17 August 2013

School Bells Ring

It is that time of year in many areas where teachers, parents and children prepare for another school year. It was always my favorite time of the year. (Some of us are strange, but I loved school). In the memoir-writing class I facilitate, one of our topics is to write about the teachers we remember and why. I am so glad that I had the wit to thank the teacher who made the greatest difference in my life. A few years ago. I wrote the following and it was published in the Garden City (Kansas) Telegram in the town where Miss Sitts taught high school for 35 years.

Choices mark the pathways of our life. Ironically it is the small, seemingly insignificant ones at the time that affect us most profoundly. It is not always the choice itself, but the window that it opens and introduces us to someone who will play an important role in our life.           

Choosing to take Latin rather than Spanish when I was a freshman at Garden City High School was a choice I made many years ago and looking back, I'm not sure why. At 13 what do you really know? Two years of foreign languages were recommended for those planning to go to college then and my older sister had taken Latin, so I followed in her steps.

In 1953, Garden City Junior High School was composed of seventh, eighth and ninth grades and next door was the "old" high school, which housed the sophomore, juniors and seniors. The "new" high school did not open until the autumn of 1954 when my class (Class of 1957) entered as its first sophomore class. The Latin class was at the high school — in a dark basement or lower-level room, but the teacher was a young, intense woman whose passion for the subject and her students shone like gold. That teacher was Bernadine Sitts.

 I was fortunate enough to have her for two years of Latin, for junior English and served three years on the high school yearbook staff where she labored tirelessly as our adviser. In the 35 years of her teaching career, she touched the minds and hearts of thousands of students and kept in touch with many of us via a Christmas-time letter as we went about our lives, careers and adventures. How she managed to keep track of us — long before computers — is both a mystery and a tribute to this remarkable woman who was born to teach.

Recently I received a note from Miss Sitts advising that she was moving into assisted living in Garden City and was having to clear out her files. Enclosed was a copy of some things I had written about Latin class in 1955 and a poem I penned in 1957 — items that she had saved all these years. I was touched, not only because she remembers me but because she saved those things.

What an excellent choice the educators of Garden City made when they hired this pearl of a teacher. What a lucky choice I made when I chose Latin so many years ago. Here's to Miss Sitts — nulli secunda!


P.S. Miss Sitts is gone now, but not forgotten.

31 July 2013

A-Hissing and A-Tickling

Tales from my Past

By Myra Vanderpool Gormley (c) 2013

A-Hissing and A-Tickling

She was just a ball of fur when I first saw her on that October night the night Mother sent me out on my first “trick or treating”  adventure all alone and on the wrong date.

The nice lady at the antique store located just a couple of blocks from where we lived was caught off guard and without any treats for a kid who arrived on the wrong evening. However, she graciously offered to save me the kitten of my choice if it was OK with my mom.

Mother, as I was to learn many times, was a soft touch when it came to animals, so she agreed to let me have a kitten if I would learn to take care of it.

Of course, I would. I was eight years old and would do everything. I stopped at the antique store every day after school to check on the kittens torn by which one to select. They are all so cute. One day the antique store lady told me I could pick out my kitten and take it home. They had their eyes open and were weaned.

Decision time! Oh, how I agonized over which one to pick. Finally, one of the kittens stole my heart. She was feisty and impish arching her back, jumping about, hissing playfully and pouncing on her siblings.

I named her “Curly” though the reason escapes me. She was just a nondescript multi-colored kitten who might have had some calico ancestry.

Curly made herself right at home at our house. Her homemade litter box (a cut-down cardboard box with dirt from the backyard) was placed in the bathroom and she soon learned that when anyone went to that room, she could go too. In fact, soon no one was allowed in there without Curly. She asserted her rights from the beginning. Going to her box and watching was a favorite game. Her ability to mimic the humans’ facial expressions while utilizing the facilities in private moments became legendary family tales. One day we heard my Aunt Thelma laughing so hard at Curly’s bathroom antics that Mother thought her sister was going to pass out and sent me to check on her Aunt Thelma, not Curly.

 Curly was allowed to sleep in my room and she soon took over our twin bed and learned that my feet were ticklish .We would play the tickle game under the covers until I would give up exhausted from giggling or mother yelled at us.

Mother was about eight months’ pregnant when Curly arrived and the cat discovered that mother could not reach her if she perched underneath the easy chair up in its springs and swatted away the broom. Mother was pregnant with my twin brothers, but we didn’t know it was twins back in 1948. Everyone kept saying what a big baby it was going to be. It became increasingly difficult for her to bend over, let alone chase a rambunctious kitten.

Curly seem to realize that and took advantage of having full run of the house especially at night.

Once upon a time, Mother and her brother had gone to the Texas coast to visit other family members and she brought back a collection of beautiful seashells. She displayed them on the second shelf of the tiered coffee table. Curly considered the shells her personal toys as well as the floor-length lace curtains on either side of the fireplace.

Scrape. Scrape…. The sound was unmistakable. It was Curly, standing on her back feet, playing with the shells on the coffee table.

Many nights, Mother, who was having difficulty sleeping in the last trimester anyway, and was becoming increasingly large, would venture forth before the crack of dawn to yell at Curly or try to swat her away from the shells to get her to stop that *&^%$  noise.

Curly would arch her back, hiss, and run for the lace curtains take a swing on the left one, then the right one and when Mother came forth with the broom, Curly would head for the hallway and my bedroom.

The hallway with its lovely oak hardwood floors waxed to a glowing finish —sported a couple of throw rugs. This was Curly’s private slide area. That cat could take a flying leap from the living room, hit the first throw rug and slide into the second one and then into the linen closet at the end of the hallway. She’d unroll herself from the rug, bouncing stiff-legged into my room and be under the covers in slightly under nine seconds.

The birth of my twin brothers just after Christmas that year changed many things for my family. I caught the mumps and Curly and I were shipped off to my grandparents’ farm. Sometime later in January or February, my folks and the little twins moved to the farm, too.

By that time, Curly had discovered the joy of being a barn cat. She had made new friends and no longer cared to sleep with me.

Through the years though, I have wondered if Curly’s descendants might roam the Muskogee, Oklahoma environs arching their backs, hissing, pouncing and making little girls giggle as they tickle their feet.

13 April 2013

Taking the Country Out of a Girl

Tales from my Past
Taking the Country Out of a Girl
by Myra Vanderpool Gormley (c) 2013

Looking back, I see a number of things that happened in the fourth grade that would forever change my life and guarantee that I would never ever be the same. That was the year I began to write to deal with the pain of growing up and change. Growing up is tough and one of my many flaws is the inability to deal with changes thrown at me from all directions. Additionally, I didn’t have anyone who would listen to me they were all so busy so I began to scribble to myself.

I am not sure if it was everything that happened or just the cumulative effect of so many things that occurred in a tumultuous year. But, that was the year:

·         I saw President Harry Truman. My daddy lifted me up on his shoulders so I could see the man who was the topic of many conversations in our diverse political family. I don’t remember what the President said on his whistle-stop in Muskogee, Oklahoma that day, but I knew it was a big event and we knew he’d beat that New Yorker with the movie-star mustache Thomas Dewey

·         Mother sent me out to trick or trick alone and on the wrong date. She was good in political predictions, but with calendars and holidays not so much.

·         There was the big move. I went from being a happy country kid in pigtails and overalls, sitting cross legged in the grass of a one-room school yard eating fried ham on a biscuit surrounded by giggling friends to being the friendless new girl at a city school. I hardly recognized myself decked out in a starched scratchy dress, with curls all over my head and sock-eating saddle oxfords. Somewhat shy, but terribly unsure of myself in this strange new world, I would stand in school’s cafeteria line with dread. Clutching a quarter to purchase lunch, I was never sure of what I would have to eat. There were some weird-looking food available, but I was afraid to ask about the ingredients, lest my country-bumpkin ignorance be uncovered. The exposure to mysterious culinary fare such as shredded carrots in green Jell-O and tuna casseroles educated my taste buds, somewhat, and helped me overcome a fear of putting things in my mouth that might bite back. However, there was the unending challenge of finding a seat at a table with a friendly face and someone who would talk to me. No wonder I often had stomach cramps.

·         I learned that some teachers can be unkind even junkyard dog mean and seemingly delight in embarrassing you in front of everyone. There was also the discovery of sweet revenge when your eight-month-pregnant mother confronts the teacher and her principal with irrefutable evidence that your book report was 100 percent correct, forcing Mrs. [W-] to apologize in front of the class in which she had humiliated me. Always document your sources.

·         I tried to find a “nice” girl to invite to go to the state fair with mother and me. That lesson taught me how to use all my wits. I went to my favorite auntie for help because I did not have a clue as to what “nice” meant or what kind of girl it was that my mother wanted me to have for a friend. How can you tell nice girls from the others when you are only eight years old? I did not like girls who pinched you when their parents weren’t looking, but that hadn’t happened since I was three. I did not like crybabies, but had seen none of those in my fourth-grade classes either. There was one smarty-pants who thought she knew all the answers (but she did not), and who under no circumstances would I consider nice. I had crossed her off my invisible-ink list from the beginning. Thank goodness, there was another new girl in my class. She was quiet and shy, too, and I finally gathered up enough nerve to ask her if she would like to go to the fair with us. She accepted the invitation and more than met my mother’s approval. Mission accomplished.

·         Just after Christmas, my baby sister finally arrived but she was two boys. Somehow, the name that we had picked out for her Cynthia Elise was not going to work. What was I to do with twin brothers who couldn’t walk, talk, play or keep their milk down? The smell of molasses and goat milk still haunts me. Those ingredients turned out to be the magical formula that finally worked for the twins’ fragile digestive systems.

·         My big sister came to live with us again. She stayed with our paternal grandmother during the war and had been allowed to remain there until now. With the arrival of the twins, mother obviously needed all the help she could get. Sis moved in, with tons of her stuff, completely took over my room, and became alpha dog. She was 15 and knew everything. Everyone claimed she was very smart. I wouldn’t know. No one asked for my opinion about anything. However, Curly (my cat) and I continued to play tickle games under the covers at night, even after sister squealed on us.

·         I caught the mumps. I was promptly shipped off to my maternal grandparents where I was warm and happy, especially when I could snuggle up to grandma in her warm bed. When I recovered, I went back to my country school where we played Annie-Annie Over and ate our biscuit sandwiches. I no longer had to worry about cafeterias, strange food, mean teachers and whether the girls were nice or not.



12 January 2013

Fudging Around

Tales from my Past

Fudging Around
    By Myra Vanderpool Gormley

I’ve always enjoyed cooking — as far back as I can remember. It was a skill that was admired greatly in our family and early-on I decided I would succeed as a cook. I watched my mother, aunts and grandmothers and often was allowed to stir and sift ingredients and be their helpers when I was too young to be trusted alone near the old wood cook stoves and early gas ones.

One of my aunts was acclaimed far and wide as a superb cook. Holiday get-togethers were her county fairs, when she’d arrive with her latest masterpiece and we’d oohh and ahh and then devour it. I wanted to be as good a cook as my Aunt Thelma, and I think it pleased her that I did. She did not have any children and was delighted to teach me culinary tips.

By the time I was 12 I was a pretty fair cook — I could make biscuits, gravy that was not lumpy, pie crusts that were flaky, and cook sunny-side eggs that met my dad’s approval.

My first year of Home Ec (as they called it then) was taken in the seventh grade and I was bored because I already knew how to make everything we were being taught. Except I discovered a world of cooking tools that we did not have at home — measuring cups, spoons and thermometers. My family all cooked by eye and taste — a pinch of this, a dab of that and a squirt of whatever. My mother didn’t own any measuring tools other than an old flour sifter. She used a coffee cup and flatware spoons to measure with. The lack of measuring tools might have accounted for my difficulty in learning to make fudge.

When my older sister went off to college when I was 12, I moved up the ladder to take her place in the kitchen and help mother. Having much younger twin brothers to experiment on made it easy. They loved food — especially cookies, cakes, pies and candy. They’d eat almost anything. Somehow they survived the years of my fudge-making failures — and thank goodness, for that. It was the only dessert I couldn’t seem to master.

Sometimes my fudge looked like Mississippi Mud frosting, sometimes it would crumble like blue cheese; other times it would be so hard that even the family dog would turn up his nose. The only recipe we had was the one on the cocoa can that called for cocoa, sugar, salt, evaporated milk, butter, water, vanilla and lots of walnuts. Evidently the secret to making fudge was cooking the mixture until it reached a temperature of 232 degrees on a candy thermometer. Of course, we didn’t have a candy thermometer, so I used the “soft-ball stage” method, For example, at 235° F; the syrup (of fudge) is at the “soft-ball” stage. That means that when you drop a bit of it into cold water to cool it down, it will form a soft ball. But, I never mastered this step.

The fudge recipe called for three cups of sugar — something mother would remind me was an expensive item and not to “waste it” and, of course, walnuts were not cheap either. But my father loved fudge and so did the twins, so I kept trying — and failing. Occasionlly I’d get it right, but never on a consistent basis.

Years later, after I was married and owned measuring cups and spoons, Kraft came out with its marshmallow crème and the Fantasy Fudge recipe that never failed. For years I would make fudge at Christmastime to share with the family. Dad and my brothers would rave about it and tell again the stories about my early attempts (especially the failures) in making fudge and we’d all laugh at the memories.

I didn’t realize until a few years ago what a family legend my fudge had become until I heard my baby brother telling his grandkids about my early fudge-making days.

“Why, sometimes Uncle Jim and I would eat sis’s fudge with a spoon or we’d have to get a straw to drink it. Other times we’d feed it to the dog and sometimes we’d make fudge balls to hurl out of our backyard fort and knock out the enemy,” John said.

What an ungrateful brother. Wait until I tell his grandchildren about the time I took him and Jim on the Mad Mouse coaster ride and scared them out of their wits or about the Halloween when we went to the haunted house in Seattle and John wet his pants when a ghoul raised up out of the coffin!