October memories

Sorting through my mom’s papers after she died, I found a copy of this essay, which I wrote after my father’s passing in 1992. First published in the October 1998 edition of Mary Engelbreit’s Home Companion, it’s also included in my book, Writing Home.

img_1483-1Lately I’ve been thinking of these lines from Anne Mary Lawler’s poem about the seasons: October dresses in flame and gold, Like a woman afraid of growing old. 

This is a potent month for memories. Yesterday I watched while my son and the children next door tumbled like acrobats in the fallen leaves. (Is there a kid in the Midwest who hasn’t done this?) And later in the evening, I sniffed the familiar aroma of wood-burning fires, another indisputable sign that winter is on its way.

For me, the smoky scents of October always evoke a favorite memory of my father raking leaves in the small backyard of our first home. The memory is more than three decades old, but it glows as vividly as the logs crackling in the grate tonight.

When I was growing up — before environmental laws — everyone in my neighborhood raked leaves into neat brown piles, then burned them near the curb or in backyard bonfires. Dry and brittle as bones, the leaves and twigs snapped furiously when introduced to a match. In those days, October weekends seemed to drift in clouds of gray-blue smoke — the perfect prelude to Houdini’s Halloween.

Like most fathers, mine worked on weekdays, and often spent his weekends doing yard work. Long before the term “quality time” was coined by childcare experts, Dad would enlist my help raking leaves on Sunday after church.

I offered very little assistance, preferring to toss his neatly piled leaves back into the air, or to roll in what remained of his handiwork. Regardless, he seemed to enjoy my reckless company — and I enjoyed the novelty of helping him. Unlike my mom, who would have seized the opportunity for “girl talk,” my dad didn’t always communicate with words.

On those brisk autumn afternoons, with the sun glinting through bare branches of oak and maple, it was enough for us to be together. He raked, I rolled, and nothing of dire importance was ever said.

IMG_0043Still, young as I was, I felt the ancient ache and pull of October.

By then, I understood the seasons were cyclical; that the easy days of summer would return as surely as apples had ripened every fall. But I’d also begun to grasp the concept that time trudges ahead in a straight line, like it or not, ruffling the smooth texture of our days as it marches forward. I couldn’t have explained it quite this way, but suddenly I knew I’d have to “yield with a grace,” as Robert Frost once wrote, “the end of a love or a season.”

I recall watching my handsome young father in his plaid flannel shirt while he whistled and tended his banks of smoldering leaves, their acrid smoke filling my nostrils and forcing tears. I remember wishing that everything could stay the same — that I wouldn’t have to grow up or grow old; that autumn afternoons wouldn’t bleed to winter.

It was as if I had glimpsed the distant future and seen my father’s empty chair at our Thanksgiving table.

Of course, Dad had no idea that I had stumbled on a vast, disturbing truth and was forever changed by it. He worked contentedly, pausing only to watch me or to loosen the dried leaves from the long teeth of his rake. And that is the way I like to remember him: arrested in time on that golden fall afternoon, living in the moment, always whistling.

— Cindy La Ferle

The homecoming dance

This column was originally published in The Daily Tribune on September 21, 2003, when my son Nate was a senior at Shrine Catholic High School. It’s also included my memoir collection, Writing Home. This week, Nate celebrated his third year of marriage to Andrea, the young woman mentioned in this column.

From baptism to bar mitzvah, rituals and rites of passage honor the milestones in our lives. Certain rituals are so closely tied to autumn, in fact, that I can’t imagine the season without them. Raking leaves, visiting cider mills, and digging woolens out of storage are just a few.

But the annual high school homecoming dance crowns them all.

At our house, as surely as the maples shed yellow leaves on the lawn, this semi-formal event kicks up a whirlwind of activity and emotion. Some of it is not pretty.

Nat and Andrea1Because I am the mother of a son, my homecoming rituals do not include shopping for the ultimate evening gown and the perfect shade of nail polish. Admittedly, I miss playing Fairy Godmother to Cinderella, so I live vicariously through other moms who have teenaged daughters. That’s how I’ve learned that things are different with boys. The angst level, for instance, is much lower in the wardrobe department. Guys don’t worry about their hair, and they don’t have to obsess over finding a purse to coordinate with a pair of shoes that will be worn only once.

Traditionally, a boy waits until forty-five minutes before the big event to consider whether or not his dress shirt needs to be unearthed from the closet floor. (This is based on the assumption that he owns a dress shirt.) At that point, all hell breaks loose, sending his beleaguered parents in search of an ironing board while the boy hunts down a pair of matching socks. He also waits until the final hour to announce that his good suit has cake frosting on the lapel – a souvenir from the last semi-formal event he attended.

Homecoming rituals will test any parent’s mettle, but I believe I’m a sturdier person because of them.

Engagement4Last year, a week before the big dance, we drove Nate to Nordstrom to shop for a new shirt and tie. Anticipating conflict, I backed off and let him sort through the merchandise with his dad. I tried to keep quiet – until I spotted a handsome gold dress shirt that was perfect for his black suit.

“Look at this one, guys!” I shouted, holding up the prize. On cue, Doug spotted a great tie to go with it. Our sweet son glanced at the ensemble, rolled his eyes, and muttered his new favorite word. “Hideous.”

Seconds later, Nate’s cell phone rang. It was Andrea – a young lady with impeccable fashion sense. Andrea happened to be shopping in the area and would come to his rescue. She would help him find the right shirt.

Well, when the fashionista arrived in the men’s department, she immediately chose – you guessed it – the gold shirt. Suddenly this shirt was awesome, and the tie was cool, too. (I bit my tongue and reminded myself that God really does look out for parents, and lurks everywhere, including the men’s department at Nordstrom.)

As I type this, the next homecoming dance is a week away. Just as I did last year, and the year before that, I’ve reminded Nate to ask a date in advance. Once again, I’ve explained how girls need time to shop for dresses and book hair appointments. And just as he did last year, the kid kept his plans under wraps until he needed advice on ordering a corsage.

As it turns out, Nate’s date this year is Andrea, the sharp young lady with good taste in men’s shirts. Thinking ahead last week, we bought Nate a new shirt and tie to co-ordinate with her dress. Thank goodness, Andrea approves. Meanwhile, I am not taking any chances and have dropped off the black suit at the dry cleaner. This is senior year, after all, and we’ve finally learned the steps to the homecoming dance.

Writing Home is available on Amazon (use the link at the top of this page).

The family paper trail

Earlier this week, a student in my writing workshop read a wonderful essay about working as a newspaper carrier when he was a boy. It brought back a memory of a column I wrote for The Daily Tribune when my son was in high school. I promised I’d post this after our class discussion on nostalgia pieces. Here you go, Jim …

Newspaper careers seem to run in families. My great-great grandfather was a foreign correspondent based in Washington D.C., and while my work isn’t nearly as glamorous, I must have inherited his passion for newsprint. And I shouldn’t have been surprised this year when my son Nate decided to run for the editorship of his high school newspaper – and won.

DSCN6643I’ve always been careful not to push Nate in the direction of my own journalism career, but I discovered early on that printer’s ink runs in his blood, too. As soon as he turned twelve, the kid begged for his own paper route. His dad and I were ambivalent at first — and secretly relieved to learn that no routes for the local daily were available. But following a major blizzard that winter, Nate got a call with the good news: A route had opened up in our neighborhood. He couldn’t wait to get started.

“I hope you know what you’re getting into,” another parent warned me. “Not only are you writing for the paper, Cindy, but you’ll be delivering it, too.”

Soon after, mile-high stacks of freshly printed newspapers and ad supplements arrived daily on our porch. Rubber bands, plastic bags, and other delivery doodads littered every surface in the house.

In retrospect, I think it was worth the hassle. The smart-alecky seventh-grader got a sharp taste of the business world. He learned that customers expected his product on time, regardless of whether he was late from school or had “tons of math homework.” He discovered that readers were paying for the convenience of home delivery, not for papers tossed in puddles on the sidewalk. He learned the diplomacy required of every bill collector, as well as how to balance accounts when money was due. This was real-life math.

He also found that the biggest challenge for any newspaper carrier is crawling out of bed before sunrise on Sunday mornings – hours before the local pastors have opened their Bibles. Though Nate covered his own route on weekdays, his dad and I helped deliver the bulkier Sunday papers at dawn. Other parents told us we were spoiling the kid by chauffeuring him block to block when we could have been sleeping in, but I never saw it that way.

There was magic in those Sunday mornings. Since I’ve never been an early riser, it was a rare gift to watch the sun rise. In the summer, especially, the color show was spectacular – neon streaks of lavender, orange, and gold flashing above scarlet treetops on the suburban skyline. As each bundled newspaper hit its targeted porch, it also struck me that my relationship with this gangly boy had morphed overnight into a tug-of-war between my moody middle age and his stubborn adolescence. His boyhood was ending too quickly.  

“Please… slow… down!” I’d holler as he frantically scaled porch steps, two by two, trying to finish the route before 9:00 a.m.

The cheerful camaraderie we’d shared in the early grade-school years had recently given way to recurring battles over household messes and Internet use, but during the time we worked the neighborhood route we were back on common ground. If only for an hour or so a week, we were a team again.

To everyone’s surprise, Nate kept that job for nearly two years, quitting it only because homework and high school commitments had to take priority. It was a learning experience for the whole family. We never rushed home after the last paper was delivered, but made a special ritual of stopping for hot chocolate and hash browns. The rest of the day, and its deadlines, could wait. — Cindy La Ferle, June 21, 2003

A slightly different version of this column was first published in The Daily Tribune (Royal Oak) on June 21, 2003, and later reprinted in my essay collection, Writing Home.

Stress-free Holiday Parties?

A smiling face is half the meal” – Latvian proverb

Now that November’s here, shelter magazines are already featuring stories on holiday entertaining. Here’s a favorite essay from Writing Home – reprinted with the hope that it will set the tone for a more relaxed holiday season at your house ….   


The Secret of Stress-free Dinner Parties

My friend Pam knows the real secret of successful entertaining, and I wish I could be more like her.

Pam doesn’t spend weeks obsessing over what she’ll serve for dinner, nor does she turn her life inside-out when a carload of company arrives from Cincinnati for the weekend.  And it’s not that she doesn’t care. Pam and her husband, Steve, genuinely enjoy hosting friends and family, which partly explains how they make it look so effortless.

I like to remember the winter evening my husband and I were invited to their home for an impromptu dinner with another couple.

“Wear something comfy, and don’t expect anything fancy,” Pam warned us. “We’re just having a casual meal before the holiday rush.”  But that didn’t mean beer and pizza on paper plates. This was a real celebration of friendship.

Pam had dressed her table with a navy blue cloth and a simple homemade centerpiece of apples, tangerines, and pears. Around the fruit she lit a few votive candles. Before lifting a fork or a wine glass, Pam asked that we all join hands and give thanks for our years of friendship and the chance to slow down long enough to eat a meal together.

As promised, for dinner she served comfort food, including roast pork, a vegetable casserole, and spicy baked apples for dessert. The whole evening, in fact, was cozy and relaxed and nourishing — and Pam insisted she enjoyed it all as much as we did.

“We wouldn’t entertain as often if we felt we had to make a big deal out of it,” she told me.

I’m still trying to break the habit of making “a big deal” out of hosting company. The folks we typically entertain, after all, don’t expect a major production. But like many women I know, I was brainwashed into thinking that making dinner for company is synonymous with staging a photo shoot for a shelter magazine. I worry that my guests will scrutinize my housekeeping and discover my inner slob. And while I love to cook, I still worry that anything I serve, whether it’s meatloaf or Lobster Newberg, won’t turn out like the photos in the cookbook.

Of course, my feelings of culinary insecurity always rise like bread dough at holiday time.

Come fall, even before I’ve folded up the Halloween ghosts, I’m already fretting about Christmas decorations and turkey recipes. By mid-November, everything on my to-do list starts leaping around in my head like a chorus of nervous elves. And by the time the holidays are over, I’m thanking heaven that they are OVER.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. Fussy entertaining puts everyone on edge and creates just as much pressure for guests as it does for the host. The quickest way back to sanity is to remind ourselves that most people are easily pleased with home cooking and real conversation. We don’t have to own Waterford crystal or serve meals worthy of a four-star chef. And the ones who truly enjoy our company aren’t judging us by our napkin rings.

Sharing an evening with good friends is a gift in itself when the occasion is heartfelt, the presentation simple. Pam and Steve figured this out a long time ago, and that’s why it’s always such a pleasure to gather at their table. — Cindy La Ferle

Updating my address book

We have too little time to waste it in relationships that are not equal and mutually rewarding. Exchanging energy nourishes our souls.” 
— Sue Patton Theole in The Woman’s Book of Spirit

In addition to getting my mother adjusted to assisted living — still a challenge — I’m devoting the month of January to organizing clutter. For starters, I bought a portable day planner for keeping track of my mother’s insurance info and medical appointments, plus dozens of other notes to myself. 

The new planner now combines my personal data with my mother’s, all in one handy notebook that fits in my purse. While transferring names and numbers to the new pages, I remembered the following essay from my book, Writing Home. It was first published in a local column when I was a younger mom with a school-age child.

Address Book 

August 15, 1999; Reprinted from Writing Home.

Some things will always defy our control. Keeping a kid in the same shoe size for more than six months is one example; maintaining a neat, fully updated address book from one year to the next is another. I’m talking about the old-fashioned (not electronic) address books that keep us in social contact — the dog-eared pages we’ve crammed with birthday reminders, letters to answer, and cards announcing new addresses for relocated loved ones.

My own address book is a bit confusing, even to my husband, but it does have a system. For example, one page might be scribbled with little arrows and codes referencing another section of the book (“Look under H/Hill”). This usually means that someone has remarried and changed her name, or that a cousin has left for college or moved to his own apartment.

No matter how badly it’s organized, my address book is irreplaceable, especially during emergencies. This hit me seven years ago after my father died. One of the first things my mother and I did was comb through our address books to locate former coworkers, distant cousins, and old friends who needed to be notified of Dad’s passing. Each name, each address, was a chapter in my father’s history.

Your own address book is probably a chronicle of your ever-evolving relationships — an autobiography in progress. And since relationships are inherently messy, it stands to reason that your address book is messy too. Flipping through mine recently, I made the following observations:

— Reflecting the national average, many of my friends are divorced or working on second marriages.

— Divorce often forces us to choose between friends who used to be a couple.

— Having kids makes a huge difference in our social circle, not to mention the restaurants we frequent.

— The more people we know and love, the harder it is to send birthday cards on time.

— As we age, the line between friends and family starts to blur.

Catching up on the phone last week, Margaret, my former college roommate, and I decided that our midlife definition of “old friends” covers people we’ve known and loved unconditionally for at least half of our lives. They’re the first ones we call when the biopsy results come back or our kids win the big tournament at school.

That’s not to say I undervalue the various gifts my newer friends bring to the table. Some are skilled counselors or tireless cheerleaders; others are better at listening than advice-giving. One brings comic relief to every party, while another is the perfect companion for a silent retreat at a monastery. All have expanded my outlook and enriched my life, and I look forward to our future together.

But I’ve also found that while most of us change or evolve over time, our friendships don’t always change or evolve with us. One friend and I drifted so far apart in our interests that we might just as well have moved to opposite sides of the planet. Another disappeared without a trace after a heartrending divorce.

While every relationship has its low points, the stronger ones survive conflict as well as change of address. But I’ve learned it’s never healthy to cling to an alliance that has turned draining, one-sided, negligent, or destructive. As Emerson said, friendship should offer mutual “aid and comfort” through all of life’s passages. I think it should be fun, too.

A few people with whom I’ve lost touch or parted company are still listed in my address book. At one time, those relationships filled crucial gaps in my life and helped shape the person I am today. I still feel twinges of regret whenever I pause at the pages showing their names and numbers. And because there are a few good memories also attached to those names, I can’t quite bring myself to erase them. — Cindy La Ferle

Click here to read another column I wrote last spring on the benefits of maintaining healthy friendships.

Writing Home can be purchased at Amazon.com and is available at the Yellow Door Art Market in downtown Berkley, MI. —