Wednesday, September 25, 2013

What goes around comes around

Life is a long lesson in humility.  ~James M. Barrie

When I was fourteen I went to Clear Lake, Iowa with my Uncle Allen and Aunt Rita Hummel for a week.  We stayed at a house near the lake.  It was my first vacation.  And I was excited! Up til then my only trips more than twenty minutes from home was to my aunt and uncle's farm near LaPorte City or to the Backbone State Park on Sunday afternoons.  And now I was invited to go two hours away for a week go so I could help watch their three children and the five children of the couple that shared the house. So, yes, it was a vacation to me.

We, the younger generation, all stayed in the upstairs in a large bedroom with several double beds and a couple of baby beds.  I shared a bed with their twelve year old daughter.  My cousins were Steve, nine months; Barb, five and Bill, six.  I had done a lot of babysitting by the time I was fourteen and felt up to whatever challenges may come my way.  

I don’t remember much about the trip once we arrived.  I remember the upstairs being pretty warm for sleeping and we kept the fans running all night.  Air conditioning was not common for most homes in 1969.  But I was used to warm nights, it felt like home.  Often our upstairs was too warm for sleeping and we would gather our blankets and head outdoors to slumber under the stars and summer night air.  

The days at Clear Lake were spent splashing at the beach, building sand castles and refueling our sun kissed bodies with peanut butter and jelly on white bread.  Chips and Kool Aid finished off our three course meal. 

Steve, at nine months, was at the stage where he wanted to walk.  He did not understand that he could not.   Steve would crawl to me, pull himself up and grab my knees.  I leaned over with my fingers out stretched and he would wrap his tiny fingers around mine and off we went.  Stubby legs and curled toes pumped up and down as the two of us explored the rooms of the lake house.  

One afternoon the families crammed children, picnic baskets along with coolers of beer and Kool Aid into two wood paneled station wagons for a journey to the city park.  After bolting down the lunch the young folks scattered to the swings, merry go rounds and slides while the adults sat and drank their chilled beverages.

“Monie,” my Uncle Allen’s used his pet name for me, “are you going to be a half-back for the football team in the fall,” he teased.  He always gave me a hard time about my muscular legs.

 “Yeah, right,” I commented back.  “That’ll be the day they let a girl on the football team.”

“I bet you could outrun any boy on the team,” Allen continued.  “I heard you outran all the boys in the eighth grade last month.”

“Where did you hear that,” I sputtered indignantly.  

“Oh, Monie, don’t be so modest.  Why I bet you could race anyone here and win,” he continued.  “Vern, here, is pretty fast.  I bet you could beat him in a 60 yard dash,” as he jerked his beer bottle in his friend and house mate direction.  “Come on, Vern, let’s go.  You and Ramona, right now.”

Vern jumped to his feet and the two of us toed the imaginary line drawn on the grass by my uncle.  Me, a spunky fourteen year old who loved to run, and Vern, a jovial man with a healthy air about him, but a father of five with adult responsibilities.  Elbow to elbow we took position with knees bent, heads bowed  slightly and eyes that peered toward the tree that was our destination.  We waited impatiently for Uncle Allen to lower his outstretched arms to signal start.

“Go,” he yelled and we both took off like a shot.  For the first thirty yards we were shoulder to shoulder as out sneaker clad feet pounded the grass.  I had pulled ahead of Vern when I noticed him go down.  Out of the corner of my eye I saw him roll end over end.  I sprinted to the finish line and raced back to Vern.  I was joined by Uncle Allen, Aunt Rita and Vern’s wife, Ruthie.  “A little too much cold beer and a rut in the ground,” I surmised, but held my tongue.

“That’s a nasty gash,” the women said as the snake of red slithered down Vern’s arm.  “You need stitches,” Ruthie commented and Aunt Rita nodded in agreement.  

“I’m sorry, Vern.”  I felt terrible that I had continued and finished the race.  “I didn’t know you were hurt.  I would have stopped.”

“I would have beat you if I hadn’t tripped on the drain grate,” Vern taunted me as he struggled to stand.

“No way, I was ahead and you know it,” I fired back, hoping my jovial words would mask the sick feeling in my stomach.

Ruthie and Uncle Allen took Vern to the local hospital while Aunt Rita helped me round up the children and  drove us back to the lake house.  Once we were settled she joined the rest at the emergency room.  After what felt like hours, the foursome returned.  Vern’s arm was bandaged and the teasing about the race started up where it had left off.  I felt better seeing Vern was okay.  The rest of the vacation was enjoyed and there were no more foot races.  I returned home to our family farm grateful for the week of vacation.

Years later I would revisit the fateful race on another vacation, but this time the shoe was on the other foot.  My husband and I took our four children on an annual summer camping weekend with a group of close-knit friends.  Between the six families that circled the campfire each night we had twenty-four children, ranging in age from six to sixteen.  One of the teenage daughters of our friends was active on her school’s track team.  One word led to another and soon the challenge of years ago sounded again. 

“Let’s race up that hill,” I challenged Mary Jo.

"I don't know, are you sure," she questioned my ability at my age.

"Let's go," I assured her I was capable.
“Come on, Mona,” Mary Jo taunted me from the top.  I continued the ten yards and panted,
“Let’s try it again, this time going downhill,” I countered in an effort to redeem my running skills left at the track when I graduated high school.

I took off and promptly lost my footing.  I rolled head over heels until I crumpled in a heap at the bottom.  

“Are you okay,” my friends voiced concerned after they witnessed the spectacle.  Mary Jo was worried.  I popped my head off the ground and burst into laughter.

"Now I know how Vern felt,,” I laughed as I recounted the race to them from years ago.  “The only thing hurt is my pride.  My only regret – you didn’t get it on a video.  I’ll bet it was hysterical to watch.”  

The tension was over when all knew I was not hurt.  And I realized that the days of mixing foot races and vacations were over for me.  It was fun while it lasted.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

You've Come a Long Way, Baby.

In June and July of 2013 I accomplished a feat I had always dreamed of doing – creating a garment by drafting the pattern using body measurements, a ruler, pencil and paper.  I learned the skill just in time in order to create the lining for my new daughter-in-law’s wedding dress.  She had purchased a lace dress from the 1930’s and the lining had disintegrated.  I was able to take her measurements and the lavender silk she chose to help make her dream a reality.  I finished two days before she married my youngest son, Adam.    I also had to live up to a rule of life I had mistakenly instilled in our children:  “your parents can do anything,” by constructing a ninety foot by thirty foot organza canopy for a pasture and forty-five by fifteen foot drapery for the barn door.

I couldn’t help but feel like one of the women from 1968 Virginia Slims cigarette ad campaign, “you’ve come a long way, Baby.”  It was a trip down memory lane to revisit my first attempts at sewing clothing.

I was in seventh grade, a few weeks shy of my thirteenth birthday.  “Ramona, would you like to sew a pair of pajamas today,” Audry asked.  My older sister was home from college for Christmas break.  Years of admiration for my role model enabled me to answer without hesitation.

“I would love that,” was my enthusiastic answer.

Together we sorted through Mom’s stash of clearance fabric choosing a hot pink and white one inch stripe cotton flannel.  Audry pinched the folded edge of the fabric between her right finger and thumb.  She held it up to her nose and turned her head to the right.  Her left arm stretched out as far as she could reach holding the length of flannel.  “One, two, three, four and five,” she counted off as she deftly measured the yardage using her outstretched hands and nose as a tape measure.   I was in awe.  “Five yards, that is enough for pajamas.  That’s a good first project,” my sister declared, “now help me clear dinner from the table so we can use it to lay out the pattern.

I listened carefully as she demonstrated the importance of measuring the long arrow on the pattern piece which the straight of grain.   She pinned on the first piece and then handed me the vinyl yellow and black tape measure, tomato pin cushion and the next piece.  I took what felt like a half an hour and pinned the next piece down.  

“Let me check it before you do anymore,” she said with authority.  “You are off about a half inch from arrow top to bottom.  See, what I mean,” as she measured the line.  “You need to correct it.”

I balked a bit at the thought of taking all the pins out and doing it over. 

“Do you want to learn or not,” Audry asked impatiently.

I took the pins out and measured with more accuracy and soon had all the pieces pinned on the flannel fabric.  After Audry inspected it and approved, I took the sewing shears and cut the pieces on the dark lines as instructed.

“Stitch the crotch seam from the top to the bottom,” Audry  instructed as I pinned the two pieces of the pajama pant back, right sides together.  “I’m gonna check the cake in the oven while you do that.”  

I beamed as I held up the sewn piece when Audry returned to the tiny sewing/laundry room where I was working.  She began to laugh as she inspected my work.  “You sewed the legs together,” she pointed out as she held them up and showed me where I should have stopped.  “Here’s the seam ripper, I guess you will learn how to take a seam apart.”

I finished the pajamas without any other memorable problems.  I listened carefully to her expertise and asked questions when I didn’t understand. 

A few months later during her summer break I had my next lesson.  “How about making a dress this week,” Audry asked me.  “I found this navy blue cotton with white dots.  It would look really cute with white lace and navy velvet ribbon woven in the beading down the front, around the neck and sleeve.”

“Really…” I hesitated.  I just couldn’t envision it.
“You can’t picture it,” she asked of me, “really you can’t see it,” I think Audry was a bit disgusted with my lack of garment sense.  She sewed the dress herself and gave it to me.  It was soon my favorite dress.  She was right – it was really a nice combination.  That incident began to teach me to envision fabric and accessories before I started a garment.   

Home Economics class was a required course for all freshman girls when I entered Jesup High School two years later.  During the clothing construction section I acted like I knew it all since in my eyes I knew how to sew.  I had already made a pair of pajamas.  I didn’t listen to instructions from the teacher and stitched fast and furiously on the sleeveless light blue floral cotton dress.  My lack of skill and bad attitude created a sorry looking dress: the facings did not lay flat, the zipper was crooked and the hem resembled rolling waves.   I turned in my project and proceeded to throw it in the trash when it was returned along with the disappointing and humiliating grade: C minus. 

That lesson in how not to sew a garment was planted deep.  Mom encouraged me to keep working at it.  There wasn’t extra money for fabric so she went to thrift stores and purchased full skirts for a dime or twenty-five cents.  

“Here, you can use these to make yourself skirts,” she said as I accepted them.  The seam ripper became my friend as I took the waistband off, removed the zipper and pulled seams apart.  I pressed the gatherings out straight and repurposed skirts into new garments for myself.  Deconstruction taught me the proper way to construct.  I read, and reread the pattern guide often speaking aloud in order for the instructions to sink in.  I was driven to never repeat a C minus grade.  I soon discovered a world of having new clothes.  Up to that time of my life I had mostly worn hand me down clothes from my cousins or family friends.  The next three years of high school were spent doing the normal high school activities of sports, clubs, drama, slumber parties with friends and sewing my clothes.  By the time I graduated I had taught myself how to make my own jeans, slacks and jackets.  I continued to take Home Economics, asked for help when needed and received straight A’s for all projects.

My first purchase for college was a sewing machine.  I took in mending in that year to provide myself with spending money.  Two years later in 1975 I wore my hand fashioned wedding gown.
My seventy-nine dollar sewing machine helped me make most of my own clothes, as well as my family’s clothes as our family increased from two to six over the next seven years.  In 1987 my husband, Rick, announced he was buying me a new machine.  I objected, “We don’t have the money.”

“I’ll find the money,” he said.  “If you are going to sew for our family, I want you to have the best machine now, not after we have been married for twenty –five years.  It will be your birthday, Christmas, Mother’s day and every gift for a while.”  He knew the way to make my heart smile.  He valued what I did and wanted to make my life easier.  And together we picked out the machine I still use, twenty-five years later.

His support of my developing skill was the catalyst for learning to sew everything from my family’s unmentionable items to outerwear.   I discovered public television and a program entitled, “Sewing with Nancy.”  I watched faithfully and inhaled the new skills that were demonstrated.   Sewing became part of my everyday routine.  Most days I spent a minimum of two hours stitching seams and crafting clothing. It was once a topic of conversation at a party.

“I heard you make your boys and your husband’s underwear, Mona, is that true,” the inquisitive woman asked.

“Yes, I do, “I answered, a bit embarrassed.

“You mean, out of knit fabric?  Does it have the fly front and everything,” she pressed for more details.

“Uhh, yeah,” I smiled not knowing what else to say.

“I’d sure like to see a pair,” she had pushed my mischievous spirit a bit too far.

“Rick, can you come here for just a sec,” I called to my husband in the other room.  The group of ladies erupted in a laugh and that vein of conversation ended quickly. 

My love of sewing continued to grow. I have enjoyed creating sixty plus baby quilts to give each new baby that joins our family, personalizing them and making each one unique. I learned speed sewing and can construct a pair of blue jeans in two hours from cutting fabric to fastening to the snap as the final touch.  I went to win awards as best of show in local and county fairs and built business that turned in to a twenty plus year endeavor. I loved the challenge of hearing the words, “You made that,” more as a shock of disbelief rather than an affirmation that it looked homemade.   But sewing without a pattern was a skill that I had not acquired.  Not until the summer of 2013.  I purchased a book with instructions on drafting a pattern.  I practiced until I felt confident to line the lace gown worn by Alia, my daughter-in-law, and created dresses using body measurements, pencil, paper and ruler.   My future plans for sewing - to transfer my love affair with fabric, needle and thread to my granddaughters and the skills needed to create their own masterpieces.  I hope someday to tell each of them, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Now I Count My Blessings

It was a cold day in February, 1955, when my dad returned home from the hospital.  

“Did I get a sister,” Audry, almost seven, skipped around the room as she clapped her hands together in a prayer-like stance.

“It’s a boy,” Dad replied with a twinkle in his eyes.  Audry burst into tears and Dad’s playful words came to a halt.  “Audie,” he used his pet name for his young daughter, “I’m not serious. You have a baby sister.  Her name is Ramona Mary.” The waterworks dried quickly and Audry began to skip and sing.  She had a sister to join her five brothers, Bobby, Tommy, Pete, Larry and Victor.

Ramona, that’s me, was named for one of Mom’s favorite songs. ‘Ramona’ whose romantic lyrics by L. Wolfe Gilberts and music by Mabel Wayne was a 1928 song she had always loved to sing.  I was tiny at birth, weighing a mere five pounds and five ounces.  I was also referred to as “the naughty lady of Shady Lane,” after another popular song.  The long days of winter passed quickly as my family went about the daily routine of running a farm and a home.  The following is a story I heard many times growing up.  Since I was only three months old, with no recollection, this is how I imagined it must have been.

Dad was gone from the house long hours milking cows, feeding pigs and chickens, and performing other farm chores. This left Mom, not yet thirty years of age, with enough work each day for several women.  Each day brought three meals to prepare, eggs to gather and wash, laundry to be done using a wringer washing machine, ironing, cleaning and milk to strain.  In addition she had seven children who needed continual attention.  And Whooping Cough had invaded the county. My older siblings were sick.  It wasn’t long before the virus spread through the household, attacking even the littlest, me.

Mom cradled me, three months old in her arms for a late night feeding.  She could barely keep her eyes open as she rocked slowly in the faded maroon velvet rocking chair.  The wool rug, thread bare from years of wear, softened the squeaking sound from the curved wooden rungs in the quiet of the night.  Sitting close to the oil burner, the sole source of heat for the home, kept the two of us warm and toasty.  Mom’s head nodded as the rhythm relaxed her.  Her eyes slowly slid shut and her hand slipped away from the bottle.  

I began to cough and Mom jerked awake.  She picked up the half empty bottle and set it on the coffee table.   As she lifted me to her right shoulder she gently patted my back.  I continued to cough, each time with more and more force.  Mom was frightened as I continued to cough and gasped for air.  After what seemed like hours, but was mere minutes, the coughing slowly subsided.  Mom sat in the chair for the remainder of the night, too worried to lay me in the crib.  Morning came too quickly for both of us.

“Gerry, can you please bring the portable crib down from upstairs,” Mom asked Dad.

“Whatcha need it down here for,” he spoke quickly, in a hurry to get morning milking chores started.

“I want to keep Ramona by me today while I work.  She coughed so hard last night she almost choked.  I’m afraid to have her too far away from me,” she replied.

Dad slipped off his work boots and hurried to the second floor of the small farm house.  He quietly grabbed the wooden bassinet, so not to wake the sleeping children, and carried it to the kitchen.  He placed it on the table.

“Thanks so much, Gerry,” Mom flashed a drained smile. “I hope this cough of hers goes away quickly.”  

By noon, I had endured five or six coughing spells.  Each time Mom rushed over, scooped me up and quelled my cough.  The small baby bed was transported to each room Mom went during the day.  That night, with no rest during the day, she kept watch over me, repeating her actions of the day.

The following day, my Grandma Kies, came to give Mom some relief.  Dad had stopped by and told her of the situation.  Grandma stayed for most of the day and Mom was able to grab a brief afternoon nap while the rest of the young household slept.  That night, I had several spells of coughing that troubled all.

Drinking my bottle was almost impossible for me.  Each swallow of milk would initiate a bout of coughing that racked my elfin body.   Gasping for air usually followed. I began losing weight and became lethargic.  Prayers were never far from Mom and Dad’s exhausted lips.

Word spread throughout the church and farming community: the Kies family had a very sick baby.  Prayers were offered by family and friends for my recovery.  My Grandma Kremer, Grandma Kies, Great Aunt Mary, and neighbor, Eva Rose took turns staying with our resource strapped family.  Eva stayed most nights to allow Mom a few precious hours of sleep.  Twenty-four hours, seven days a week, someone stood guard over me willing me to shake this virus, Whooping Cough.

“Rita, come quick,” Eva’s shrill voice woke Mom with a start.  Mom nudged Dad awake.  Dad, most of his hearing destroyed during battle at Okinowa, Japan during World War Two, hadn’t heard the cry.  Both rushed to my bedside.  They found Eva holding me.  My chocolate colored eyes were rolled back into my head; I had quit breathing and was turning blue.  My limp body was embraced by Mom as the three tried desperately to revive me.  Finally, holding me by my feet, they began thumping my back.  A few tense moments passed until I took a breath and whimpered a softly.  No louder than the mew of a kitten, it was a beautiful sound to the trio.  And I lived through another night.  I am told this happened multiple times during the time of my illness.  

At last the Whooping Cough virus ran its course and it was no longer necessary to have adults guard my crib night and day.  I began to thrive.  Milk was ble to be consumed, digested and utilized.  I quickly put on the needed pounds and was finally healthy again.

Mrs. Gerald Kies, my mother, was so grateful she wrote and published the following poem in 1955.  It appeared in the St. Athanasius church cookbook to celebrate the diamond jubilee of the parish.  I grew up flipping open the pages to find a favorite recipe to bake, or cook for our large family.  Often times I paused to read this poem on last page in the cake section.  I admired my mother’s words. 


After nine years of marriage

And our children numbered seven,

I began to feel as though

I’d had my share from heaven.

I was groaning about my work

I had so much to do

And envied those about me

With just their one or two.

And so much leisure time

They always seemed to have,

While I just never could get done

And thought myself enslaved.

But then it seemed that God wanted me

To realize our wealth,

And put a cross upon us

And took our baby’s health.

And through those long and weary days,

And endless nights we spent

With watchful hearts, our heads in prayer we bent.

And slowly I began to see

How precious each life is,

And if we have a dozen more,

God meant them to be His.

And gives them to us to have and love

And enjoy a while on earth;

So now I count my blessings,

And realize my worth.                          Mrs. Gerald Kies, 1955


As I grew, I became aware of the fact, this poem was written about me.  As a child, adults in my life often commented about that time in my life.  As an adult, I began to ask questions of them and pieced together the story.

I grew up listening to the accounts of my elders, ‘You were so sick!”; “You almost died on us several times,” and my mother’s words, “God spared you for a specific reason.” I was left with a sense of awe for my family, the feeling I was worth the act of sacrificial love, and a desire to have my life count for something.  I know that no matter what happens to me, it has been ordained by God and I am part of His larger plan.  After all, according to mom, God kept me on this earth for a reason.  I must honor and love Him all of my days.