On the Street Where I Lived

A recent visit to my childhood home awakened memories that grow more precious each passing year.A week ago today I visited the home where my family lived from 1961 through 1965. The molding above the front door where my sister and I posed in our Christmas best was still there, more lovely than I remembered.

A recent visit to my childhood home awakened memories that grow more precious each passing year.The corner where a Westmar college student snapped a photo of us in front of the best snowman ever is framed in bushes, but the memory of that day remains.

A recent visit to my childhood home awakened memories that grow more precious each passing year.The side yard where Grandpa supervised my sister, brother and me while we swam in our inflatable pool…

A recent visit to my childhood home awakened memories that grow more precious each passing year.…the same yard where my one and only birthday party was held, looked smaller than I remembered.

A recent visit to my childhood home awakened memories that grow more precious each passing year.The house looked smaller too, much smaller, when we went inside. When my cousins and I were very young, we never noticed how completely we filled the space between the door to the upstairs and the kitchen table. Now in our fifties, my cousin and I both commented on how small that space was. I marveled that Dad had been able to right angle his wheelchair around two corners to get to the bathroom from either the living room or his bedroom.

A recent visit to my childhood home awakened memories that grow more precious each passing year.Scanning the living room, I wondered how we crammed the upright piano, the TV with rabbit ears, the fold out couch, grandma’s walnut desk, and an upholstered chair with a large footstool, and found room for company.

A recent visit to my childhood home awakened memories that grow more precious each passing year.I thanked the present owner for welcoming into her home and allowing me to take pictures to show Mom and my siblings. Leaving with my cousin, I realized that our family of five–and Grandpa Stratton for a few months–filled the house to overflowing and then some.

Ever since, my thoughts have overflowed with memories of the years on the street where I once lived.

  • Dad sailing down the hill by our house in his wheel chair with one of us in his lap.
  • Doing dishes with my little brother in the kitchen…until Uncle Jim came in and said, “John, that’s women’s work,” and Little Brother went on strike.
  • Learning how to make snickerdoodles with Mom.
  • Her pride in the new Singer sewing machine in the dining room corner.

Small memories of a small child over a handful of years. Indescribably precious. Forever held dear. They live inside me and warm my heart.

Ten Lessons Taught by My High School Drama Coach

Drama coachTwo days ago, a dear high school friend sent a Facebook private message. “I ran across this tonight,” the message said.

“This” was an obituary for Roger Hallum, our high school speech and drama coach. According to the obituary Mr. Hallum–who will always be Mr. Hallum and never Roger to me–died on July 1, 2009.

He’s been gone five years and we, the students he touched in profound ways, never knew. We never had a chance to say thank you. We never had a chance to tell him how he shaped and bolstered the confidence of a bunch of squirrely teens as he tapped into our talents.

So five years late, this top ten list says thank you for the lessons he taught so well more than 4 decades ago.

10.  Never judge a book by its cover. None of us believed a dumpy man who wore his sandy hair shaggy and unkempt, whose teeth that never saw braces, and who wore saggy plaid suit jackets and polyester pants could motivate high schoolers to spend months of each year rehearsing and performing in plays and speech contests.

9.  When your director says, “Jump,” you say, “How high?”

8.  Good writing isn’t enough to make a good speech. Neither is good delivery. But good writing + good delivery = magic.

7.  Never, ever start smoking. Because trying to quit is hell and requires copious amounts of Live Savers candies.

6.  Teenagers, given a vision of what they can do if they work far harder than they believe they can and tasked with far more responsibility than school administrators believe is wise, can accomplish tasks beyond what most adults think they can do.

5.  Timing is everything.

4.  An army jeep, a goat, and 30 tie-dyed bedsheets sewn into kimonos, make for an exciting, unexpected, and visually pleasing rendition of Tea House of the August Moon.

3.  Character parts are much more fun to play than romantic leads.

2.  A pregnant pause speaks louder than words.

1. One unassuming person…one dumpy, shaggy-haired man with crooked teeth, saggy plaid suit jackets and polyester trousers…who says “You can do this because you have talent,” can change the course of an insecure teenager’s life.

In memory of Mr. Roger Hallum, Feb. 8, 1939–July 1, 2009. Your former students are still jumping, higher than they ever thought they could.

November=Fabulous Franklin Chex Mix Recipe

Franklin Chex MixNovember means it’s time to repost Mom’s fabulous Chex Mix recipe, in case you need time to gather all the ingredients for the holidays. The original recipe comes from Zoe Hemmingson, one of Mom’s fellow teachers at Franklin School in Le Mars, Iowa.

It’s been a family favorite at Thanksgiving and Christmas since the late 1960s Mom used to make a batch in November and another in December. She’s abandoned the shopping and cooking duties, though she still pays for the ingredients, but sends one her kids to shop. These days she enjoys watching her children or grandchildren do the measuring, mixing, and cooking…and performing her quality control, taste-testing duties. Rock on, Mom!

Franklin Teachers’ Chex Mix

Mix together in a large bowl:
1 box Crispex (17 ounce)
5 cups Cheerios
4 – 5 cups pretzels and mixed nuts (proportion as you like)

Mix together in a small bowl:
1/2 cup melted butter or margarine
1/2 cup melted bacon grease*
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 1/2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

Divide mixed, dry ingredients amongst three or four large cake pans. Pour wet ingredients over cereal mix and stir well. Bake at 200 degrees for 2 hours. Stir and turn off the oven. Leave mix in oven until the oven cools. Cool Chex Mix. Store in airtight containers.

*This secret ingredient is essential for the mix’s unique taste.

It’s All About the Elevator and Bathrooms


This weekend, I made an unexpected quick trip back to Le Mars, Iowa. A cousin emailed to say the church we attended as kids, which she and her family still attend, had completed the major addition and renovation they’d been working on for the past year. Though she wouldn’t mention that she also chaired the building committee that led the project, I’m happy to give her the credit she’s due.

The picture above shows the new addition designed to be handicapped accessible. The new construction sits right over the old entrance, which could be accessed in two ways. One way had 3 steps, if I remember correctly. The other way had about 10. Either way, Mom could only get Dad into church with the help of several strong men. But once they got into church, much of the building (including the bathroom toilet) was inaccessible to him.

My cousin treated me and her children, who were back for the gala weekend, a tour of the church. The renovation work was thoughtfully done. It merged well with the older, existing building and it’s beautiful sanctuary.


But as part of a family for whom attending church was an exercise in wheelchair logistics for Mom and of bathroom logistics for Dad, the new construction and renovation boiled down to two things. It was all about the elevator and the bathrooms. Both of which this renovation tended to with style.



Well done, United Methodist Church of Le Mars. Thank you for breaking down barriers so every special needs family in town can enter your church building with dignity. Now be ready to welcome them with welcoming arms.


Older Than I Feel

The past week has been so hard on my perky, Pollyanna you’re-as-young-as-you-feel attitude, it left me thinking I’m plenty older than I feel.

The onslaught began last week with the birth of our first grandchild. Of course, that was a joyous occasion, and the man of steel and I are thrilled to be grandparents. But here’s what was the problem. When I tell people I’m a first time grandma, no one says, “Congratulations, but you don’t look old enough to be a grandma.” Rest assured, from now on, when people my age enter grandparenthood, those will be the first words out of my mouth.

Even if I have to lie through my teeth.

The next item to chip away at my inner Pollyanna was a picture in business section of the Sunday’s Des Moines Register. The photo was of Mike Wells, the CEO of Wells Blue Bunny Ice Cream, and it accompanied an article about the growth of the company. I read with interest because Wells Blue Bunny is located in my home town of Le Mars, Iowa. And I felt vaguely superior to the fit, grey-haired, and slightly balding CEO in the photo. Until I read the caption which said he was 53. So he was a measly high school freshman during my senior year at our mutual alma mater.

O-L-D neon lights started flashing in my brain.

The next blow was a Monday story on NPR about when senior drivers should give up their car keys. One expert advised adult children should initiate a conversation about the subject with their parents before those parents are 60 years old. That gives our kids only four years to screw up the courage to tell us we’re getting O-L-D.

No doubt, the person I cut off in traffic the other day agrees with the news story.

The final nail in Pollyanna’s coffin came this morning when the UPS man left a package, and I could not figure out how to open it. It was all rounded corners and tape. After cutting it open with a knife, I realized the box was a fold-over-and-insert-tab marvel of engineering, kind of like the houses we used to punch out of craft books and fold according to the directions to create a little village for paper dolls. Which made me feel even older because no one younger than me can envision those little villages or has any idea of what paper dolls are. Which leads to one final question: What good is it to be older than you feel, if no one notices you’re as young as you feel?

Please leave a comment, but only if it will put the perk back into this Pollyanna!

Coffee Club Update – Recycled

This week’s look back in the archives comes from June of 2009. I wrote it after Mom and I took a quick road trip to the town where she taught school for over 30 years, the town where I grew up. Two years have passed, and I’m even older enough to be a grandma, but our kids have not yet added that role to my job description. Since I still feel too young for the job, I’m really and truly okay with that!

 Coffee Club Update

Mom and I have returned from our travels. In our 36 hours away from home the grass grew exponentially, much to Hiram’s chagrin, and the weeds did, too. Mom went to bed early and slept in late, and this morning she mentioned again how much she enjoyed the trip.

The highlight of the excursion was the impromptu coffee my Aunt Donna (second from the right) hosted. Our former neighbors dropped what they were doing when they heard their former neighbor (third from the right) was in town and stopped in for a lovely chat. Not only was Mom their neighbor, she taught most of their children. She’s now completely up to date on the lives of her former students, their children, and in some cases, their children’s children.

I am still in shock over the update, since many of Mom’s former students are my contemporaries. So how can they be grandparents already? I mean, I understand the mechanics involved. But are these people, my age and younger, old enough to be grandparents of children in high school?

A good look at the women who attended yesterday’s coffee reveals the truth. We’re all old enough to be grandparents, and some are old enough to be great-grandparents. But Mom, bless her heart, did not complain about the dearth of great-grandchildren in her family quiver.

And to make things perfectly clear to my own children, I am not complaining about my empty quiver, either. No need to rush on my account. I’m in for the long haul, ready to wait until you are ready for the joys and responsibilities of parenting.

Until that day comes, I’ll keep pretending I’m not old enough to be a grandparent. Denial is a wonderful thing.

And So Did I

I spent a few days in my home town last week. As is the case whenever I visit, it seemed like nothing had changed – our old house, church, school and neighborhood were comfortingly the same. Then again, everything had changed. I can’t get used to the college being gone or the football stadium sporting red paint instead of black.

One of the best recent changes in Le Mars is a new coffee shop, Habitue. It meets trio of travel requirements: great coffee, relaxing atmosphere, and free Wi-Fi. Friday, I spent a comfortable and delicious morning at Habitue. When I left the shop after a couple hours of productive work, the building across the street caught my eye. In the olden days, it was the Spurgeon’s Department Store. For the past few years, it’s been an antique mall, but these days, the front and side walls are hard-pressed to remain upright.

“What happened?” I asked my cousin.

She explained that Wells Blue Bunny (yes, my home town is also home to Wells Blue Bunny Ice Cream) purchased the building to house an ice cream parlor and museum. “But when they gutted it,” she went on, “the roof and the back walls collapsed. Now they’re in litigation, trying to determine who’s at fault – the engineering firm that said the structure could safely be gutted, or the contractor for doing the work incorrectly.”

For some reason the building, propped up with the help of wooden braces and trees visible through the glassless second story windows made me happy. This evidence of man’s intentions gone wrong comforted me to no end.

See, lately my inadequacies have confronted me daily – even hourly. Book sales are dismal and nothing I do boosts them. That means the parents who need the encouragement the book gives aren’t being encouraged. They are struggling alone, which breaks my heart. I have failed to complete the work God gave me to do.

But the building says that I’m in good company. Wealthy men and women in charge of big companies, with access to large sums of money and the advice of experts fail, too. Their dreams collapse. Their best efforts aren’t good enough. The building, working so hard to stay upright on main street in my home town, reminds everyone who walks by that someone tried. Someone took a risk. Someone tried to effect change.

“And so did I.” I whisper while opening the car door and placing my computer bag on the passenger seat. “So did I.”

Sioux City Sue

When I was a kid in northwest Iowa, Sioux City was big. Really big. Really, really big. It was the center of civilization and all things phantasmagorical, a legendary place we visited a few times a year for gala events such as the Shrine Circus and the debuts of wholesome movie debuts including Jungle Book, The Sound of Music, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, and Mary Poppins.

Every childhood trip to Sioux City commenced with Dad singing his rendition of the old song, Sioux City Sue and the rest of us chiming in. He only knew the first few lines – “Five foot two; eyes of blue; she’s my sweet Sioux City Sue; Has anybody seen my gal?” – so the concert didn’t last long.

Before the last note died away, he launched into his standard commentary about Sioux City being a rough town, like river towns tend to be. “So you kids stay close when we go shopping.” Dad would wink. “Don’t wander off. Got that?”

All those memories came flooding back last weekend when I drove to Sioux City to leave complimentary copies of my book at hospital chaplains’ offices. On the way, I passed the McDonald’s where I tasted my first hamburger. I drove by Stone Park, where we used to picnic with my uncle and aunt’s family.

To be honest, the town seemed a whole lot smaller than I remembered it. The streets weren’t hard to navigate, and I wondered why my mom always got so tense driving around the tiny city.

Only the hills were as big as I remembered them, maybe even a little bigger. The walk from my car in the parking lot to the hospital’s main entrance was quite vertical. Good exercise, but it’s hard to make a good impression on strangers when huffing and puffing, all red-faced and sweaty. Still, it was good to visit Sioux City again, the exciting Mecca of my childhood.

I drove back to Le Mars, humming Sioux City Sue and thinking about my dad. What I wouldn’t give to sing with him one more time.

Hometown Girl Makes It Big

Okay, okay, so this hometown girl hasn’t made it big yet, and I may never make it big. But for the first time in a long time, my hometown paper, The Le Mars Daily Sentinel ran a story about me in which I am not:

a)   Perched on an improvised Sopwith Camel
b)   Sporting a green, ratted up-do
c)   Dressed as a hedgehog
d)   Garbed in theatrical black
e)   Pretending to be someone I’m not, and having a jolly time doing so

Instead, the story is the first of what I hope will be many newspaper stories about my new book. My goal isn’t to get my picture taken, though it was fun when the reporter, who is also my old friend Beverly Van Buskirk, snapped my photo in front of our former high school. And my goal isn’t to create a big fan base, though it was fun to get a congratulatory FaceBook note from a former high school classmate.

My goal is to get A Different Dream for My Child into the hands of parents who need answers and hope as they deal with their children’s health issues. Bev’s article helped realize that goal because the former classmate who sent me the FaceBook note also has a special needs son. She’s eager to buy the book. And if it helps her and her family, no matter how many or few copies are ultimately sold, I will have made it plenty big.