A Story I’ve Rarely Told: The A Minus Incident

I’ve mentioned before that I was one of several valedictorians of my high-school class. The six of us all had 4.0 GPAs.

A 4.0 was as high as one could get in our high school—all A grades (A+, A, A-) counted as 4 points. There were no deviations for pluses and minuses, and there were no extra points for AP or Honors classes. (In fact, the school didn’t have separate AP classes, though it offered the tests.) And, in addition, the school only counted semester grades—quarter grades were shown on report cards, but not used in calculating GPAs.

My junior year of high school was my hardest, as it is for many students, then and now. I took six courses—Honors English, U.S. History, Chemistry, French 4, German 3 (straight from German 1, I skipped German 2), and Russian 1. I had no free periods for studying, and I had homework in most of these classes most nights. But through the second quarter, I had all As, and I even had an A+ in Chemistry.

My father at about this era, early 1970s – you can see how stern he could be

For the third quarter, ending in the spring sometime, I brought home a report card with an A- on it and no A+s. I can’t remember which class the A- was in, but I remember my father’s frowning response when he saw the report card.

“You should do better than this.”

We had several dinner discussions about how an A- could be improved.

I’d been disappointed in my grades that quarter also, but I recognized that it wasn’t the end of the world. I’d have to be sure that nothing slipped further in the last quarter of the year to retain my class ranking, but I knew that this report card wouldn’t impact my GPA.

Still, I was angry and hurt at my father’s reaction. This was the man who was chastising me—the guy who got a D in Algebra?

My father’s lack of early scholarship was part of our family’s lore. My mother—also valedictorian of her high-school class—dated and married her classmate who got a D in Algebra the first year she knew him. His problem wasn’t capability, but in his early teens my future father suffered from a poor attitude and failure to do the assigned work.

Somehow my father turned it around (probably my mother’s doing) and later earned a Ph.D., but still . . . his history was that of a D student, which I knew full-well. He shouldn’t be complaining about an A-.

I hid a lot of tears that spring.

Many years later, just a few months before he died, my father and I spoke about the A- incident. My pique still showed.

“I was too hard on you,” he said, “wasn’t I?”

“Yes,” I told him.

At his funeral two years ago this week, his former secretary told me, “Your dad was awfully strict with you kids. I remember when he complained about an A- you received.” So the story had made it to his office. “I told him he shouldn’t give you such a hard time. Wasn’t I right?”

I chuckled and said I’d told him the same thing.

Like my father, I know I was hard on my kids. They were (are) smart and usually were good students. Even though I was strict, as they went through high-school and college, I tried to keep my perspective about their grades, remembering the A- incident with my father. I think I was relatively calm about grades, though I lost my cool about many other things—assignments not turned in, papers forgotten, and disciplinary failures. I’m sure they could describe many times when I overreacted.

I wonder which of my failures they will try to eliminate from their parenting behaviors, should they have kids someday.

When has a memory from your childhood impacted how you parented?

Falling In—Two Tales from Chesapeake Bay (or thereabouts)

I’ve written before about spring vacations our family took when our kids were small—how I struggled to find a church in which to celebrate Easter and how I had to hide the Easter candy from my children. One memorable trip over Easter was a week in Virginia when the children were in grade school. We started in Norfolk, flying there on Good Friday to spend the Easter weekend, before traveling on to Williamsburg and Roanoke.

My husband’s friend from his U.S. Naval Academy days was assuming command of a submarine based at Norfolk, and on the Saturday after we arrived, we attended the change of command ceremony. When I’d packed for the trip, I’d been thinking southern and spring. I’d been thinking warmth. But such was not the case. That Saturday was cold and blustery. It had rained or was raining—I can’t remember which—but the ground was wet. My daughter and I wore our Easter finery—spring dresses and fancy shoes. We had only light spring sweaters to break the wind.

USS Montpelier prepares to moor at-Naval Station Norfolk (U.S. Navy photo)

Among the events available on base to celebrate the occasion was a tour of the submarine shortly after the ceremonial reading of orders. So after eating our punch and cookies, we stood in line on the dock alongside the submarine, shivering as we waited our turn to board. Finally, it was time to step onto the top of the submarine. My daughter’s shiny new patent leather shoes slipped, despite the non-skid surface. She almost tumbled into the harbor waters of Chesapeake Bay.

My husband caught her arm and hauled her to safety.

But that was the end of her interest in a submarine tour. She wanted no further part in the ceremony, at least not in any part that took place outside. So she and I went to sit in the cold rental car (at least it was out of the wind), while my husband and son walked through the submarine.

My son came back raving ecstatically about everything he’d seen—bulkheads and warheads and mess halls and bunks. My daughter didn’t care. She just wanted to go back to the hotel and put on her jeans. I have to say, I agreed with her.

Rowing on the Potomac, though not in a pair

By a strange twist of fate, about a decade later my daughter rowed crew for Georgetown University. At some point during her freshman year, she was assigned to row a pair with a teammate. A pair is a boat with only two rowers, each using only one oar. So there is only one oar on each side of the boat—an inherently unstable proposition when practiced by beginners.

The two Georgetown rowers promptly fell into the Potomac River—the northern arm of that same body of water that my daughter had narrowly escaped in Norfolk. They were soaked in cold, not-too-clean water.

But now grown to college-age, she laughed as she told us the story. And I don’t think that was her only dowsing in the Potomac in the four years she rowed for Georgetown.

I guess she developed better coping skills in the ten year period after her Norfolk experience.

What near catastrophes do you remember from childhood vacations?

On Birthdays and Memory

Sixty years ago today was my first birthday. I was too young to remember it, but there is a fuzzy photograph of me in a high chair with a cake bearing one candle in front of me. I was the oldest grandchild on my mother’s side of the family, so I’m certain my first birthday was a big occasion.

Family lore says that I stuck my fingers in the flame and got burned. That happened to most of the kids in our family—I’m surprised my parents didn’t learn better over the years. A one-year-old does not know that candles burn. I was more careful with my own children.

Although I can remember some things from a very young age (see here and here), I have no specific memories of my birthday until my sixth birthday when I was in the first grade. Or maybe it was my seventh birthday when I was in the second grade.

My mother arranged a daisy-themed party. I have no photographic evidence of this daisy party, but I know it was my first birthday party with friends beyond family members. I had a party in the second grade that I remember well, but I think I had a party in my first grade year also, and I think that’s the daisy party I recall.

My mother made invitations and taped plastic daisies to them, then we sent the invitations by mail. I felt very grown up to be entering society with written and posted invitations requesting “R.S.V.P.”

My mother was very much in control of this party. Daisies were one of her favorite flowers, not mine. The entire party involved daisies. In addition to the invitations, there were daisies on the table, more plastic daisies on the name cards at each place setting, we played a game of pin the petal on the daisy, and so forth.

I did get to choose the cake. I chose angel food. I usually wanted angel food, whenever I got to choose. I love the airy sweet texture of angel food cake. My mother typically covered it with whipped cream and pineapple frosting, though sometimes she left it plain and served fruit compote on the side. Angel food was one of the few cakes my mother made from scratch. She preferred making pies to cakes, and most of her cakes were from boxed mixes. Though she also made German chocolate cake (my father’s favorite) and pineapple upside down cake (my brother’s favorite) from scratch, so she was capable of some fine cakes.

Even though I have no memories of my early birthdays, I know that birthdays were important occasions in our family. Birthdays were so important that we also celebrated half birthdays with half cakes. So it surprises me that my early memories don’t include my birthdays. But they don’t.

That is the way of memory. We cannot decide how to fill the filing cabinet in our mind. Why certain things remain in our heads and others disappear forever is a mystery. Is it because certain physical synapses connect in our brains, triggered by later events? Is it because some traumas sear us irrevocably and cannot be dispelled? Is it because some scenes get repeated as family lore and institutionalized in our minds? Probably all of the above. Our memories make us who we are, yet we have no control of which we keep and which we lose.

Which is the earliest birthday you remember?

Recipe — Lemon Bread

Unlike me, my father liked to cook. In fact, he paid part of his way through college as a short-order cook for his fraternity. When my father traveled and found a food item he liked, he cajoled the cook into giving him the recipe so he could make it himself.

Several years ago, my father went on a Snake River fishing trip. He stayed at the White Water Ranch along the way, and the ranch served lemon bread with breakfast. My father got the recipe, and it became one of his staples.

He passed the recipe along to me, and here it is, along with my suggestions and modifications:

Lemon Bread (makes two loaves)

1 cup oil (whatever kind you like)
2 cups sugar
4 eggs
1 cup buttermilk
2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
lemon rind (I grate 2 fresh lemons)
1 cup chopped nuts (pecans, walnuts, or almonds — optional)

For the glaze:

1/4 cup lemon juice (I use juice from the 2 lemons)
2/3 cup powdered sugar

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Cream together oil and sugar. Add eggs, beat well. Add buttermilk.
3. Combine flour, salt & soda and beat into mixture.
[NOTE: Officially, the recipe says Steps 2 and 3 are separate, but I dump everything in the bowl before mixing. So did my dad. It works just fine.]
4. Add lemon rind and fold in nuts.
[NOTE: I peel the lemons, then grind the peel in a food processor and use it all. Also, the nuts are completely optional, if you have allergies. I usually use pecans, but I used almonds recently and liked the bread even better. Some people use walnuts. I grind the nuts in the food processor until they are almost pulverized before dumping them in.]
5. Pour into two greased loaf pans.
6. Bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.
[NOTE: The official recipe says 40 minutes, but I have always needed to bake the bread a full hour. Probably because of all the lemon peel and nuts. Make sure you cook it completely, or it will be too doughy.]
7. After the loaves have cooled, glaze with lemon juice and powdered sugar. If you want a thicker glaze, decrease lemon juice or add more powdered sugar.
[NOTE: I usually wait several hours or overnight to glaze the loaves. I like a heavy glaze, so I only use about half the lemon juice the recipe calls for, then I add powdered sugar until it’s as thick as cake frosting.]

A loaf of lemon bread out of the freezer, ready to slice

The hardest part is getting the bread out of the pans without the bottom sticking, even when the pans were thoroughly greased. If anyone has any secret tips on how to do this easily, please post in the comments.

Bread can be frozen. In fact, it is easier to slice if frozen, so I freeze the loaves right after I make them, then pull out a loaf about 30 minutes before I need to slice it.


Treasures & Trash: Or Why I Hate to Clean and Why I Hate to Throw Things Out

I could have titled this post “Tidying Up, Part 2.” But I decided on “Treasures and Trash” because that is what I found.

It started as a simple project. I have a chest in which I have stored items for many years. It’s a small chest, the height of a short dresser, and it has cupboard doors. Over the years, when I had photographs printed, I would throw the envelopes of snapshots (together with negatives or CDs) into the chest. Old family portraits I didn’t want to display anymore went into the chest, along with the frames they were in, unless I had another portrait to put in the frame. I stored many other keepsakes in the chest as well. After each item went in, I shut the doors and rarely thought of it again.

Occasionally, I rummaged through the chest looking for pictures for this blog, or searched through my kids’ baby books to find a date or a certificate. But for the most part, out of sight, out of mind.

It was getting hard to keep the doors on the chest shut. So I finally decided I had to clean it out. Really, I thought, if I just put the loose envelopes of photos into boxes, I could keep the chest neat enough to close the doors. So one Saturday afternoon, I found some boxes and started in.


Before: The Messy Stage

There is always a stage in a cleaning project when it is messier than when one begins. This immediately became true of this project. No way could I simply cram photo envelopes into boxes and stash everything back in the chest. There was too much stuff in there.

I’d been afraid something like this would happen, which is why I chose an afternoon when my husband was away. Messes—at least my messes—make him nervous.

But I’d started. I had to do something, to get it back to a stage when my husband wouldn’t see a mess.

So once everything was out of the chest, I started sorting. I found many things that were trash, and many that were treasures. In the trash category were about two years of old financial statements from the mid-1990s. And many terrible snapshots of family members (though I didn’t bother to sort these out). And also a costume I’d worn for Halloween at work in about the year 2000—Catbert, Evil HR Director.

But there were even more treasures. Things I’d been looking for. Things I’d forgotten I had. Things I don’t think I ever knew I had. The photograph of my brother and me with Santa Claus from 1960 or 1961—I’ve been searching for that since my father died two years ago (though I think this copy was my grandmother’s, not my parents’). A 1950 picture of the adults in my husband’s family at a civic event (one of the things I didn’t know I had). A postcard from my husband to his great-aunt announcing that he’d taken a girl (me) home to his mother (another thing I didn’t know I had). Many pictures of momentous occasions in my children’s lives I’d forgotten about—my daughter’s preschool graduation, my son’s Eagle Scout ceremony (now if I could just find a copy of the speech I gave), and many visits and vacations. And so much more.

These treasures are why I hate to throw things out. I didn’t have time to look through all the photos. I’m sure there are more treasures in some of the rolls of film from years ago. If I simply toss them, I might lose something precious, a memory that would make me smile.

In months to come, you’ll hear more about the treasures I found. And maybe about some additional treasures, if I can steel myself to get back into those boxes. If I can bear to attack the chest again.

After: Much neater, and less stuff

I spent a miserable afternoon at the chore, but the treasures were all back in the chest before my husband got home. The trash? It’s been thrown out, the financial records shredded.

When have you found family treasures you didn’t know you had?

My Grandmother’s Jell-O

As a child, I spent a lot of time with my maternal grandmother, my Nanny Winnie. My mother, brother, and I even lived with my grandparents for a few months when I was small. So I know Nanny Winnie cooked for me a lot. But I don’t remember any signature dishes she made. I remember she sometimes prepared something different for my grandfather than for us children, because he was definitely a meat-and-potatoes man, and we were more mac-and-cheese. And I know she didn’t make me eat cooked carrots before I got dessert—she was too nice.

I don’t think Nanny Winnie particularly liked to cook, though like all wives and mothers of her day, she did it. I remember going to the grocery store with her. The store was around the corner from her house in Klamath Falls, Oregon. She didn’t drive, so we walked to the store. When she had selected what she wanted, the grocery later delivered it. I guess that was common practice in the late 1950s—the store certainly never made a big deal about it.

Many years later, in early 1973, after my grandmother’s second husband died, she moved to Richland, Washington, to be close to her daughter (my mother) and her grandchildren. She usually came over to our house for Sunday dinner, and sometimes on other occasions as well. Her apartment became where we celebrated a lot of second-tier holidays. My parents handled Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, but Nanny Winnie often did Easter, and she hosted many birthday and graduation dinners as well.

Nanny Winnie was very outgoing and social. She developed her own circle of friends in Richland, mostly other widows, but she also went to many women’s functions with my mother and my mother’s friends. My mother’s circle were women raising families and active in their churches.

Sometimes my mother’s friends were shocked at Nanny Winnie’s more relaxed approach to life—after all, by this time, she was in her late sixties. She lived alone and didn’t have to cook for a crowd except for our occasional family celebrations.

When she went to a potluck, Nanny Winnie took Jell-O (or else baked goods she bought at a store). She often served Jell-O at our family gatherings also. I didn’t mind—I liked Jell-O. In particular, I liked her peach Jell-O with canned sliced peaches in it.

My high-school graduation dinner at Nanny Winnie’s apartment. If you look closely, you can see the dishes of peach Jell-O. Or maybe it was orange.

One time Nanny was invited to go somewhere with a few of my mother’s friends. “I can’t,” she told them. “I have to go home and make my Jell-O.”

My mother’s friends were not impressed with her excuse. “How long does it take to make Jell-O?” they asked. Nanny Winnie’s need for an entire afternoon to make Jell-O became a standing joke in this group, as well as in our family.

Granted, making Jell-O is not difficult. It takes advance planning, because it must be allowed to gel. But otherwise, it is simple. Even with canned fruit thrown in.

Still, now that I am almost of the age when Nanny Winnie shifted into her Jell-O days, I can understand. Any cooking that takes advance planning is an incursion on my life and unlikely to have any long-term impact on anyone. I am much more sympathetic to her excuse than I was forty-five years ago.

Nanny Winnie was born 109 years ago today. I think she’d approve of my limited focus on cooking these days. (Actually, I’ve always had a limited focus on cooking.)

How do you feel about Jell-O? And cooking?

The Paper Chase and Other Chases

This Saturday, March 4, 2017, marks the 40th anniversary of the first date my husband and I ever went on. We’d planned another date in early January 1977. That date had been to see The Paper Chase, a movie about first-year students at Harvard Law School. We were first-year students at Stanford Law School—the same scholastic environment, but with better weather.

Unfortunately, Stanford Law School at the time was not so enlightened as to have finals before the Christmas holiday. We faced them shortly after our return, which meant our entire vacation period was spent in preparation. Moreover, the student film society decided that The Paper Chase was the perfect entertainment for the Sunday evening that everyone returned from break. The next day reading week began, and first-semester finals followed a few days later.

My husband-to-be (though we didn’t know that was what he was then) was late returning to the dorm that Sunday because of flight delays after his Christmas in Missouri. I waited until fifteen minutes before the movie was to start (it was playing at the law school a block away), then headed to the theater with other classmates from our dorm. Later, I saw hubby-to-be come into the theater, and shortly thereafter, I saw him depart. He later told me he was so worried about finals he couldn’t watch the film about law school students stressing out. (I watched and enjoyed it, though I can’t say I enjoyed finals.)

Fast forward a couple of months. First-semester finals were over, and we were deep into the spring semester. It was March 4, 1977, a Friday evening, and another movie was playing on campus. I can’t remember what it was. I think it was something awful, like Straw Dogs. He’d asked me to go with him, and I’d accepted.

Before we went, I called my mother, because March 4 was her birthday. I told her I was going to the movie later with a friend.

“A male friend?”


“A date?” Her tone was a cross between parental inquisitor and conspiratorial girlfriend.

“I suppose it is,” I said, and didn’t release any additional information.

After the movie, we went out with some other classmates for late-night pizza. He made me eat anchovies. Why I ever married him after that, I don’t know. The movie might not be memorable, but the after-effects of the anchovies were. That’s the one and only time in my life I’ve eaten anchovies. Despite my gastric distress, our relationship progressed rather rapidly after March 4, and we were married in late November.

Since this year is the 40th anniversary of our courtship, you will probably be hearing more about it in the months ahead. Happy 40th, hubby, all year long!

What do you remember about your first date with your spouse?