too well. She wasn’t very good at the game and preferred to be playing bridge while he played golf.
I was probably 9 or 10 the first time I went with him to the golf course. I didn’t really have to “carry” his bag as he used one of the hand carts for his clubs, but I got to pull out the club he asked for, or hand him a ball, or replace a tee that had been destroyed by the previous shot. When we were out in the middle of the golf course, away from curious eyes, he would throw out a spare ball and let me hit it, providing instruction and guidance along the way. He taught me how to hold a club. He taught me how to putt. He taught me how to clean my balls packed with mud and dirt, and he taught me how to play fair and square.
Years later, my father suffered a devastating stroke and never played another round of golf again. It was around the time that Curtis Strange-not a relative-earned his back-to-back win at the U.S. Open. Even though Daddy never played another round of golf, he never quit trying to hit golf balls in the backyard. He certainly couldn’t hit the ball as far, but he did a pretty good job of it in spite of his disability, holding the club in his left hand.
Today, Sissy and I play golf at a par 3 course close to her home in southwest Florida. She uses a hodge-podge set of clubs that she bought at a pawn shop several years ago. I have a real set of clubs, golf shoes and a golf glove. We don’t actually play a full round of golf, nor totally adhere to the real rules of golf. We play best ball and end up not counting beyond 10 if things get really bad. The course has multiple water hazards and we joke about how many balls we lose in those man-made ponds. Sissy usually drinks bourbon, while I’ll have a vodka or a beer. We try to make friends with every other golfer on the course that day, joking about our golf game. Most of them want to join in our reverie.
When I tell people that I love to watch golf on a late Sunday afternoon the response I most often get is “Golf is so boring on TV.” I couldn’t disagree more with that sentiment. To me, it is calm and relaxing and allows a wind-down from the weekend’s activities. It reminds that there are gentlemen in this world who are honorable and kind, and win their reputations through hard work and perseverance.
It has been thirteen years since I lost my father and on every Father’s Day I try to find some way to honor him. Today I went to a driving range, at a public golf course, and hit a bucket of balls. I put on my golf glove, intertwined my fingers exactly the way he taught me, and kept my eye on the ball as I followed the motion of my swing in my shadow.
My golf game? I can hit a nice 8 iron and putt fairly well. A hybrid is my favorite club, and I am still working on perfecting my drive with my Big Bertha.
After the bucket was empty, I went home, and watched the last round of this year’s U.S. Open.
Congratulations Brooks Koepka and “Happy Father’s Day” to fathers everywhere. Take your kids with you to the golf course, if you can. It will place you in the category as one of golf’s greats.
To the greatest golfer I knew-Allen Reid Strange
The traditions of Valentine’s Day have long been ingrained in my heart and life and have always included a box of chocolates. As a child, Daddy never failed to buy the ubiquitous heart-shaped box of Russell Stover’s chocolates for Mother on Valentine’s Day. The bow on the box may have changed through the years, sometimes adorned with plastic or paper flowers, but the red, satin-covered, heart-shaped box remained the same. Upon delivery of the box, usually at the end of the day when Daddy walked through the door with sweets in hand, we always knew that we would also share in the treats and a hug. We, of course received our own Valentine treats in the shape of multiple-colored candy hearts which touted the typical Valentine phrases of “Be mine” or “I love you.” But as you might expect, as children, we were definitely more interested in sampling the various shaped chocolates from the red box.
Each year, one simple rule was in play even though we knew exactly what we weren’t supposed to do. “No squeezing the candy to see which filling was contained within and then putting it squeezed-side down back in the box.” Who could blame us for trying? Caramel was everyone’s favorite and if you picked a candy with mocha or strawberry nougat, you were stuck with it; you either ate it or gave it to someone else. With this rule in place, it didn’t us take long to decipher that the candies covered in pink or white were definitely not caramel, and the ones wrapped in foil were more than likely filled with a nut or some sort crème.
Mother was always the first to select, and by her side, smaller sets of hands pointed to the ones we thought were caramel-filled. “Pick that one, it’s a caramel,” was the Valentine cry, even though that declaration may not have always been the most honest-thwarting discovery of a caramel was often the intent of the proffered advice. If you happened to pick a candy that you didn’t like, there was always someone who would jump in and claim the prize and double the pleasure.
Regardless of the filling, one by one the brown paper wrappers were left absent of candy until eventually the containers were empty and the heart-shaped box, discarded.
The tradition of the red, hearted-shaped box of chocolates continued for years, and it wasn’t long before we learned that the caramels were always square or rectangular in shape, the nut fillings were oval or wrapped in foil, and the crème fillings were always round. The mystery of which filling was in which candy became less and less of a mystery and more of an exact science after years of practice and inaccurate selections.
To my surprise, somewhere along the line, my son continued the tradition we had shared with our parents, and I started to find my own box of Russell Stover’s Valentine chocolates on the kitchen table, on my dresser, or in the mailbox when distance between us prevented a personal delivery. It didn’t matter that it probably cost more to mail that box of chocolates than it cost to purchase the box. Like my father, my son has seen to it that a box of chocolates is always present on Valentine’s Day.
Forrest Gump was right. With a box of chocolates you never know what you are going to get. Except for the Strange kids-we knew exactly what was hidden in those chocolates. To this day, square is for caramel, oval is for nut, round is for crème and Valentine’s Day is for love. Celebrate with someone special. I’m off to check my mailbox.
The definition of a “bad hair day in the fifties was very different from today’s version. We didn’t have hair salons that offered every possible adventure in hair coloring and styling, which today’s salons offer and charge large amounts of money for sheen and fluff. In the fifties, hair was cut, curled, washed and dried at home and Mother was the resident hair stylist. She had no training, of course, but no one seemed to care. If bangs needed to be cut or hair trimmed, she brought out her trusty scissors-that is, if she could find them-and did the deed.
She was my mother and I loved her of course, but she wasn’t very good at cutting bangs. In fact, she was “downright awful.” All I have to do is look at all my pictures to verify that fact. The pixie cut was all the rage back then (apparently) because in most of my early photos I sport a very short haircut, with even shorter, and more often than not, crooked, jagged bangs—Mother’s signature. Jagged, crooked, uneven, botched-whatever they were-they were definitely not straight. She either had an early case of palsy or she just didn’t know how to cut a straight line. The basic problem was that once she cut them, she couldn’t take back the deed. Sissy and I were stuck with crooked, too short, uneven, awful bangs-for at least the next eight weeks.
I managed to live with the crooked bangs, but the worst of the bad hair days arrived when Mother grew tired of the pixie cut and decided to perm my hair. Sissy was lucky because her hair was naturally curly. Remember, she was the redhead. Me? Fine, brown hair which was straight as an arrow. For whatever reason, Mother decided to experiment with a Toni. That’s what we said back then. “I’m getting a Toni.” The home perm—the calamitous, horribly frightening home perm, the thought of which still gives me shivers to this day.
The infamous Toni Permanent Kit. The square cardboard box was fuchsia and black, and contained all the necessary ingredients to permanently ruin my hair. First there was the wave Lotion, pink plastic curlers (to match the fuchsia of the box), and papers (which resembled the same type of paper used to roll cigarettes or other smoking materials), and step by step instructions.
Simple enough, right?
Simple, yet probably carcinogenic, based on the overwhelming caustic smell of the chemicals.
The last time Mother gave me a Toni was right before my third grade annual school picture. Each year, the school sent a notice home announcing the date the photographer was scheduled, and Mother always made certain we were dressed in our best clothes, with hair combed, and faces absent of food or toothpaste. That particular year, Mother decided to give me a perm. I may have actually asked for one but who remembers the details. Unfortunately for me, the perm did not go so well. Totally frizzed out and sticking straight up in all directions from my scalp, my hair was fried. Not only did I have thick, unattractive glasses, I had to wear to see one inch in front of me, I now had the worst hairdo at Hebron School. Unruly and horribly frizzy, Mother ended up pulling my hair back from my face using a tortoise shell plastic headband. Now I looked like an alien who couldn’t see. The photographic results were a disaster. .
When the proofs came back, I didn’t want any of them, but my parents bought the package as usual. The one 8 x 10 (to display at home), two 5x7s (to send to the grandparents), and multiple wallet-sized photos (to exchange with classmates). I refused to exchange any pictures with my friends and kept the unwanted photos in my desk.
Mother eventually quit cutting my bangs and perming my hair, and let me grow out my hair into a long ponytail. We began visiting her friend Florence who had a beauty shop set up in her basement, and the days of the frizz were over.
Back in the eighties, I decided to get a perm for some reason. Curly hair must have been back in style. The results were not much different than back in the fifties—my hair was horribly fried and totally unattractive. It took months to slowly and methodically erase the effects of that perm, and no wave lotion has touched my hair since.
I still prefer my pixie cut and have come to terms with the fact that my hair is fine and straight and yes, still brown through the magic of other chemicals saturating my head and scalp. Sissy still has that beautiful curly hair and the Toni Company has gone out of business. The rumor is that the chemicals in Toni’s wave lotion damaged the hair.
Thanks for that update, Sherlock.
Cheesecake in the Strange house was made with Milnot®. “What?” you say. Where was the New York style, the white, chocolate cheesecake, the Amaretto cheesecake topped with almonds? Where was the calorie-laden cheesecake of today’s obese America? The answer quite simply is-that variety of cheesecake was absent, unknown, never heard of before in the Strange family. All we knew growing up was that cheesecake was made with Milnot® and lemon Jell-O®. Didn’t everyone eat that brand of cheesecake?
Mother’s cheesecake was simple and allowed our less than agile hands to occasionally help her whip up the cool, delicious dessert. For those of you who are not aficionados of canned milk, Milnot® was a brand name for a canned evaporated milk product. It was very inexpensive and was a constant staple in our kitchen.
Of course, Mother also used the proverbial Philadelphia Cream Cheese for our simple cheesecake. Once the cream cheese softened at room temperature, she folded the whipped evaporated milk into the prepared Jell-O ® and stirred all the ingredients into a buttery, yellow liquid. While she whipped and stirred, Sissy and I crushed the graham crackers with a rolling pin and added melted butter to the crumbs. We took turns gingerly patting the crumbled crust into the bottom and sides of the rectangular pan as the crumbs started to congeal with the hardening of the melted butter. Mother then poured the liquid mixture into the pan and we sprinkled the remaining crumbs over the top of the blended ingredients. It would take several hours for the mixture to set in the refrigerator, and we eagerly awaited Mother’s announcement that cheesecake was ready. Sometimes before dinner, Mother allowed us to take a spoon and take one bite out of the corner of the pan to satisfy our cravings. At dinner, no one mentioned that one of the corners of the pan was missing its filling.
When it was time for dessert, Mother cut the final product into squares, which jiggled slightly as she placed the dessert on the plate, and it was passed to our waiting hands and watering mouths. The deliciousness of that cool, light sweetness. Ah, the memory is so sublime!
As an adult, I was eventually introduced to the classic rich taste of the New York style cheesecake, but I still occasionally ventured into the past and made Mother’s version. Many years ago, I prepared this cheesecake for dinner guests and when served, I was quite impolitely informed by one of my guests that the dessert was not real cheesecake, to which I responded “Really?” I was not only surprised at the arrogance of my guest, but I thought to myself that Mother’s version of cheesecake was certainly real to the Strange kids. We loved our Milnot® cheesecake and often begged for more than one helping, not realizing that it wasn’t real by other people’s standards.
Recently, I whipped up three packages of cream cheese to make a real (very calorie-laden) cheesecake remembering the light, lemon-chiffon taste of Mother’s recipe. I didn’t imagine that Milnot® was still available in the grocery stores of today, so I executed an online search to discover whether Milnot® had met its demise or was still in existence.
Surprisingly, I found that Milnot® was in fact “alive and well”, albeit the company is now owned by Smuckers, and still available for purchase at grocery stores or through Smucker’s Website at https://onlinestore.smucker.com/. In addition, through www.cooks.com, the recipe has been preserved in perpetuity.
Once I knew of its continued existence, I decided to go in search of this treasure at my local Kroger and celebrate the simplicity of that favorite childhood dessert. As I set out on my quest, with spirits high, my mouth watered and I thought about Mother standing in the kitchen, carefully explaining the less than complicated steps to creating our perhaps not-so-real cheesecake, and I was thankful. In that moment, I was thankful for her love and for the fact that she gave me the opportunity to revisit my childhood with smile on my face, a yearning in my stomach and a place in my heart to keep the memory alive. This Jell-O-Milnot version of cheesecake may not have been real to my long ago guest, but it was very real to me. Hey Sissy-the next time we are together, do you want to go get some Milnot®? I have a yearning to crush some graham crackers and whip up a cheesecake.
Milnot® Cheesecake (www.cooks.com)
1 (3 oz.) pkg. lemon Jello®
1 c. boiling water
1 (8 oz.) pkg. cream cheese
1 tsp. vanilla
1 (13 oz.) can of Milnot®
3 c. graham cracker crumbs
1/2 c. butter, melted
Dissolve gelatin in boiling water. Chill until slightly thickened. Cream together cheese, sugar and vanilla; add gelatin and blend well. Fold in stiffly whipped Milnot®.
Mix graham cracker crumbs and melted butter. Pack 2/3 of mixture on bottom and sides of 9 x 13 x 2 inch pan or larger. Add filling and sprinkle with remaining crumbs. Chill overnight. Can top with fruit.
With the heat and humidity of summer came boredom at the midpoint of our vacation from school. I am certain Mother’s nerves were frayed and our constant pleas to be entertained weakened her parental shield of patience. Accustomed to the daily schedule school offered, boredom and time on our hands caused sibling squabbles, mischievous adventures and lazy afternoons spent whining and complaining. Our favorite refuge from inactivity and unrest was the summer recreational program sponsored by the local school district. The morning or afternoon sessions allowed us and all the neighborhood kids to escape our mothers for several hours a day, for which I am certain they were grateful.
In preparation for the trip to school, we carefully tucked our allotted coins in a vinyl, oval shaped coin purse (slit down the middle for entry by the coin) and headed for the dusty, exciting adventures that awaited us on the playground of Hebron school. Either walking or riding our bikes, we only traveled a half-mile to reach the school and no one thought twice about our going alone on the half-mile journey. In the late fifties, everyone considered walking to school to be safe and routine. During the school year, the route was a straight shot down Congress Avenue with patrol boys and the school guard waiting to guide us safely across Lincoln Avenue each morning. All along the route, parents escorted their children out the door, mentally noting and checking on all the other children who passed by each morning. In the summer, there was no school guard but our favorite teacher, Miss Whitman, waited for us and the other kids to arrive for the daily arts and crafts, games and treats.
Tall and commanding, merely because of her height and not her demeanor, Miss Whitman, uncharacteristically wore shorts or pedal pushers (aka Capri pants), a whistle around her neck, and her ubiquitous glasses during these summer sessions. She skillfully managed all the kids who arrived and split her time between refereeing the ad hoc softball game, watching us travel up and down on the teeter-totter or teaching arts and crafts. Occasionally other teachers helped, but many days she managed the crowd of kids by herself.
When we arrived at the school, we selected our activities for the day based on how much money Mother had given us. Some days we just played games because we had very little to spend, and saved our small allotment for a bottled soft drink or an ice cold Popsicle to help stave off the heat and sweat of the day.
Outdoors, we played baseball, marbles and jacks. We jumped rope or swung on the swings, jumping off when we reached the apex of the rotation, seeing who could land the farthest away. Tag and kickball or just sliding down the slides, we exhausted the options available to us as well as exhausted our small, toned and fit bodies.
When the heat became unbearable, we retreated indoors to the classroom that was converted into the arts and craft room for the summer. Indoors, we made cloth potholders on a loom or plastic braided key chains, carefully weaving the materials under her guidance and instruction. We played with clay, sculpting shapes, tiny replicas of animals and small fortresses to prepare for battle. Imagination and creativity personified. Small hands remained busy under the guise of a caring teacher.
I don’t know how many potholders Sissy and I weaved during those summer tromps up to school, but Mother and Daddy used them religiously in the kitchen, never complaining about the fact that they weren’t very good at protecting their hands against the heat of an iron skillet. The woven loops of cloth caught on fire if placed too close to the oven’s heating elements, and being made of 100% cotton and not flame retardant fabric, this happened frequently. Neither parent complained. The plastic braided key chains probably ended up in a drawer somewhere, forgotten and eventually discarded. We didn’t carry keys and the braided chains were either too long or too short to be functional. Colorful, but not very functional
After several hours of play, Sissy and I depleted, sweaty and dusty headed home. Mother greeted us at the door, asked about our day and graciously accepted our gifts. We never knew how she entertained herself in those few hours without us, but my guess is, she enjoyed the brief respite away from her girls with her nose in a book; traveling to her own adventures from the boredom of summer. I wonder if children today still make potholders for their mothers. I think I will check Amazon and see what I can find.
The iconic drive-in theatre of the fifties has largely disappeared from the landscape of America, replaced by mega theatres, surround sound, gourmet meals and alcoholic beverages. Notwithstanding the relative comfort of today’s movie going experience, nothing can replace the authenticity of the Saturday night drive-in movie. Evansville boasted four drive-in theatres across the city from east to west. While we were fortunate to have two drive-in theatres in close proximity to our house, the premier outdoor theatre was Sunset Drive-in located north on Hwy 141 as one traveled out of town towards Terre Haute. The theatre’s multi-colored neon sign blinked on and off announcing its current showing and enticed passing cars to turn into the driveway, which led to a ticket booth where the price of admission included all the occupants within the car. A bargain at any price considering the cost of entry into any of today’s blockbuster or lackluster movies.
The outdoor theatre was not fancy, but rather simple like the times and the people who climbed into their sedans and station wagons to experience Hollywood at night and out of doors. A neon sign, a ticket booth, a gigantic screen and rows and rows of metal poles holding two speakers each, accommodating between 500 and 700 cars, constituted a drive-in movie. A single story concrete building usually rested in the middle of the parking area, which housed the projection room, the concession stand and the public restrooms.
On a hot, humid Saturday night when families wanted to escape the indoors and enjoy a night under the stars, any of those drive-in theatres held a thousand people in the grip of the action and cinematography on the outdoor screen. The drive-in was one of the largest gathering of parents, children, teenage paramours and groups, listening to the sounds of cinematic dialogue mixed in with the laughter, cries and whispered conversations of Middle West families.
The anticipation of going to the drive-in was unbearable as we waited for the sun to begin its descent behind the horizon. We loaded ourselves into the care with various accoutrements, which included a picnic dinner or just popcorn and Kool-aid. The not so healthy concession stand offered hamburgers, hot dogs, French fries, ice cream and candy of all types for sale, and on occasion our parents gave us money to buy one treat. The animated advertisements for the available snacks and food flashed repeatedly across the screen and succumbing to the constant begging for a greasy hamburger or chemically laden hot dog was probably easier than listening to our incessant and annoying pleas. If allowed, we ceremoniously slathered the delicacy with catsup, mustard, chopped onions and pickle relish from the condiments table, ultimately hiding the taste of the original food. Instead of a hot dog, sometimes we bought cotton candy, ice cream or a NEHI orange to wash down whatever else we ate. Mostly we devoured our own freshly popped and buttered corn, packaged in individual brown paper, lunch-sized bags. We drank Kool-aid poured into paper Dixie cups filled with ice, and our lips and tongues remained stained with the color of whatever flavored Kool-aid Mother prepared.
Even though the movie couldn’t start until the sun had completely set, we didn’t wait until then to leave. We arrived early enough to find just the right spot, not wanting to park too close or too far from the screen. Teenage couples usually grabbed those spots quickly, desiring privacy away from the watchful eyes of parents and the curiosity of small children. Daddy preferred to park somewhere in the middle, not too far from the concession stand but not right next to it either. The frequent trips to the bathroom were difficult to navigate in the dark, but being too close was noisy and distracting. The cone-shaped beam of light from the projector, exiting the building toward the screen, helped provide enough lighting and a point of reference for the parent whose turn it was to make the trip to the restrooms. Even in the fifties, parents did not allow their children to go to the restroom alone. Safety first was a parent’s creed then, as it is now.
As we drove slowly into the large parking lot, the crunching sound of the tires on the gravel intermingled with the sounds of adults and children who had already arrived and had exited to find their spot in front of, on top of, or beside the cars. The cars, one by one, lined up between the metal poles that housed the rectangular speakers, traversing the small mound of gravel, which elevated the car’s front end and allowed for better screen viewing.
Once we arrived, Daddy positioned the car onto the gravel mound, pulled the emergency brake and turned off the car. We had also brought folding lawn chairs and a blanket or two because no one stayed inside the car during the movie. Sitting on the gravel was not only dangerous, but extremely uncomfortable, so as we tumbled out of the car and hurried to the front of the car, Mother spread the blankets on the hood of the car. Daddy lifted us up onto the car’s metal fender and from that position, hoisted us onto the hood. Sitting with our legs stretched out in front of us, we leaned against the windshield, settling in to watch cartoons streaming across the screen. Road Runner, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig-these characters were the pre-show entertainment and not to be missed.
Daddy positioned the speaker on the half-raised car window and turned up the volume. Every car’s speaker projected the sounds, which accompanied the action on the screen, and early surround sound permeated across the humid evening air. If we were lucky, an occasional cool breeze blew through the drive-in and slightly relieved the heat of our sweating backs and necks, which rested against the glass windshield.
We saw Old Yeller, Shane, and Dog of Flanders at the drive-in; three classic movies of the fifties. Fess Parker as Davy Crockett graced the screen in his coonskin cap and buckskin clothes on multiple occasions. Walt Disney entertained us endlessly, and I am certain that Bambi took his lesson from Thumper on the downside of malicious gossip, while I reclined on the hood of Chevy or Ford. Audie Murphy, one of the most decorated soldiers of World War II, starred in his own autobiography, To Hell and Back, with bravery and determination, albeit not very good acting. And, Tinkerbelle. Well, she flew through the Evansville nights on her journey through Neverland and the Magical Castle, to the amazement of a generation of small children with sleepy eyes and popcorn filled-stomachs.
Today, I pay ten dollars to see a movie and more than that to buy popcorn. The special effects are amazing and there are few rules about violence, gore and the privacy of bedrooms. Everyone is immune to the language and little is required of one’s imagination. No theatre allows you to bring in your own popcorn, but I do manage to sneak in Twizzlers now and then. The seats are stadium-grade and talking and texting is verboten. Admonitions of such behavior fill the screen as I settle into my seat and expect to be entertained.
Even so, I often remember those carefree, noise-filled nights at the drive-in with my family. I hear the scratchy sound of the actors’ voices coming through the speakers, the smell of cigarettes in the open air, and the sound of babies crying themselves to sleep while two young parents try to catch a movie without having to pay a babysitter. I hear the crunch of the gravel under the weight of people passing our car on their way to the concession and the hushed whispers of parents talking to their children trying not to disturb the other movie patrons. And, if I close my eyes and concentrate on nothing more than the past, I can still see Alan Ladd riding off into the sunset on the Wyoming range, leaving Brandon De Wilde, as he must, with that long remembered pleading voice echoing in my head. “Shane! Shane! Come back Shane!”
As an honor student, I never received anything other than an “A” in spelling. Spelling was an actual school subject in the fifties and sixties. How well a person spelled, made a difference to people, to parents and to the world. It mattered to me as well, so each night I studied the pamphlet asking Mother or Daddy, or Sissy, or anyone who could read, to quiz me on the list of provided words. I memorized each and every word in that book. There were no requirements, or need, to learn the derivation or origin of the word in that era. Straight memorization was the key, and I was very good at that.
I am certain my family tired of my incessant desire to practice my spelling, but there was a carrot I was reaching towards, and I believe I wanted that carrot more than I wanted to be the National Spelling Bee Champion. Since I was six years old, I had to wear glasses. “Blind as a Bat” was the diagnosis at the beginning of second grade when I couldn’t see the blackboard sitting in the back of the room. Apparently, this honor student and overachiever didn’t perform too well in the back row. And, If it had not been for Mrs. Goerlitz, my second grade teacher, I might still be “Blind as a Bat,” never having finished grade school. So after that particular parent-teacher conference, I was off to the optometrist and my life changed forever.
Not only was it difficult dealing with the last name of Strange, (Yes, I heard all those tired old jokes about “That’s a strange name.”) but I also had to deal with insults about wearing glasses. The most frequent jabs came from the other children and included unkind descriptions like “Coke bottles” or “Four eyes” and even “Mister Magoo.” So after years of that particular brand of verbal abuse, popularly referred today as bullying, I set out to win the National Spelling Bee Championship, and I made a deal with Mother. “If I win the Plaza Park Spelling Bee Championship, can I get contact lenses?”
I don’t remember how long it took her to respond, but I clearly remember the answer-“Yes, if you win the Plaza Park Spelling Bee, you can get contacts.”
‘Watch out my fellow students,’ I was going to win that contest and get my contacts never to be referred to as “Four eyes” again.
After weeks and weeks of practice, and a razor sharp focus on the prize-I was ready. The students who competed in the school contest had to win the homeroom contest first. That was a snap. I sailed through the proffered words, winning easily. Despite the venue, I looked forward to the school-wide competition. This contest was held in front of the entire school, in the gymnasium, in front of a microphone. It was a game changer, but I was ready for the challenge.
I carefully reviewed my competition. Ann Carpenter was at the top of the list. Smart, cute, no glasses, daughter of a minister-I was certain she was the sentimental favorite and held the audience’s favor. But, “Four eyes” was prepared and ready to take the stage; I wasn’t the least bit intimidated by cute, smart or religious favor.
One by one, each student, walked towards the microphone and waited for the word. And, one by one, the student was eliminated. At the end of the contest, as I predicted earlier, there were only two of us left standing on the gymnasium floor-Ann Carpenter and me. Two, twelve-year old girls who had known each other since second grade. Two girls who had played together, studied together, and probably fought together. Guilt set in and thoughts of uncertainty enveloped my word-riddled brain. Ann was probably smarter than me, I thought. ‘Her father was a good man-not that mine wasn’t-but he was a minister, by God! I barely went to Sunday School. I was already a cheerleader. Did I really need to be the Plaza Park Spelling Bee Champion, too?’
‘Maybe Ann deserved it more. There was always next year.’ My ruminations continued as I watched Ann walk toward the microphone. The judge spoke, Ann paused, and slowly recited the letters. I-N-C-O-R-R-E-C-T-L-Y. She spelled her last word incorrectly, and in a split second, I knew that all I had to do was step up to that microphone and spell that word exactly as I had done dozens of times before to Mother, to Daddy, to Sissy or to anyone who would listen.
The bell rang immediately upon Ann’s recitation of the incorrect spelling, and the back of her shoulders slumped slightly with the realization that her journey was over.
I took a deep breath. I walked to the microphone and waited for the judge to present this same word to me. I closed my eyes, envisioned the word in my mind, took another deep breath, repeated the word, paused slightly and spelled it slowly and correctly, knowing that I had just become Plaza Park’s Spelling Bee Champion. I heard the roar and applause of the crowd and turned around to meet the gracious congratulations of Ann Carpenter, my worthiest of opponents.
The principal of the school walked over, shook my hand and bent down to congratulate me. I drew close to his ear amidst the cacophonous sounds of the crowd and asked, “Can I call my Mother?”
As the crowd dispersed and the students made their way back to their classrooms, I followed the principal to his office. He closed the door and gestured toward the phone. I picked up the black handle of the phone from its cradle and nervously dialed my number.
“Hello,” the familiar voiced answered.
“Mommy,” I nervously responded using the endearment I had abandoned in seventh grade, “I just won the Spelling Bee Championship. Can you make an appointment for me so I can get my contacts?” I asked tremulously, as tears rolled down my cheeks.
“Yes,” was the simple answer. My carrot delivered.
I made it to the Vanderburgh County Spelling Bee Championship, but in the second round, I carelessly misspelled the word medicine. M-E-D-I-S-I-N-E. Ding! I didn’t even realize that I had misspelled the word until the judge asked me to leave the stage. I was mortified, embarrassed and sorely disappointed. The irony is that I have spent most of my career in healthcare, surrounded by physicians, nurses, therapists and others who take care of the needs of the injured, sick and dying. I do know how to spell the word medicine, and sometimes I even wear my glasses to work instead of my contacts. But, no one calls me “Four eyes” anymore, and most everyone knows I am a pretty, damn good speller.
Congratulations to Arvind Mahankali who won the 2013 Scripps National Spelling Bee Championship with the word knaidel. I really liked your glasses! Your fellow myopic speller, Sassy Strange.
Reading in first grade consisted mainly of simple phrases like “See Dick and Jane” or “Run Spot run” from my first grade primers, read out loud to practice the newly learned words in front of my classmates and Miss Whitman. Long before my entry into school Mother introduced me to the pleasure of reading and the Dewey Decimal Number System. Listening to her voice, I absorbed the transference of the black ink into my imagination and embraced the value and joy of reading at an early age.
Regular trips to the library occurred on alternating Saturday afternoons as Mother and I traveled to downtown Evansville to exchange and select books for the next two weeks. A large stack of ten to twelve books sat between us on the car seat with their plastic sheaths protecting the book covers and the delegated Dewey Decimal numbers marking their spines. We made the thirty minute trip on those alternating Saturdays knowing some of the books were overdue, but Mother responsibly paid her penny a day fine for the mere pleasure of being able to finish a book she had started. She read every day, and most afternoons she curled up on the couch with her nose stuck in a book while we played outside. She preferred reading to the usual afternoon soap operas popular in the day, and as soon as she finished reading one book, she began another. She ceremoniously made her way through the selected stack of borrowed books every week, while I had my own stack to conquer during that two week period. My love of reading took root and I haven’t stopped since.
During one of our trips downtown Mother told me the story of not being allowed to read certain books as a child from her hometown library in Kentucky. The Grande Dame, my grandmother, was very prim and proper, so I can imagine that D. H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” or Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” were on the list of forbidden or scandalous books. Mother’s curiosity apparently got the better of her and she solved this dilemma with creative rebellion. She bragged to this library sidekick that she merely found a book, which was larger in size than the forbidden text, and surreptitiously kept the smaller book hidden inside its spine. She read the books of her choice without fear of being caught or exiled from her beloved library. She touted that she read every book in that small library and I believed her. I was witness to all the books she brought home from that much larger library in Evansville, so the conquering of forbidden books in Kentucky seemed quite likely to have occurred.
Mother particularly enjoyed mysteries and crime novels, so once I was stung by the desire to read as a child, I followed in her footsteps reading the Nancy Drew mysteries series. And like her, I read anything I could get my hands on. Nancy Drew was accompanied by the Hardy Boys, the Bobbsey Twins, Trixie Belden and many others. The characters described on the pages of the children’s novels became slices of adventure, mystery and friendship in my own world of make-believe and fantasy. As I searched for my own nook or cranny in which to read, I escaped the routine life of the Midwest in the fifties and traveled to adventures yet to be experienced.
The rest of the neighborhood kids played ball, built tree houses, ran through the forbidden cornfields behind our house and searched high and low for just the right branch for a sword or fishing pole. I patiently waited for construction on the tree house to end, and then retreated to the solace of the swaying trees where I separated from the rest of the kids and escaped to my beloved books.
Wrapped up in the lives of my favorite characters, I pretended to track down the thief in Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew series, and ended up reading and owning each of her novellas. I rode horse back with Trixie Belden through her neighborhood adventures, and I helped the Hardy boys capture the criminal. I learned about the special bond that the twins Bert and Nan, and Flossie and Freddie shared, and accompanied them on their exploits. As the years passed, I graduated to more sophisticated and classic reading while the fascination with the written word grew and the adventures it created never left me. The treasured escapades of the characters brought special moments to my childhood, and I continue to honor the value of the written word and the precision with which pen strikes paper creating a new or different reality.
Thank you Mother and Carolyn Keene. You inspired me forward to enjoy authors of all times and most genres. Sorry Stephen King-I don’t read the macabre. I read classics graced by the brilliant words of Jane Austin, Ernest Hemingway, or Edith Wharton. I read contemporary authors such as Thomas Wolfe, John Updike and Margaret Atwood who make me contemplate life differently, and make me wonder at both the genius, complexity and at times, the stupidity of humans. I enjoy the authors who provide insight into both successful and failed relationships, and I never underestimate the role that the much-needed mindless distraction and laughter in print plays in life. We need you Sophie Kinsella, Jennifer Weiner and Janet Evanovich. And where would we be today without the poignancy and humor of Nora Ephron. Her skill and talent at laying out the perfect word at the perfect time was absolute. And Harper Lee, to you, I applaud the eloquence with which you described the lives of the notable characters of the small Alabama town where prejudice and conscience collided in my favorite of books “To Kill a Mockingbird”.
Rediscover the Dewey Decimal Number System or fire up a Kindle. Listen to an audio book filling your mind with visions of action, suspense, love, and the cornucopia of human emotions. Honor ink to paper, keystroke to screen, abbreviations to text, and word to heart in the power of the written word; a story, a tale, a life, a mystery-no two versions exact. Just read.
“I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story.”
– Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome (1911)