Saturday, December 31, 2011

Let's Go Skating

The madness that surrounds the month of  December definitely took a toll on the blog.  Now that old man winter lurks in the corner and January approaches, I'm reminded of one of my favorite things about growing up in northern Iowa ... ice skating.  Of course, back in the 50's, we were not surrounded by umpteen electrical devices to play with as the kids are nowadays.  We had to use our imagination and find something to do.  In my case, if you hung around the house too long, Mom would find a chore or two so I tended to drift out the back door.

There was an empty lot between our house and the neighbor.  It had a low spot that would tend to fill up with melted snow, which would then freeze into a pond.  Just the right place for a young girl to practice ice skating.  We had an old pair of hockey skates hanging in the cellar and I would put on about 3 pair of socks and stuff the toes with newspaper to make them fit.  I spent hours clunking around that small patch of ice while teaching myself how to skate.  Now that I think back on it, I'm sure my trials on the ice provided the neighbors with several hours of entertainment!

One wonderful Christmas, there was a pair of beautiful, white figure skates under the tree.  Lordy, it was fun to actually have a pair of skates that fit.  It's amazing how much easier it is to function on the ice when the skates actually lace up nice and tight.

My hometown of Rockford, Iowa was nestled between two rivers.  Lime Creek (aka Winnebago) was just two blocks down the road, but it never froze smooth.  All of my friends would trudge to town and skate beneath the bridge on the Shell Rock River just north of the dam in the area of the old mill pond.  The water was very deep and still in that area and most winters it froze perfectly smooth.

The father of one of my old school friends owned a service station and he had an old willys jeep.  Every winter he would plow the snow off the river and make a nice rink for us.  Then he would plow a long, curved path so we could play "crack the whip".  You never know real terror unless you've been at the end of the "whip" and went sailing off onto uncharted ice.  Yeeowee...

We always knew we were safe if we stayed on the path Clarence had plowed.  If the ice had held for Clarence and his jeep, we knew it was froze solid and deep.  If you ventured out of bounds, you might hear that terrifying  c-r-a-c-k ...  After a while you learned the different sounds of ice when it was just making a cracking sound because it was so cold ... or the other scary sound when it was weak and giving way.

 The street lights on the bridge above the rink area provided just enough light for us to see in the evenings.  Someone also provided an old oil drum and if we were really lucky, one of the big boys would bring along an old tire to burn to help keep us warm.

Now that I look back on those days, I'm amazed at the hours we spent outside in those cold, northern Iowa winters.  We were not blessed with warm down-filled coats, stocking caps and warm gloves like you see on kids today.  Our coats were usually wool (no warm sweatshirts or fleece underneath) and we wore those butt-ugly wool headscarves. Of course, once your wool mittens became soggy, they were useless.  If you were smart, before you took off your skates, you would warm your boots over the fire before putting them on. I seem to remember someone dropping a boot into the fire by accident. Can't remember how they got home because everybody walked to the river.  No such thing as a parent dropping you off in those days.  If you wanted to go somewhere, you had two feet.

Then, after a long evening of skating, when you were frozen through to the bone, you would tie your skates together and throw them over your shoulder for the eight-block walk home ... usually into a northwest wind.  Thankfully, there was a public toilet in the old library building that was half way home and you could warm up a bit.

So I'm wondering .... when did I become such a whimp?

Thursday, December 1, 2011


I was blessed to have been raised with a big sister. Eileen was almost 4 years older and smoothed my path through childhood in many ways.  Was it all smooth sailing?  If she were here, she would fall on the floor laughing over that remark.  We fought like cats and dogs ... over everything.  There were just the two of us.  We had no other siblings to help smooth things over.

                             Sisters - 1943

We shared a bedroom for 14 years.  Tough!!  We would draw an imaginary line down the center of the room and threaten death if either of us crossed the line. During the evening chore of dinner dishes, we fought and argued to such a degree that Mom finally decided the only way to have peace was to split the chore ... Eileen did dishes one night and I did them the next.  This actually worked out pretty well for me.  Once Sis got old enough to date, she would beg me to switch nights with her.  I would usually get a 2-for-1 deal. (Younger sisters have to survive somehow.)

Nobody wants a whiny, tag-along little sister.  Things got mighty mean at times.  I remember a grape jelly sandwich in my face. Of course, after she did that dastardly deed, we fell on the floor in laughter.  Then there was the incident with vanilla flavoring.  Have you ever smelled that little brown bottle of  flavoring?  Yummy...  She was baking and enticed me to smell it and taste it.  She said, "it tastes just as good as it smells."  Now, I'm about 7 years old and been fooled by this sister way too many times, so I insisted that she taste it first.  She tipped that little brown bottle up to her mouth and made me believe it was dee-licious.  Well, get out of my way ... I take a large gulp.  I leave you to your imagination as to what ensued.  Many years later, she confessed that it took every bit of her willpower to keep a straight face and convince me to do the taste test.

Through all the growing pains we shared, she was a wonderful, caring sister. At the end of the day, when two little girls crawled into that old iron bed together, she always held my hand until we fell asleep.  She walked me to school and directly to my classroom on my first day of kindergarten, trying to soothe my fears.  If spooky noises were heard in the dark, she was always at my side to keep the Boogyman away...although sometimes those noises were caused by the big sister trying to scare the bejeezus out of me.

Birthdays were not a big deal in our house as we were growing up.  There were no presents or special events planned.  But, I remember Eileen baking a birthday cake for me the year I turned ten years old.  It was my first ever birthday cake.

One of our favorite games during the long northern Iowa winter months was playing "stagecoach".  We would gather all our dolls onto the bed.  Then we would attach leather belts to the end of the old iron bed frame and pretend they were reins.  We would grab the reins and get to bouncing that old bed back and forth pretending we were riding in a stagecoach and Indians were trying to catch us.  I still don't know how mother put up with all the screaming and laughing as we tried to outrace the natives.

Eileen was the marble champion of the entire neighborhood.  She had a bag of marbles that was the envy of every kid in town.  After a couple of summers, nobody would play with her because she would win all their marbles and walk away. She also could whistle through her teeth.  She spent hours trying to teach me, but I never could master it.  Years later when she became the mother of  five, she would walk to her back door and whistle.  The kids could hear her for blocks around and head home.

We were as different as night and day.  She had dark, wavy hair, brown eyes and would turn brown as a nut in the summer.  Me?  Stick-straight, blonde hair, blue eyes, freckles and I fried in the sun. I enjoyed sports, riding bikes and skating for hours.  She became tired and usually dropped out of our games early.  Later, of course, we came to realize it was her weak heart that caused her to tire so quickly.   Our fashion sense was totally different.  As an adult, I leaned toward jeans and Birkenstocks.  She loved strappy, feminine sandals and dressy pants and blouses.

For many years during our twenties and thirties, we drifted apart.  We lived in different states and were busy raising children.  Oh, we called each other occasionally, sent Christmas and birthday cards, pictures of our growing kids, etc.  Both of us went through the good and bad in life.  We tried to meet at Mom's each summer, but that seldom worked out as family activities prevented our schedules to mesh.

And then, miraculously, our children were grown and we had more free hours in the day.  We started to call once or twice a week and a couple of times grabbed a plane and went to visit.  We developed a deep, caring love for each other.  We laughed and cried over our shared memories of childhood.  It was not unusual for me to pick up the phone and hear, "Sis, do you remember ........"  Then we would take a walk down memory lane together, sometimes for hours.

She celebrated her 60th birthday in 1998 and I flew to San Jose to spend a few days with her.  On a whim, we decided to have our picture taken together.  Little did we know how short our days together would be.

My dear sister died in February 2010 and my world fell apart.  How many times do I reach for the phone to call and share a laugh or a tear?  How many times does some little thing trigger a faint memory and I need to ask her if she remembers?   Nobody knows me like she did.  She was my rock, my Big Sister, my other half.  She was the Keeper of My Memories.

I miss you every day, dear schwester, may you rest in peace.