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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Comforting Hope

Today I am baking funeral potatoes for a dinner for a family on our street whose five-year-old daughter died last week. She and several other children were jumping on a bed, when suddenly she hit the screen on the second-story window next to the bed and went right through it, falling to the pavement. It has been a terrible shock to the little girls and boys in the homes right around hers, with whom she played, and probably a more terrible shock to all the parents. Of course the most terrible shock is to her own parents and extended family.

There is something odd about funeral potatoes. They are made with butter and sour cream and cheese—fats that I try to avoid most of the time, that are staples of “comfort food.” Why are fats comforting? Perhaps in the dim reaches of time, our ancestors stored as much of these fats as they could get, because too often their existence was threatened by lack of food or the necessity of moving or fleeing or something that precluded the production of dairy products, and when they could get them, they found the conditions comfortable and comforting together. Whatever the reason, we all need at least a little fat, and many of us derive comfort from fats in times of great stress.

When I was asked if I would make something for this funeral dinner for these people whom I do not actually know, but whose neighbors I do know pretty well, I was glad to help provide the comfort food, and perhaps provide a bit of comfort of discovering that the neighbors who don’t even know you care about the fact that your little daughter is so suddenly gone from you.

I went to another funeral yesterday, for a friend who had lived long and well. His whole life seems to have been dedicated to doing everything as well as he could, and it seems he was blessed with such abundant talents that that was very well indeed. He could play any musical instrument he took a fancy to, but he played the saxophone most. He was mechanically inclined and loved working with his hands, either fixing mechanical or electric things or building things. He was an English professor at a university, and, said his brother, although he was not always an English professor, he always had acted like one. Not just correcting grammar—he spent time and trouble to help people learn how to express themselves as well as they could. Apparently if you had been one of his students, you would have found that the papers you turned in were returned to you covered with more writing than you had submitted—he took the time with every paper from every student to help make them all the best that they could possibly be.

These kinds of memories of the departed, those that sum up the good things they have accomplished, are rich in comfort. I think the reason we don’t speak ill of the dead is that in their goodness and efforts to achieve great things we find the “fat” and comforting parts of life—and we have hope for them and by extension for ourselves. When little children die, we find comfort in the knowledge that in their purity and innocence surely there is rich promise of salvation.

It being the week following Easter, I find hope and comfort in reflecting on the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, through which all of us will gain eternal life. Because He “drew living breath and conquered death,” we will see our loved ones again and know that the death of the little girl and of the old man are temporary separations. This to me is the richest of all comfort, needing no aid from any traditional funeral dinner components.

But people who survive their loved ones’ deaths must eat, and if there is any comfort in the food we provide, I want to be there, helping to provide that comfort.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter Tide

Today is Easter Sunday, and one thing I associate with this day is going to church and singing “Christ the Lord is Ris’n Today”—but we didn’t. We didn’t sing any Easter hymns today! You would have thought it was just another Sunday and not a particularly holy day. 

We sang very odd choices, I thought, for Easter Sunday. Of course, there is nothing at all wrong with the hymns we sang, for any other Sunday, but the Easter hymns are sung only one Sunday each year, and we lost our chance this year.

Where is “That Easter Morn”? Where are the Allelujahs? Where are the glad tidings of the angels ringing down through the centuries to our day, saying, “He is not here, for he is risen—come see the place where the Lord lay”?

Happily those elements of the divine Easter message were in the sermons given today. We heard the scriptures of the Savior’s Atonement and Resurrection. He is risen. He lives.

Happy Easter!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Raw Presentations

Genealogy can be the most boring thing in the world. Yesterday I was assigned to help a seminar presenter whose presentation turned out to be a most painful experience. The presenter spoke in a monotone and turned exciting details of ancestral history into boring chunks of time to endure. The poor presenter also had trouble with the program and the slides that were part of the presentation, allowing painful minute after minute to tick past while we watched the presenter type things over and over with the same wrong result, and without any explanation. No rehearsal, or too little rehearsal, I diagnosed. It could have been endurable if someone with animation had presented it.

The other big trouble with it was a poor decision not to talk about the sources that were used in creating this pedigree chart. It was supposed to be a talk on pre-1500 A.D. European genealogy, a subject that to most genealogists dictates talking about sources. Instead it was a rambling, disjointed description of the worst sort of assumption-making without mentioning sources that I have ever seen. Half the audience had walked out before the hour was half gone. I felt sorry for the presenter, but angry too.

People who don’t consider their audience when they undertake to do a presentation deserve what they get when they badly misjudge all three essential elements: the audience, the message, and the medium, especially when they volunteer; this was not a case of arm-twisting here.

I have been asked to teach two classes at the local family history library. I teach one for beginners of several varieties: beginners who want to start, those who stopped for one reason or another back before the Internet was invented, those who want motivation to help keep going, and those who think everything is “all done” but who have been told to check things. With such a broad audience, I have worked and worked and worked on the presentations for this class, which runs five weeks. I started teaching it almost a year ago and have probably rewritten every presentation completely twice. Mostly I tweak things. I have practiced over and over, and most of my lessons have gone smoothly. I can think of only one that was too raw when I first presented it to be comfortable, but my class did not seem to mind. I rewrote it right away, and I have continued to tinker with it since then to make it as near perfect as I can. My partner who teaches the same class on a different day and I talk all the time about what we should change, what we should keep the same, and whether to expand what we offer. When your audience is broad, it affects the message and the medium drastically. How much do we cover? Should we add hands-on elements or stick to slide-show lectures with emailed files afterward? We constantly polish our presentations.

The second class is one I have not started to teach yet. It is on a genealogy software program that I tried out for the free 60-day period offered, and then I dropped it in favor of that company’s rival. How ironic that I should now be asked to learn the program I rejected as quickly as I can so that I can start teaching beginners how to use it! I will be five minutes ahead of my class at first, I think. I am sitting in on the class as offered by a man who is pretty skilled in the software, to see how he teaches and to pick up as many tips as I can, as quickly as I can. I have to teach it hands-on, which I have never done before. I have the rest of this month to prepare. Yikes!

I have been in the “five minutes ahead” teaching position before. When my friend Pam and I decided to apply to teach freshman English classes as graduate student instructors, we went into the English Department office to talk to the composition coordinator one Monday midway through the semester before we expected to start. The coordinator unexpectedly needed two instructors for two block classes that started the next day, and rashly, we agreed to try to fill the slots! We were young and foolish—no, crazy! She spent a couple of hours with us, going over everything we were going to have to do the next day in class. We got through the first day of class all right. That night, we were tutored again in what we had to do the next day. That’s how the block went for the first month. Every night we found out what to do the next day. Every night’s tutoring session was a little shorter as we learned how to manage the time and subjects ourselves. It worked—at least, our classes never realized how raw we were until we both told them, the last day, and they were astounded, every one of them. We were well assured that they could not tell that we had not been teaching for years, and my! that gave us confidence in our con-artist abilities. I mean, we became confident teachers.

How raw a presentation is does not depend strictly on the preparation that goes into it. The fourth element, after assessing and addressing the needs of the audience, message, and medium, is the presenter’s manner. Manner can be taught to some extent, but we all have endured people who cannot speak with animation or interest. I hope I can be interesting when I am talking about a program I rejected. Obviously, I won’t let my class know I rejected this program! I will be positive about it—and there are many things about it that help. Where this program has bells, mine has different whistles, and vice versa.

The poor presenter of yesterday (I use the word “poor” both in sympathy and descriptively) probably went home knowing the bitter taste of failure—we could plainly hear through the walls the enthusiastic applause at the end of someone else’s presentation and there was no applause in our room. I am inspired to put a lot of work into my classes so that the presentations are worthwhile for those who come, and I hope to be successful in “ripening” the raw materials.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Round Grammies

It’s tradition: Grammies are supposed to be round. I know, I know. Most grandmothers these days are slim, trim, fit, tanned, athletic, stylish, and do everything to put off the obvious effects of aging. They exercise a lot, eat little, have their hair done and makeup on, wear youthful clothes, and sometimes even have cosmetic surgery.

My mother is and has always been slender. I won’t say she’s athletic, but she can walk a long way if she wants to. Put her on a beach somewhere and she’ll tire you out.

She kept her reddish-brown hair until she was in her 70s I think. I can’t exactly remember when she let her hair turn silver, but it was a while after she finally became a grandmother. She had to wait a very long time to become a grandmother. She was over 60, but a modern grandmother who was fit, trim, and able to play all day with the little ones and not get tired. 

My grammy, however, was little and round. She never reached five feet tall, and she was wonderful to hug—not a bone sticking into you anywhere. When I was little, she was always in a flowered type of soft dress, the kind that goes with a round, soft Grammy, the kind that works well with an apron so that Grammy can get on with the business of making cookies and pie and other goodies for grandchildren to eat. 

She did wear slacks later on—those funny polyester double-knit things that grammies in the 1970s wore and that nobody today admits to ever having owned.

She never had any color of hair but white, at least not in my memory, and not in my mother’s memory either (my mother was next to the youngest). Her soft, wrinkled face was pale like old pink rose petals. Her eyes were sparkly blue, and her skin had never known makeup—she was of that generation that didn’t seem to need it to be beautiful, unless you went to Hollywood when the movie industry was born and you became an It Girl. But an It Girl is definitely not my idea of a grammy.

My grammy died 20 years ago, when she was 99 and a half years old, a busy, active, warm, round person who loved gentle teasing and joking and feeding you good things.

So in the tradition of grammies, I am letting my hair turn white (although it is taking forever); I may give up on wearing makeup (it doesn’t seem to have the glamour effect I used to expect); and best of all, I now have a very good reason not to feel guilty about being overweight anymore: I am upholding Tradition. I am keeping alive the little, round Grammy of Yesteryear.

Here is a picture I took of my grandparents one Christmas.
Hooray for Round Grammies!

For further stories about my grandmother and her adventures, see the lists on my Munro and Read genealogy pages.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Dog Wash

When I was driving around one day I saw a sign for a drive-through dog wash. How on earth would that work? I can’t imagine it, unless you have to hook up your dog to a little dog-cart and you hold the reins and drive your doggie through as if he were a little pony. But wouldn’t you get all wet too?

Of course, I always get all wet when I wash my dog. He is big, and he shakes to rid himself of excess water frequently, like every ten or twelve seconds. He squirms around a lot. You start rubbing doggie shampoo into one side and he promptly tries to turn that side away from you. You get very wet trying to reach around him and turn him and so on. His hair is long and curly too.

When he was still a little puppy (only 7 pounds of cuteness when we got him from the Humane Society), I washed him in the sink. Then he started growing, way too fast. I washed him in the bathtub, and we had to call a plumber to clean out the drain. “Don’t ever wash your dog in the house again,” he advised me. Oooops.

So I have to wait until the first warm day of spring to wash away all the winter doggie dirt. He was smelling pretty rank by the time I got to wash him last week. One winter I couldn’t stand it and took him to a doggie beauty parlor and paid to have him bathed. He returned to us late that afternoon looking and smelling very nice, but at a cost that I felt I could next time save and take myself and husband out to a nice dinner instead, and put up with the dog smell until spring.

The dog is getting old. He used to attack the stream of water issuing from the hose, no matter how small the trickle. He loved biting it, loved when I’d hold it up in the air and let him jump and jump for it, snapping madly and wagging his tail wildly. Now he slurps a couple times and then looks at me mournfully. “Are you going to soak me? Do I have to put up with it?” Enormous doggie sigh of resignation.

The breeze felt warm for the last day of March, but once that cold water hit him, and once he shook it all over me, we were both shivering as we felt the ice-tinged edges of a very early spring wind which brought snow the very next day.

Still, as he lay indoors and watched the snow steadily falling, falling, falling, he looked and smelled very nice indeed. The idea carried its own peculiar warmth.