Writing My Life

Now and Then

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Vanity, Your Name is Renae: A Halloween Story

OCTOBER – A month of many splendored things: Indian summer punctuated by crimson and golden leaves against crystal blue skies; harvest time accentuated by crisp mornings and crunchy apples; and longer nights that portend coming ghosts and goblins on All Hallows Eve. That latter event reminds me of Halloweens-past, especially since stumbling upon a few childhood photos.

While I don’t remember all the costumes I donned for Halloween parties, parades, and trick or treating, I do recall I wanted to look pretty! No scary ghouls or silly vagabonds for me! If I were a child of this era, I am pretty sure I’d be one of the scores of Disney princesses skipping from house to house with a cape swirling about me.

Back in the 1950s, however, costumes were most often created from whatever moms could find around the house or were sewed by those dedicated mothers. That’s not to say store-bought costumes were unavailable, but they were usually unimaginative, plastic, and easily torn. Furthermore, I was a costume snob who wouldn’t consider wearing such a thing.

1955: Two little gypsies, a favorite costume and dress-up. Mom made the boleros, but the skirts, jewelry, sashes, and head scarves were from her drawers and closet.

Once my two friends Diane and Leah wanted the three of us to dress up as “hobos” – a vintage word from the Depression era that referred to those who “rode the rails” looking for work or handouts or both. Now such individuals are called homeless, but I really don’t see many neighborhood youngsters dressed as bag-ladies or panhandlers these days. When I was growing up, however, hobos were a popular Halloween choice, and my friends thought it would be fun and easy: pile on some worn-out clothes, maybe adding a few more rips and holes; slather cold cream over the lower part of your face, followed by pressing coffee grains onto the cream to simulate week-old whiskers; and add a sloppy hat and a fake cigar cigar butt, available at most dime-stores, to complete the transformation. I would have none of it! I was a geisha girl instead – not knowing exactly

Mom's "duster" with a simple "obi", recycled Sacajawea wig from a previous Halloween, Kleenex tissue flowers, eyebrow pencil and Voila - a Geisha girl.

1959: Mom’s “duster” with a simple “obi”, recycled Sacajawea wig from a previous Halloween, Kleenex tissue flowers, eyebrow pencil and Voila – a Geisha girl.

what that was, but perhaps being influenced by Sayonaraa popular movie of the time that actually dealt with racism – a rare topic in 1957. I think my friends were not happy with me, and I noticed they are NOT in the photograph with me, but I think I see their shadows lurking near by.

My ALL-TIME favorite costume was Sacajawea or “Bird Woman”, famous Indian American who traveled with Lewis and Clark. She was an early female hero to Idaho students, and I knew the legends about her – many, of which have been revised since my childhood. Nevertheless, I admired her then as I admire her even more now.  So there you have it. Vanity in a nutshell. Thanks, Mom, for helping me feel pretty even at Halloween! Love you!

Sacajewea dividing the bounty with my little sister Connie. Mom made my Indian dress.  I LOVED the wig! Connie wore one of those "plastic" costumes and ended up being the cutest little clown ever!!!

1957: Sacajawea dividing the bounty with my little sister Connie. Mom made my dress, and I LOVED the wig! Connie wore one of those “plastic” costumes and ended up being the cutest little clown ever!!!


… mamas, daughters, and washdays …

As I mentioned in one of my tributes to Bonnie Howe Behunin, my cousin wrote several poems about her parents. I shared the poem she wrote to honor her father, my Uncle Pete, and promised to include lines dedicated to Aunt Ida, too. Actually, there are several poems about Bonnie’s mama, and it is too hard to decide on one because each reveals a different facet of this kind woman who was large in stature and heart. (In fact, Meryl Streep’s physical appearance as Julia Child in Julie and Julia reminded me of Aunt Ida’s height and breadth.)

As I reread the tributes, some verses stimulated my own memories, and I realized that’s another reason I feel compelled to share Bonnie’s work. For example, the following poem talks of a time LONG past, but many of us can remember that in our childhood,  household tasks were backbreaking chores! Take wash day, for example ~  now we can throw a load or two of dirty clothes into the washer and dryer EVERY day, completing the job in under an hour. (I don’t particularly care for that task and have often repeated that I hate to RUIN every day by washing clothes, and so I still leave that chore for Saturdays.) Back in the “olden days,” however, moms NEEDED at least one WHOLE day to process shirts and blouses, pants and skirts, sheets and table cloths through the wringer washer before hanging them on clothes lines strung between poles in every back yard.

I remember our family’s “wash room” was located in the basement, and Connie and I sent our soiled clothes sailing down the laundry chute,  that was disguised as a drawer located near the baseboard in the hallway. I was terrified of the washer as I was sure the wringer or the cogs would grab my pudgy little  fingers along with the pillow cases and crush them, thus forcing immediate amputation! (Sadly, that horrible scenario actually happened to G.E.’s mom when she was a little girl, causing a life-time of embarrassment for her as she always hid her 1-jointed pinky behind the folds of a hankie.)

Pencil Art by Don Greytak

Maybe my mom worried about the same thing because I don’t remember helping with the wash as much as I do recall sprinkling and rolling up  handkerchiefs and pillow cases after pulling them from the clothes lines. At some point I also learned to iron those items. While none of this may sound the least bit fun, the companionship of working together as mother and daughter is what often lingers in our hearts and minds. Here is Bonnie’s recollection of those days.


~ Bonnie Howe Behunin

Slick and soft, and smelling clean,

The soapy laundry smell

Of when Mom rubbed the extra lotion

From her hands to mine:

Mom and wash day.

A round washtub for soaking clothes,

The agitating, guiding of each piece

Through wringer to the rinse and bluing,

Then to the line.

We brought the clothes in:

Mom piled them, fresh, high in my arms

Until I could not see over

Or breathe past the clean to the sky.

We folded and stacked and finally finished,

Sprinkled the clothes to be ironed tomorrow.

Then Mom shared her lotion,

Cupping my small hands,

First one, then the other

In her big ones.

I think of those nights in my bed

With my hands on my face,

Breathing my mother

As I cling to wash day.


… totally retro Valentines …

Yesterday I wandered into Roberts Craft Store to buy ModPodge – a crafter’s necessity dating back to the 70s but still needed for a variety of creative ideas. My purpose for purchasing was to glue my 500-piece puzzle together so I can frame it  and hang it. Because the product was tucked w-a-a-y back in a corner, I had to wend my way through aisles of Valentine paraphernalia before finding the glue. Seeing all the designs of love quotations, hearts, and flowers to commemorate February 14th ALMOST put me in the Valentine mood.

While reflecting upon Cupid’s favorite day, I first thought, “Valentines Day has not grown into the crazy holiday that Halloween has.” But then I started remembering my childhood and what a big deal it was to me. Because it was of utmost importance, I’m sure it was stressful for my working mom. (I need to ask her about that.)

First of all, school children HAD to decorate boxes into which our friends could deposit Valentines. Sometimes my teachers held contests for the best, cutest, most creative, etc. designs, and that added to the pressure of creating an amazing crêpe papier receptacle. I’ve been a long-time klutz, so cutting, wrapping, and gluing turned into a hurricane of scraps, cuts, stains, and goop. (Do any of you remember how red crêpe papier could turn hands and faces crimson if it got wet? And I kind of liked the taste of it, too. I know that’s weird. And then I loved to spread Elmer’s Glue all over the palms of my hands and then peel it off like a layer of skin.  But I also liked school paste because that tasted good, too – until someone told me it was made of dead horses’ hoofs.) At any rate, I’m pretty sure Mom sent me to bed before the task was completed, but in the morning, I found the finished box waiting for me, and it looked BEAUTIFUL! (In talking with my mom and sister the other day, I concluded that Mom didn’t finish the project, and the Valentine box I woke up to was the same one I worked on the night before.) 

Created from a Valentine "kit"

Next came the Valentine-making and addressing. I don’t remember making many “from scratch” except the cards I created at school for my parents, but we could buy card kits that required some assembly such as gluing on paper lace and little pictures. I gave away all the ones I made, but this one survived because my sister Connie created it and presented it to me. It was also one of the few that opened up to a verse printed on the inside. You can see her young signature there, too. I’m guessing that’s about all she could print, so there aren’t any additional messages about what a wonderful big sister I was! (Notice, however,  that she did pick a picture of an “I Love You” heart for the cover even though the published message is generic enough that it could have been sent to a near stranger!)

If we didn’t MAKE our cards, it still took HOURS to address them, and this is why: we had to perfectly match the card to the person. In first and second grade, I still worried about giving a boy I DIDN’T like a Valentine that might imply that I did – as in girlfriend/boyfriend kind of “like.” On the other hand,  I picked a “mushy” card to give to the boy I chased around the playground at recess.

For example, this one says, “HEY SUGAR!” Now THAT’S romantic. How could the love of my 6-year-old life NOT know that I was crazy about him. (A boy named Eric actually gave me this one back in 1955. I wonder if he realized he was sending me a subliminal message that told me he wanted to marry me as soon as we turned 7.  Probably not.)

This was also a time when teachers only ENCOURAGED their students to bring  a card for every child in the class. I’m pretty certain Mom made sure I did, but I clearly remember checking through each card and comparing it with the class list to find out who was snubbing me. When I figured it out, sometimes I didn’t care but most of the time it did hurt. (Connie thinks we always received cards from every student present that day, but she remembers noticing that some friends found candy hearts or suckers in envelopes while others were NOT given that extra measure of “love.”)

I always picked out “girly” Valentines for my girlfriends, but there were NO Disney Princesses to wow Diane and Leah, Trudy or Randy. The best we could find were main characters from nursery rhymes – Little Bo Peep was the obvious favorite in 1955.

Our cards also depicted young girls doing what young girls were supposed to do in the early ’50s:  SWEEP, BAKE, , and BLUSH! (I’m positive the blusher was my favorite as it included a slot for a lollypop!)

As for the boys, we could always send them a popular 50’s Valentine with a politically INcorrect message such as this one. (Grandma and Grandpa H.  actually gave this to me! At least, they didn’t cave in to the stereo-typical nursery rhyme heroines or domestic princesses!)

Of course, for every little American Indian, there was a cowboy OR girl: Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, Annie Oakley, Hop-Along Cassidy, the Lone Ranger, and Gene Autrey – to name a few of our Saturday matinee heroes.

I’m not sure why Mom or I saved these gems, but I enjoyed rumaging through them tonight; recalling old friends, feeling sad that I COULDN’T remember some, noting grandparents’ signatures written neatly across the backs, and warming up with the memories and marveling at how times have changed.  In fact, these little momentos have done more to put me in a “Cupid” mood than any TV commercial or store display. I better start working on my list.


… a time to ramble … around and through “safe” subjects

I still like to read newspapers – not as avidly as my husband – but if there are sections strewn throughout the living room or kitchen, it will take me 30 minutes to pick ’em up, stack ’em up, and throw ’em out recycle ’em. Why so long? Because I can’t go through that process without scanning headlines, skimming 3 or 4 articles, and pouring over at least one story, commentary, or feature.

This morning, I delved into Ann Cannon’s column – “You’re a Pill; Old-fashioned words sought.” I enjoy reading Ann; it’s a lot like reading a blog – but I can tote her words with me into the bathroom. And if I spill diet A&W Rootbeer all over her weekly wisdom, the mess won’t forever end access to future Ann Cannon columns like it would if I dumped a beverage onto my laptop. (It just occurred to me that Ann must also host a blogsite. Wait here, while I check it out. — Hey, she DOES! The Writer’s Corner (and also what I ate today). It’s nearly as fun as her column!)

Although I’m older than Ann, I’m younger than her parents – BYU’s Lavell and Patti Edwards. Still I relate to her experiences and agree with most of her opinions, especially about raising boys. (She has 4 boys, no girls; I birthed 4 boys and no girls but now claim 3 daughters-in-law and 5 grand daughters! )

The other thing I like about Ann’s columns/postings is that she pretty much avoids controversy. I’m not sure why she does, but I know I am scared spitless of topics that raise hackles and inspire cantankerous comments. Look what happened to poor Scott Pierce when he stuck his neck out and wrote about the David Letterman/Sarah Palin battle. The last time I checked, 146 comments were listed! And many of them were nasty, Nasty, NASTY! Scott claimed to be cowardly because he didn’t approach the topic sooner. I don’t know WHY he thought it was safe to plunge in today, but it wasn’t! The sharks were just hidin’ in the reef waiting for him to dip his big toe into the cesspool.

On the other hand, Ann’s “call-to-action” (send in old-fashioned words) has only pulled in 9 comments, but could there be a safer subject? While I have weighed in on controversial issues like bad and good mothers, I usually don’t because I feel uncomfortable even COMMENTING about debates. I fret enough over sounding intelligent when I post a comment, so I don’t want to start looking over my shoulder for conservative/liberal, Republican/Democrat, BYU/Utah, traditionalists/feminists aiming poison pens at my unsuspecting back, too! VERY SCARY!

Today, however, I rallied to Ann’s cry for old-fashioned words. And here’s a revised version – revised because on MY blogsite, I can write more than the 200-word limit required by the Deseret News website! So the following is what I WOULD have submitted had Joe Cannon allowed me a sufficient number of words!

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Another rather archaic term – besides the old-fashioned word “pill,” that refers to sulky children – is “Good night, Nurse!” – always uttered in exasperation. Perhaps patients frustrated at being awakened for yet ANOTHER shot or pill, originally growled the farewell in a thinnly veiled attempt to articulate their irritation to the attending medic. (As the nurse exited, she probably mumbled under her breath, “What a pill!!!” And yes, I am assuming that the nurse was female because in the hey-day of “good night, nurse,” the majority of nurses were women.)

“Punk” was one of my Grandma Barrett’s favorite terms, used to describe her state of mind. Before you imagine a little old lady with a 10-inch blue-haired Mohawk, wearing a leather vest, I must explain that Grandma was communicating that she was feeling under the weather. “I’m feelin’ a little ‘punk’ today,” she’d whisper as we dropped by for the first time in a week. (Grandma sometimes felt a little “punk” when she needed to lay on a little guilt, too.)

Then there were “Mormon” slang terms like “flip,” which has now been replaced by “Omiheck.” Missionaries often returned from the near-east or Far West with that classy expression embedded in their vocabularies! (“Flip! I can’t believe how every girl on campus wants her M.R.S. degree!”)


Worn by Elvis, James Dean, and Tony Curtis

Descriptive terms have changed, too, but so have the objects they described. A “D.A.” (short for duck’s a**) or “ducktail,” worn by “greasers,” was a long, greasy haircut that swirled into a curl in the middle of the forehead and an up-sweep in the back. Of course, there was a girl’s version of the ducktail, too.

Summer Dee & Donahue

Troy's Sexy Beta Haircut!

The “beta” haircut was a precursor to the Beatle haircut and featured long, swooping bangs, but was cut short above the ears. I could not find a reference to this early ’60s cut, but I think it originated on college campuses, and fraternities spawned the “beta” reference. The best beta cut belonged to teen matinée idol Troy Donahue. Sigh.

Before ending this rather random post, I need to tell you I searched for a few sources for old words beyond what my memory could provide, and found one to be Ann’s own blog. This is just a little ironic because she indirectly mocked her husband for calling their Newfoundland a “pill,” but in The Writer’s Corner, she asked “WHAT IN THE SAM HILL ARE THESE PEOPLE THINKING?” (You don’t hear that reference everyday, and just who in the Sam Hill is Sam Hill?) In another entry, she proclaimed, “That would be a grand gift.” (My Grandpa Barrett was the last person who regularly used “grand,” and he’s been gone for 25 years.)

Let’s face it, Ann likes those old-fashioned words enough to use them. And so do I – most of them anyway. They take me back to a place or a person, an incident or a dream – grand times I can retrieve in memory only.