Category Archives: When We Were Young

Your past or mine?

How Jessica Mitford Exposed A $48m Scam From America’s Literary Establishment

Great story.

David Gaughran

Cerf1Jessica Mitford took on the American funeral industry, the California Department of Corrections, and the Ku Klux Klan, but it was her 1970 exposé of The Famous Writers School which led to Time calling her “The Queen of the Muckrakers.” And if a courageous editor hadn’t reversed his decision to kill her story, it might never have happened.

Mitford had been aware of The Famous Writers School’s existence for some time. Anyone who was a frequent reader of newspapers, books or magazines would have seen its ever-present advertisements, inviting aspiring writers to cut out and apply for the free aptitude test. While Mitford was suspicious, she didn’t have anything concrete until her lawyer husband took on a new client.

Bob Treuhaft was approached by a 72-year old widow, living on Social Security, who had cleaned out her bank account to make a down-payment to The Famous Writers School. On the…

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A small boy’s world as seen from pillow hill

My Dear Abraham,

I am so happy you are feeling better. You will soon be four and so big! I know that you have had to spend a lot of time lately on the sofa, at home in bed or even on your back in your room at the kid’s hospital. That was important because you needed to rest and to take your medicine.

But you had to think of ways to have fun while you couldn’t run around! You had lots of good ideas. There were interesting books to read, movies to watch, silly games to play with aunts and uncles, even a puppy named Jig. And of course, toy cars and trucks of every size and color! Monster trucks like Grave Digger and little cars like Mini Cooper raced over mountains of pillows and blankets while you made up the stories for their adventures.

I was thinking of you when I read this poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, a famous writer who also wrote the book, “Treasure Island,” which I hope you will read someday. He was very sick when he was a little boy and made up stories while he lay in bed. And he didn’t have a TV or iPads to keep him busy — they hadn’t been invented yet!

You’ll need to know that a “counterpane” is another word for bedspread or a cover for your bed.

I hope you enjoy this poem, too, and think of how far your imagination can take you, no matter where you are.   Love, Gramma


The Land of Counterpane

When I was sick and lay a-bed,
I had two pillows at my head,
And all my toys beside me lay,
To keep me happy all the day.

And sometimes for an hour or so
I watched my leaden soldiers go,
With different uniforms and drills,
Among the bed-clothes, through the hills;

And sometimes sent my ships in fleets
All up and down among the sheets;
Or brought my trees and houses out,
And planted cities all about.

I was the giant great and still
That sits upon the pillow-hill,
And sees before him, dale and plain,
The pleasant land of counterpane.

– Robert Louis Stevenson, 1850-1894

The first Earth Day had its asterisks


Every April 22 reminds me of that very first Earth Day celebrated in 1970. It started as a nationwide Environmental Teach-In, championed by Wisconsin’s own US senator, Gaylord Nelson. The Teach-In echoed the “ins” of that generation, like the Love-In and the Be-In, and many of its advocates wore bell-bottom pants and their hair as nature intended, long or “fro.” A newsletter reported “Earth Day observers in Milwaukee nominated the toad, the praying mantis and the ladybug as substitutes for DDT.”

I was part of a big group of students who gathered in Milwaukee that day on the banks of the polluted Milwaukee River near the performing arts center to hear speeches, a rock band and street performers with a common message: that we need to keep the Earth, our home, free of pollution, litter and other things harmful to children and animals. Music pulsed through the the air while a banner fluttered over a bridge proclaiming “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.”

It was an exciting day, full of hope, the camaraderie of fellow college students and the heady belief that we were part of something important, something smart leaders were willing to lead. We believed we ourselves could make changes happen by not polluting our fragile environment in any way.

So, fired up and hungry after the rally, I was happy when my boyfriend John suggested we go down to the lakefront to grab some burgers from a stand. We sat in the car talking and eating and just before John started up the engine he did something shocking. He took the paper sack from the burgers, crumbled it up in his fist, and tossed it out the open window in the parking lot.

“What did you just do!” I gasped.

For G—d’s sake, it was Earth Day! (And this was my future husband!) One simply does not litter on Earth Day.

So my memory of Earth Day always had this little asterisk after it. The next day, on the news, we learned that the National Mall was filled with litter after its first Earth Day rally. We all had a lot to learn, and still do.


No business like snow business

ImageIt was 8:26 on a snowy Saturday evening when the doorbell startled me. I had just sat down after a busy but satisfying day, so I was tired but in a good mood when I opened the door to see two snow-suited boys, each with a snow shovel held upright at their sides. The boys faces beamed up at mine while I quickly surveyed their attire, and gave their parents credit for properly outfitting them in warm knit hats, gloves and boots.

“Can we shovel your driveway?” they chimed.

My husband sat in his easy chair across the room, shaking his head back and forth, indicating he’d get to the task later on. The powdery snowfall was only an inch or two deep, a piece of cake compared with the foot-deep monster falls he had tackled all winter.

“How much do you charge?” I asked.

“Oh, whatever you want to pay us.”

“That sounds good. Will you do the driveway and the sidewalk too?”

“Oh, yes.” they said enthusiastically. “We’ll do it all.”

“Well, OK. Just come back in a few minutes when you are done and I’ll pay you.”

The pair ran off toward the driveway, shovels in hand, to begin their work.

On the TV, the movie “The Social Network” was playing. In it, a brainy but insecure Harvard student creates a social networking site that would become known as Facebook and make a gazillion dollars. True story.

My little entrepreneurs were outside working their hearts out in ten degree weather. Who knew what their future would hold?

At 8:35 the doorbell rang again.

“We’re done!” the two boys announced.

“Oh, that was quick,” I said as my generous mind overcompensated the extreme lightness of the snow versus the rapid-fire shoveling energy of not one, but two, boys around our corner lot.

I handed each one a nice crisp five dollar bill.

“Thanks!” they exclaimed, eyes wide.

“You are by far our best customer yet!” one of the boys said.

Before I could mentally translate my gift into hourly pay or eyeball the sidewalks they had been assigned to, the boys were off, perhaps to their next, less-generous customer, or off to today’s equivalent of the candy shop with their cash.

I closed the door with a smile on my face. Nice boys, warmly dressed, polite, ambitious, working outdoors, away from TV and trouble. What more could one want from eight minutes and $10?

My husband was putting his coat on to go outside and check their work. The snow was mostly gone from the driveway and front walk, but on the east side the walk was untouched.

I didn’t care. Two little smiling faces stayed in my mind. I was their best customer ever.

Library story time for Grandma

One of the great things about being a grandmother is that you get to go back in time and do things with your grandchildren that you used to do with your kids. Ostensibly, these activities and excursions are for the benefit of the child, but grandparents seek them out and take them in as eagerly as you would an ice cream cone on a hot summer day.

This week I took my three-year-old grandson to Story Time at the library. We have a wonderful library in our town, a sprawling, two-story brick building that takes up nearly a whole block. From the back parking lot, we climbed over some snow piles and walked around the block to the front of the building where parents and grandparents with kids in tow were entering.

Abraham was excited to see all the toys, stuffed animals, puzzles and the Thomas the Train railroad set waiting outside the story room in the children’s section of the library, where there are pint-size chairs, low-slung shelves and big picture books. He quietly and carefully took in the scene as boys and girls about his size took off their coats and darted for the toys they liked best. Abraham decided he’d play with the trains too. He politely took his place at the play table and began escorting his engine down and around the tracks. The play had a rhythm of its own as children came and went from the table and the little wooden cars changed hands.

As Story Time approached and the adults gently pried the children away from the toys, I noticed that at least half of the older set were about my age, probably grandparents. These folks seemed to have a happy calm about them, perhaps because they didn’t have a gazillion chores waiting for them at home, family schedules to juggle, other kids that had to be picked up from school, or calls from work to answer that young parents had to worry about. Many of the adults were veterans of Story Time. For me, it was my first in a long time.

The Story Lady sat cross-legged on a stiff chair as the children found spots on the geometric shapes of the carpet, on a chair or on a lap in the circular shaped room. Nodding her head and looking at the children’s faces, she introduced herself clearly and tempted their imaginations with the day’s story topic: pets or, more specifically, turtles.

The Story Lady held up a picture book and began turning the pages for her wide-eyed audience. It was about a little boy who wanted a turtle for a pet – the perfect pet – but his family had other ideas. “What do you think he will get? A horse? I think it will be horse,” the Story Lady speculated. Abraham listened intently, as did a number of the children, while others were in a constant state of wigglyness.

It was soon apparent that being a Story Lady requires a lot more than being able to read stories aloud in a clear, animated and kindly voice. It also involves theatrics for “finger play” – can you make a turtle out of your fist? – a singing voice that little ones will easily sing along with, and the patient teaching skills to direct little fingers to cut, paste, color and put away all the things you need to make a paper turtle.

As I helped Abraham get his coat on, holding his paper turtle, I thought how lucky I was to be able to take him on this little adventure to the library. Story Time is just one of many fun times we’ve had, and will have. I hope he’ll cherish every one. I know I will.



The Beatles. They held our hands and won our hearts.

Beatles records

Beatles records

I remember quite clearly, on a particular day in December 1963, hearing the muffled, unmistakable giggling coming from behind the postulants’ closed door. Something was going on, something new and exciting, perhaps forbidden, definitely appealing to these old girls who at 18 or 19 had already dedicated their lives to Christ.

But this day, the Beatles had won their hearts.

Behind that door, seemingly in secret, the postulants were listening to the Beatles’ new sensation, “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” just as giddy and excited as millions of other girls across the nation. But this was Caroline Academy, and thoughts of boys and holding hands were off limits in lyrics as well as in daily life. Here, exposure to the latest contemporary music consisted of instrumentals like “Baby Elephant Walk” played while we roller-skated in the gym.

Closed doors couldn’t contain the new sound. The Beatles burst into our lives that day and their songs marked our journey for decades to come.

When I left the convent school to attend North High in Sheboygan, I used “Nowhere Man” as the hook for an editorial I wrote on school spirit. (Yes, I was a believer. Go Raiders!) I imagined myself a “Paperback Writer” in 1966. In 1968, Marquette University wasn’t immune to anti-war and open housing protests. Anthems like “Revolution” and 1969’s “Give Peace of Chance” had meaning. I remember walking down Wisconsin Avenue on Dec.1, 1969, hearing a recording of “You Say It’s Your Birthday” blaring from a window in McCormick Hall, mocking the first draft lottery held that day to determine which fellow students would be going off to fight in Vietnam.

The next year, when I was working in Indiana and my boyfriend John was in Milwaukee, “The Long and Winding Road” would be part of the soundtrack of our long-distance dating. “Instant Karma” was going to get us.

“I knew something had changed when I first heard the Beatles,” John says. On Sept, 4, 1964, he paid a reasonable $4.75 to hear them at the Milwaukee Arena. A year later, on Aug. 21, he saw them again at Comisky Park in Chicago. He bought a sleek Stratocaster® guitar, his hair grew past the required collar-length code of his high school, and he started a band whose members sang with British accents. He’s still writing and playing songs in that distinctive style.

Whether or not we knew something had changed when the Beatles came on the scene, our lives were changing in the ‘60s and ‘70s and we couldn’t “Help” it. You could hear the lyrics of their songs, you could immerse yourself in the beat, the fresh melody and harmony, and anticipate the bridge. The songs were new, some would become classic. And some would hold our hands and our hearts through our lives. I think you’ll understand.

More on this topic: Will we still need them in 2064?

Handmade Nativity

They are stuffed with cotton, sewed out of scraps. The kings have colorful stamp-size pieces of fabric tied about their heads and flowing five-inch capes. The shepherds are made of brown felt. One carries a crook made from a twig snapped from a birch tree in our yard more than 30 years ago. There is the sheep, the most forlorn of this homemade tableau, tattered cotton balls pasted to its wobbly white felt body.

I made the camel and the donkey out of brown felt, and gave them tails of brown yarn. The two are still standing as proud as the day I used a crochet needle to tightly pack their half-inch legs. The angel is of course all white with white felt wings and golden yarn hair. She has a red sparkly pipe cleaner for a halo.

The stable has a quilted corduroy roof and fat fabric walls stuffed with cotton with dried beans at the bottom for ballast. (Spoiler Alert: do not store bean-bottom crafts in damp places. They sprout!)

Under the cozy roof is the holy trio. Mary, in light blue brushed fabric left over from doll pajamas I made so long ago. Her halo is a white felt wafer glued to her head. Joseph is subdued but for his handsome brown beard and his flying dreadlocks made of brown yarn. At the couple’s feet is a round-faced Baby, lying in a cloth manger with rays of straw-color yarn flying from the sides.

I made this Nativity when little eyes and little hands explored every inch of our house, especially at Christmas, when there were secrets to keep and wonderful stories to tell. This handmade set sat under our Christmas tree, and still does, touchable and unbreakable.