Sunday, April 29, 2012


My youngest daughter's breath is warm against my neck as she snuggles closer to me, nuzzling her head beneath my chin as she lays alongside me on the couch. She is big, but then not so big, and she fits as perfectly against me as when she was an infant.

Well, almost.

The compact softness of babyhood has been replaced with a tangle of bony adolescent limbs that poke uncomfortably into my side. The wild disarray of her hair tickles my cheek and I brush it away. Nevertheless, the contentment I feel is pure deliciousness.

She shakes briefly with a coughing spell, and I glance down at her. She's wearing the pained scowl she always wears when she's sick.

"Are you uncomfortable, Sara?" I murmur, wondering if she'd prefer the couch to herself. I'd move in a heartbeat if it would take that sad look off her face. I feel her nod against my chest. I lift my head and prepare to rise, but her small hand reaches out to grasp my arm.

"Stay," she says. Her voice is high-pitched and raspy, a demand and a plea at the same time, and I happily settle back to accommodate her.

I had a dream a few nights ago. I was awakened by the sound of my bedroom door opening, and when my vision cleared, I saw my daughter standing in the doorway. In the moonlight I couldn't even tell which daughter it was, only that she was tiny enough to be dragging a stuffed animal with her. She paused just inside the door, one small hand still clinging to the doorknob.  I could feel her staring at me in the darkness, the unspoken question hanging in the air.

"You want to sleep in here?" I mumbled sleepily.

Her nod was so eager that it was hard to imagine that she was still bothered by the childhood upset that brought her into my room in the first place, but I didn't mind.

Then I woke, and realized that my girls were sound asleep in their own beds, having long outgrown nighttime comfort-seeking excursions to their parents' room. My heart clutched with a longing that only a parent could understand.

It's a feeling that comes to mind again as I brush Sara's hair away from her face with my fingers. I can still remember a time when my own mother comforted me in this way and I wonder if she remembers it, too. Somehow, I think she does.

I know that time and experience will gently but inevitably draw this beautiful child from my arms and into an unknowable future as an adult. It is the way of things; the way it's supposed to be, yet it is no less bittersweet.

It may be a blessing that my Sara is small for her age; a sort of divine kindness that has allowed me to cling to her childhood a little longer than necessary. But those days are going away, sadly but surely. She'll set her sights toward her own horizon, a breath beyond my grasp, just as her sisters did before her.

Her head feels heavy against my chest and my arm is going tingly where she's draped it around her shoulders, but that's fine with me. I kiss the top of head, and I wonder if she can feel my heart beating. I wonder if she can sense its silent, wistful plea.


(Dedicated to my darling daughter Sara, on the blessed event of her confirmation. I love you.)

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Bedtime on North 21st Street

It was the nightly, parental command that we all dreaded as young children:

"Get a drink and go pot!"

Mom uttered this directive at the same time every night without fail. She rarely even glanced up from her knitting. It was like an inner alarm went off in her harried mother's brain. And each of her children immediately stopped their activities to groan aloud, whether they were swinging from light fixtures, coloring on the walls, or beating the daylights out of each other. I don't know why she referred to the toilet as pot, unless that was some fancy Wisconsin word for it. Or maybe there was some other reason. I've long suspected things about that Carole.

Sometimes we'd try to fool her by sitting quietly and watching our fuzzy black and white television. Perhaps she'd forget we were in the room and somehow forget to order us to bed and we could stay up all night! This tactic never, ever worked. Ever. We were pretty dumb kids.

The six of us shared a room - note that Barbara wasn't yet around to screw up the even number of kids. I always shared a double bed with my blanket hog sister, Mary. (Actually, I don't even remember if she hogged the blankets. I just like talking smack about her.) The boys jumped onto their bunk beds and always managed to slug each other before turning in. That's part of twin DNA. Joe and Jeff, I suppose were still wearing diapers. It would be some six years before they learned how to use the pot.

It's funny how contemplating little episodes like this allow for other precious memories to float to the surface. As the oldest of so many kids, I never got a lot of one-on-one time with my parents--none of us did--unless we were in trouble. That's neither good nor bad. It's life with a big family. And for that reason, I especially treasure a soft memory with my mother...I guess I couldn't have been much more than a toddler.

She'd sit beside me, and she taught me how to pray. Even now, the words flow as easily and as reassuringly as they did so many years ago:

"Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. God bless Mommy and Daddy, my brothers and sisters, Grandma and Grandpa Haislip, Grandma and Grandpa Meier, Grandma and Grandpa Wade, Grandpa Morgan, all my aunts and uncles, all my little cousins, and all my little friends. Amen."

Even today, I find myself whispering those words in the dark of night when I'm sad or can't sleep, and the prayer's childlike cadence soothes now as it did then.

I like to hope that my own daughters will carry little funny and heartfelt gems like this in their memories as they brave the new world of adulthood. It may be years before they appreciate it, just like it was for me.

Meanwhile, it's bedtime for now. I won't forget to say my prayers.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Russell's Food Shop

I wonder if my kids feel sorry for me sometimes. It must be awful hard for them to imagine what life must have been like without an internet or iPods or cell phones or video games. At least they don't seem to mind the long ride in the SUV to my parents' home on Commonwealth in South St. Louis. There are few sounds from the back seat, only the click or electronic chirp as my daughters sit absorbed in a Nintendo game or texting their friends about how lame it is to hang out with parents. And oh great...Mom's taking us through that old neighborhood where she grew up. Here she goes with those dumb stories again...

In the early 70s, the Haislip kids were paid a weekly allowance of ten cents. In time, that allowance was increased to fifteen cents, and then eventually to twenty-five. We weren't particularly bright kids, and never possessed the smarts to save up our money, mind you. Usually within moments of those shiny coins hitting our dirty little palms, the whole pack of us was en route to Russell's Food Shop to spend them.

I'm sure Russell's sold items other than candy, chips, ice cream, and ice cold soda, but if they did, I never noticed. I can still remember walking through the banging screen door with the bell on top. Slightly forward and to the right was the shelf with small bags of chips - barbecued Fritos, Funyuns, Doritos, and my personal favorite, Munchos, which was part processed potato and part something else - I think styrofoam. I don't think they sell them anymore. They also sold canned Chef Boyardee ravioli there, too, and Campbell's Bean with Bacon soup. My weird brothers liked to eat it right out of the can. One of my favorite purchases was RC cola, which was 24 cents - a full quarter with tax. The sixteen-ounce bottle was a better bargain than the smaller Coca-Cola, though I secretly coveted the look of the Coke bottles better. (Don't tell the RC folks I said that. I have a feeling they don't have a lot of fans left.)

Next to the chip rack was the gumball machine which had silver balls scattered among the colorful gumballs. If you were lucky enough to score a silver ball with your penny, you won a rabbit's foot. (There was a tiny sign reminding kids to turn in the silver ball for a prize, lest some dumb kid try to chew it.) I think I must have tried for that silver ball a hundred times over the years, and won it exactly once. I was mortified, however, to learn that the lavender rabbit's foot I selected from Mrs. Russell's shoe box was an actual, honest-to-God rabbit's foot - with nails, bone, and all, and I never tried for that silver ball again.

The centerpiece of Russells, as any kid would agree, was the beautiful wooden and glass candy case. Mrs. Russell must have shined up that glass a dozen times a day; it had to be constantly smeared with the finger and nose prints from children salivating over the dozens of treats on the other side of the glass. There were two shelves. The bottom shelf held the more expensive candy bars, and the more popular top shelf was mostly penny candy - what would be called vintage today - Mary Janes, candy buttons, Sixlets, Pixy Sticks, wax lips, Super Bubble, candy cigarettes, etc. Mrs. Russell would always wait quietly with a small brown bag at the ready as we bit our lips and pointed out our selections. I never got the impression that she liked kids all that much, but she was always polite and patient with us.

Mrs. Russell was petite, wore glasses, and had mousy brown hair that sometimes had rollers in it. She always, always seemed old to me. As far as I could remember, she was the only one who ever served the customers - at least, the little kid customers - though Mr. Russell sometimes opened my soda bottles. Mr. Russell never seemed to say much, as if he didn't quite know what to make of kids, and always seemed to be busy stocking shelves or something. It was only recently that I discovered that the couple even had first names - Jack and Evelyn.

Of course, Russell's is long closed now, and all those kids who loved the place have grown up and moved on, but the little building is still there, though it looks different from the way I remember it.

But I can close my eyes, and in an instant, I'm there again, making my way to Russell's Food Shop, with coins jingling in my pocket on a warm afternoon as the sun peeks through century-old maple trees along the curb; my skin is golden brown in those days before anyone knew about SPF30, and maybe there's an empty soda bottle clutched tight in my fist as a bonus, and the only things on my mind are the treasures that await behind that glass case and avoiding the cracks in the sidewalk on Tennyson Square. As I round the corner onto Esplanade and those familiar concrete steps come into view, I start to skip...

No, don't have to feel sorry for me. Not at all.

Friday, April 22, 2011


Her name was Miss Always. I don't think that was how her name was spelled or even if that was how it was actually pronounced, but she never corrected me. Lord knows she had enough worries when it came to the Haislip kids' speech patterns.

She arrived at Wilkinson School when I was in fourth grade, and she promptly tested the students by requiring them to read or recite sentences and letter sounds, and watching and listening closely as they did so, and the kids that flunked the test were required to have private speech therapy sessions with her several days a week. (As an aside, I think it smacks of impropriety that the person doing the testing is the same one providing the therapy - a fairly easy way to ensure job security if you were ask cynical me. But no one does.)

Apparently, all four Haislip kids of school age flunked the test and landed in speech twice a week. Okay, now I can see this with my brother Jimmy, who often thought the letter S was totally optional - as in "Dad, I want to be a cub 'cout! 'teve is a cub 'cout! I wanna be cub 'cout!"

Little Mary, as I recall, had some issues with softening her R sounds, which as well all know is a huge no-no. Lots of serial killers do this. As for Timmy, I'm not sure what specifically he was screwing up with his speech patterns. Funny how your mind blanks things out like that. I'll have to ask him sometime. Sorry, Timmy.

My primary sin was a pair of lazy lips (so I was told), that refused to purse properly with my SH, and even worse, my CH sounds. Up until fourth grade, I had no clue that my lips were so freakin' lazy, and I cursed my parents at the time for not even noticing this flaw and gently breaking the news to me.

At first, going to Speech twice a week was a bit of an adventure - especially if I got to skip arithmetic in Mrs. Rell's class. As far as I knew, I was only one of three or four kids who ever got dismissed for Speech, and I could always feel the envious stares of my classmates as I left them puzzling over fractions or long division while I headed down to Speech to tame those damned lazy lips.

Miss Always led me through the rudimentaries of CH words, and I carefully paused to purse my lips with each one, reciting sentences that no one who wasn't retarded would use in real life: "CHarlie sat on a CHair and CHewed CHerry CHewing gum."

Ms. Always would always smile approvingly and then say, "Now make it sound natural."

That's the part where my lips would start getting lazy again, and would stop pursing. But the point is, even with lazy lips, chewing Charlie didn't sound all that different to me...maybe a tiny bit softer and less punctuated, but Charlie was still definitely chewing, alright.

That's when I started to see through the ruse of Speech.

It was only confirmed a few days later when I watched a television commercial for a beauty product - I think it was Ponds Cold Cream. The pretty blonde spokesmodel with the lovely skin smiled at the end of the commercial and said, "For your beautiful complexion!"

What the hey? She had an SH sound and didn't even purse her lips for it? I mean, in her defense, the script probably didn't read "For your beautiful complekshun!" so she might not have realized she was supposed to be pursing her lips for that part, but then again it's obvious the director didn't correct her and order a new take with properly pursed lips. And believe it or not, I was not inspired to find a pen and fire off an angry letter to the manufacturers of Ponds Cold Cream and report I was never buying their product because I couldn't freakin' understand their spokesmodel because she had clearly never been to Speech before.

I stood before the bathroom mirror that night and practicing my CH sounds - CHeese. CHerry. CHew. CHarlie. I tried them with pursed lips and without. They sounded like CH sounds to me either way. In any case, I felt it was time to clarify a few points with Miss Always.

It might have been the first time in my life that I ever questioned an adult's authority. I asked Miss Always point-blank why it was necessary to keep trying to train lazy lips when the lazy lips CH sounded almost exactly like the disciplined, pursed-lips CH. Why pull me out of class twice a week for this?

Miss Always blinked, and her eyes grew wide. I wish she would have told me the truth, which was probably something like "Because I have to fill a quota of you snot-nosed little runts to justify my job in this God-forsaken dump until I can get into a better district."

But she didn't say that.

She pursed her lips and replied with a completely straight face, "Becauth, Litha, you want to talk like thith? Thith ith what happenth to kidth who don't have proper thpeech, Litha. You will thart to talk like thith!"

I was horrified. Apparently, lazy lips was just the first step on the fast road to speaking like a hayseed Mortimer Snerd, and I had no idea. I remember hoping that someone would warn the Ponds model before it was too late for her.

In any case, I wasn't called back to Speech the following year. I think Miss Always gave up on me as a lost cause. Luckily, her few short months of teaching was just enough to save me from the Snerd effect.

I'm not too sure if it saved Jimmy though....

Friday, March 18, 2011

Two Special Girls

Okay, so technically I'm writing about my years as a Minzer here. Sue me. I was still Haislip, too. And definitely still growing up, right? 'Nuff said.

Way back in October, 1997, things were buzzing in the Minzer household, no doubt about it. I had given birth to my youngest daughter, Sara, barely two months earlier, and was trying my hardest to squeeze into a bridesmaid dress for my sister-in-law's upcoming wedding while dealing with losing pregnancy weight. Perhaps if I could just hold my breath while walking up the aisle. Yeah, that might work. I could walk real fast. Tim was groomsman - I could talk him into it.

My oldest daughter, Becky, 10, was a junior bridesmaid, and six-year-old Allie was the flower girl. Add to this typical wedding confusion and overall upheaval, the general chaos of having a new baby in the house, and it can lead to some frayed nerves.

Quietly witnessing the goings-on, however, was four-year-old Christie. Those who didn't know my third daughter might have thought the tiny girl with the big brown eyes was shy, but in truth, she was just very particular about those with whom she chose to associate. She was most often seen sucking her left thumb - never the right - and she removed it only to eat or drink; she had become quite adept over the years talking, laughing, crying, and sleeping around her beloved thumb. If she went to the trouble of removing the thumb to say something, most of us knew to listen close, because she was about to make a very important point.

Because she was so quiet, we had no clue that Christie was very bothered about being left out of the wedding party. She even dug out my scissors one afternoon and cut her bangs herself, perhaps as a cry for attention, but even then we didn't realize. It was only until about a week before the wedding that she finally pulled out her thumb and announced that she wanted to be in the wedding, too. She cried when we told her, regretfully, that it was too late. There was no place for her in the wedding party. We figured she'd get over it, and moved on. She was four; she was a kid. Kids have to learn that you can't have your way all the time. That's just the way it is. We'd distract her with a Barbie or something.

But nevertheless, my darling sister-in-law found out about that sad little brown-eyed girl.

As busy as my household was, I'm sure it was a million times more chaotic for the bride. Yet Teresa did something very kind for her little niece on the day of her wedding, by giving her the most crucial job of the entire day. Christie was given the all-important responsibility of escorting the grandmothers to their designated seats in church. Wearing her own specially-made corsage, she carefully clutched each grandmother's hand, and with a very proud smile, she walked each grandmother down the aisle--not once sucking her thumb. In addition, Christie posed for her very own portrait with the bride.

Teresa's sweet little gesture of kindness on that October day is one of the most touching gifts I've ever witnessed, and I am so, so grateful to her on behalf of my family, and on behalf of a sad little girl who only wanted to be included. Thanks for that, little sis.

So, why do I tell you this story now?

It's because the two special girls pictured here are having landmark birthdays within a month of each other. Christina is turning 18 in April and Teresa is turning...well, slightly older than 18. I recently received Christie's senior picture proofs in the mail, and as you can see, she's grown into a lovely young woman.

Oh, and she no longer sucks her thumb.

Happy Birthday, Girls. Love always.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Picking up Paw-Paws

Pickin' up paw-paws, put 'em in your pocket,
Pickin' up paw-paws, put 'em in your pocket,
Pickin' up paw-paws, put 'em in your pocket,
Way down yonder in the paw-paw patch!

No one ever told us what paw-paws were when we were kids, but according to one of our favorite childhood songs (frequently performed during the Jim Haislip-and-kids sing-a-longs), we were supposed to be picking them up and putting them into our pockets--that is after we all gaily headed down yonder to the patch to fetch the things to begin with, and apparently this was such a fun-filled, happy activity that individuals generally sang the whole live-long time they were doing it. Sorta like picking cotton.

Or perhaps this was intended as one of those sneaky "instructional" songs for dolts who keep forgetting what to do with the freakin' paw-paws once they pick them up. You know the type. They dutifully pick up the paw-paw, just like they're supposed to, but then they just stand there looking like a dumb heifer, and you have to hiss for, like, the hundredth time, "Put it in your pocket, you moron!" So perhaps one kind soul, whose name has long been forgotten, placed those instructions into a snappy little tune, so even stupid people can remember what to do when they pick up those gosh-darned paw-paws.

Where, oh where is dear little Susie?
Where, oh where is dear little Susie?
Where, oh where is dear little Susie?
Way down yonder in the paw-paw patch!

Come on, boys, let's go find her,
Come on, boys, let's go find her,
Come on, boys, let's go find her,
Way down yonder in the paw-paw patch!

Okay, now here's what I don't get. Who's Susie? Okay, I can understand if she's a mischievous little toddler, taken to wandering off when the rest of the family is off picking the paw-paws and shoving them left and right into their pockets (and singing), but why the hell does it take an entire posse of males to find her? Or, as is the case with males in general, are they just trying to get out of work, and leave the women to the paw-paw pickin' while the boys make some excuse about finding Susie but are really heading back to the house to watch the basketball game? (And all the while, dear little Susie is probably ten feet away, sitting in a paw-paw bush somewhere eating dirt or something.)

Of course, Susie may be one of them girls...and uses the paw-paw patch to entice the men-folk for her nightly trysts. No wonder the males all seem so gung-ho about finding her all the time.

I did a little research on paw-paws and found out that they're really fruit about the size of large pears, and supposedly quite tasty, from what I've read. So, why aren't we seeing paw-paws at the local grocery story alongside oranges and bananas and apples?

Well,'s pretty clear. With pockets as the preferred collection receptacles over bushels, wheelbarrows, or pickup trucks, paw-paw farmers probably ain't exactly scoring much of a return on the harvest. I mean, think about it..."Hey comes Bubba. I think he's got three this time. Boy's gonna go far."

So I guess paw-paw farmers don't exactly get rich at their trade. But at least they got themselves a happy little song to sing so they don't feel so bad about it....

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Picture Day

I was only four years old when I began attending kindergarten at Blair School in the late 1960s. I don't know if it went against some policy of the St. Louis School District to allow someone so young to attend school, but it could be that some kindly registrar took pity on my poor mother, who was already quite burdened with four children and would be birthing two more by month's end. 

I walked to school by myself each day. It was just a short trip straight across the park from our two-family flat. I'm told that on the first day of school, we were allowed outside to play at recess, and I interpreted this as a sign of dismissal, and so I went home. (I don't remember this at all, and truthfully, I think my parents may be fibbing about it.)

Memory has a funny, selective quality about it, especially when it comes to memories of childhood. I don't remember a single thing about kindergarten. Nothing. Not my classroom, not my classmates, not my teacher. No memories of me painstakingly gripping a fat pencil and writing my name, nor learning the rudimentary skills of reading or arithmetic. No memories of show and tell or coloring pictures or milk and cookies or anything else one might normally associate with those very first days of school during that period of time. Just...nothing.

But I do remember very clearly one fall morning, as breakfast dishes sat on the kitchen table waiting to be cleared, and two noisy infants fussed in their crib nearby, past due for diaper changes, a harried young mother took a moment to neatly tie a yellow ribbon in her little girl's hair so that she would look extra pretty for picture day at school. That little girl never did let her mom know how much she appreciated that.

But I like to think it showed in her smile.