Just Call Me

Grandma called me Christine Jeanie Karen.  She went through different name lists for others in the family, but the route to “Karen” was always the same.  I often wondered, but never asked, how I fit on this particular list.

Christine was my great aunt, rarely seen, but much remembered thanks to Grandma.  The same starting sound best explains why our names were linked.

Jeanie was my mom’s cousin, maybe fifteen years older than me.  Another rarely seen relative.  She and I were the only blondes in a brunette and black haired family.  That’s the best I can do to make any kind of connection with Jeanie.

I remember this fondly now, largely because I find myself struggling with family names, too.  The first syllable of my daughter’s and sister’s names rhyme.  Anyway, that’s my excuse for repeatedly calling them by the others name. The children I work with and my nieces and nephews often suffer through being called a siblings’ name – by me and others.  I knew better than to name my children with the same starting letter sound, but failed to apply that rule when we named our pets.  Luckily Dixie, Dogg, Daisy and Dexter don’t complain when I get their names wrong.

As the old saying goes, “I don’t care what you call me – just don’t forget to call me for supper.”  Maybe that should be our family motto.

Weekly Writing Challenge: Power of Names


A Standup Grandpa

To meet my grandpa’s approval, you could be thin, good looking, rich, a fellow Christian, or none of those things.  Only a sense of humor was required.  Often opinionated and gruff,  humor bridged his connection to others.

Visitors to his home were greeted with “Sit down and make yourself homely” and dismissed with “Well, I’d better get to bed and let you good people go home”.

We children collected jokes, gifting him with endless “knock, knock” variations, just to earn his smile.  He rewarded our weakest efforts, giving a joke in return. 

Whatever the holiday, our family feasts ended the same way.  While we were still at the tables, Grandpa would stand up at the head and do about twenty minutes of material.  Many were long, involved stories, meandering to the punch line.  Family members comprised most of the audience, so many of the jokes were familiar old favorites to them.

The adults laughed in anticipation as each joke began, getting more hysterical as he moved from story to story.  Observing from the kids’ table, the laughter-to-tears of aunts and uncles entertained us as much as the jokes, but I still strained to listen for the one joke I never heard him finish.

  As grandpa wrapped up one long story (about how the farmer finally figured out he could tell his two horses apart because the white one had longer ears than the brown one..) it happened again.  Grandpa said something about two men in a boat while all the adults howled with laughter.  Then he grinned and sat down.  Foiled again, I wondered why they never let him finish this last joke…

Years after Grandpa’s death I had the chance to visit with a cousin who spent many childhood years living with or near my grandparents. A great story-teller and comedian in his own gentle way, he told me a few of his favorites from Grandpa’s collection.  His retelling of the old jokes prompted my memory, and I asked him if he’d ever heard the end of the boat joke, expressing my frustration at never hearing the whole thing.

He gave me an odd look, and asked what I remembered of it.

“Something about two men in a boat, and one of them was the Captain.”

He grinned Grandpa’s grin.  “There were two men in a boat, and one of them was the Captain.  No…no…the OTHER man was the Captain…”.  In chagrin I realized I’d heard the whole thing all along.

I think of this joke every time I hear someone needlessly correcting the details of a story, and I smile, remembering Grandpa.


I Wish Dad Was Driving

It was my first experience with black ice. Approaching a stop sign on a narrow country road, I braked and the van slid. My ten year old son and I were silent for tense moments while we spun and I tried to remember or intuit how to respond on ice. We stopped, still miraculously on the road, front tires lined up on the edge of the deep ditch in the opposite lane. Thankful – and proud – of keeping us on the road, I took a deep breath. My son was the first to speak, “I wish Dad was driving”.

Maybe he thought I’d suddenly gone crazy, forgotten how to drive. Maybe he knew we’d hit ice. No matter, I understand his response. My husband is a good man and a safe driver. When you are young, a good dad at the wheel gives a sense of security.

My Dad was a much better man than driver. They called it “Sunday driving”, looking around more than at the road. But Dad drove when our family traveled, and Mom kept an eye on the road. My spot in the car was always the seat behind the driver. I imagine this was so Mom could get out of the passenger seat and assist my younger sister on her side, leaving Dad the older kid who needed less help.

We made frequent trips to visit grandparents, less than two hours away, and good friends, a four hour drive. We sang to entertain ourselves as a trip began. Mom taught us School Days and My Sweetheart’s the Man in the Moon. Dad led on Don’t Fence Me In, Every Day with Jesus, and Maresy Doats. They harmonized together on We Ain’t Got a Barrel of Money, as we “traveled along, singing our song, side by side”. We sang in the sunshine, looking for familiar landmarks, excitement growing until, at last, we were there!

It was often late as we drove home. More subdued, tired from the fun, we sang and talked less. I loved the ride home, especially on a starlit summer night. Dad would keep a window vented for a cool breeze. Curled up on the seat behind him, the breeze in my face, I was alone counting the stars, dreaming my dreams. Alone, cocooned with my family and happy memories of the day.

Despite his Sunday driving, the car never wrecked, just the family. Singing and family road trips ended, and before long I was at the wheel myself. But I can still remember the sense of contentment and security I felt when Dad drove us home.

Skipping Away

Parking at a school, watching children through my van’s windshield is not as creepy as it sounds.  Even though it is part of my daily routine.

Most school-aged children at our day care center ride a bus to and fro, but that is not an option for either the sixth grade boy I pick up after school or the five Kindergarteners I pick up at noon.  Watching either the Middle School or Kindergarten groups dismiss can be entertaining, and both are great opportunities to observe human nature.

The Kindergarteners were carefully tagged and trained the first two weeks of school until  they and the teachers knew what line each belonged in, how they were to exit the building, and how to safely approach and enter the vehicle for their trip home.  Months later, they are still monitored, with teachers at the front of the line and strategically placed within the line to herd these children quickly, safely to those of us waiting in three lanes to transport them. It is an impressively organized routine.

Even so, this line of seventy children is no orderly line of ducklings following their mama.

Sure, some are a study in concentration as they keep their eyes straight ahead, maintaining an even pace and a careful distance from the child they follow. These concentrators take their new role as Kindergartener seriously, leaning forward slightly to balance the big backpack they are wearing.  Some concentrators even maintain their composure while the child behind them repeatedly bumps into them, shoves them, or swings a back pack at their head. When these more “interactive” kids tire of pestering the child ahead of them, they try the funny-every-time trick of stopping suddenly, causing a collision and mini pile-up of children behind.  Many are nonchalant line-walkers by now, looking around for distractions without intentionally bothering others.  They check out the cars, find people to wave at,  or spot friends and call repeated goodbyes. This inattention may cause them to run into another walker, to wander out of line, or to occasionally trip and fall.  As long as they get back up, no one seems concerned. The line keeps moving.

Teachers position themselves by rain puddles, urging the children to go around.  The concentrators proudly obey.  The distracted “nonchalants” wander through the puddle while staring at the teacher who is talking so animatedly.  The “interactives” stomp gleefully through the middle and look for more puddles.

No one in the Kindergarten line seems self conscious of others watching them, or self aware as to how they compare, though they differ greatly in size and shape, and styles of clothing. These Kindergarteners all seem happy or at least content, to be walking in line together, part of a group.

Despite varied walking styles, any of them, at any time, might suddenly begin to skip.  Even the most serious minded concentrator spontaneously skips a few steps.  Even the little boy with the skull on his black t-shirt that says “Too Cool For School”, skips. Little girls wearing Disney princess shirts and pigtails, and the ones dressed like mini-teens, skipping together.  It always makes me smile.

When do we stop skipping?  Why?

Six years older, the middle school kids burst out of the building like popcorn.  Many doors, no organized parking lines, no teachers visible, they pop out one or two at a time, then in great bunches overflowing into the streets, then a few last stragglers.

Six years older than my Kindergarteners, so much has changed.

Most seem self-conscious, sure everyone is watching, judging.  They are hugely aware of each other, ignoring any random adults.  Like the Kindergarteners, they vary greatly in size, shape and style of clothing.  Some of them are laughing and happy, some look desperately unhappy as they hurry away.  Some still roughhouse, shoving a friend off the sidewalk or into someone else.  Some talking on a cell phone – that shield against apparent loneliness.  Running, yelling, shoving, riding bikes, walking along.  No one is skipping. Ever.

Those walking alone interest me the most,  worry me a little.  I am glad to see someone speak to them or wave, to know that they have not been completely alone that day.

The boy I pick up just turned twelve.  He still waves each day when he spots me.  He has introduced me to friends and a girlfriend when they have been walking near him.  But he usually walks out alone.  He chatters to me about his good days and bad days, and is peculiarly happy with his lot in life, which has not been easy.  Not much easy in sight for the future, either.

I pray for him.  Childhood skips away too quickly.