The Detective’s Daughter — Lost Language

Kim in Baltimore enjoying the last days of summer.

“What’s black and white with a cherry on top?” This was my dad’s favorite joke. “A radio car,” he’d say before anyone could answer and he’d laugh as if it were the funniest thing he’d ever heard. A radio car.

A few nights ago two police officers came to have a talk with a man who lives down the street with his girlfriend. She’d been on the porch yelling at him right before they showed up.

“What’s going on?” my daughter asked.

“Not much, just a radio car stopped down the street,” I answered.

“A what?”

“A radio car,” I said again. She stared at me, a blank expression on her face. “A patrol car, you know, the police.”

This exchange left me wondering. Does anyone still say radio car? What other pre-historic phrases am I using that baffles my family and friends?

Have you noticed people seldom say telephone anymore? It’s either landline or cell. I’ve even had to describe to my kids about  phone booths.

I think back to my own childhood and the phrases my grandmother would use. When she said, “I’m going to lay across the bed,” that meant she was going to take a nap. And that was exactly what she would do, lay across her bed and not on the pillow or under the covers. I still say this, but it means I’ll be napping upstairs and not on the couch.

One of my favorites was the word “jackpot”. And no, it didn’t mean a big prize, in fact quite the opposite. If you were in the jackpot it meant you were in a great deal of trouble, not a winner.

For years we said things such as icebox and hanky because that’s what my grandparents said.

Why is it that some expressions hang on while others disappear? Is it because times change or is it that we move farther from our families these days and the old terms fade away with our distance from them?

My daughter is never going to use the term radio car, or say she’s in a jackpot, but hopefully some of my “old” sayings will be passed along for future generations to wonder over.

Readers: What phrases or words do you remember your parents using that are no longer in fashion?

The Detective’s Daughter

Kim in Baltimore protecting my eyes from the eclipse.

Nat King Cole sang about those lazy, hazy days of summer as Nana cooked in the kitchen. I could hear the music as I played in the yard. The windows were wide open despite the muggy heat of a Baltimore summer and the fact that Nana had a brand new air conditioner. She refused to turn it on no matter how hot the temperature.

I lounged in a tiny pool that Pop-Pop used a bicycle pump to inflate. Nana had put several throw rugs and an old comforter to protect the bottom of the pool and to cushion my feet from the hot cement.

Sometimes my friend Valerie from down the street would come over to sit in the cool water with me, but most often it was my dog Rikki who kept me company. He stayed in the shade under our picnic table watching over me as Pop-Pop sat dozing in his lawn chair with a transistor radio to his ear listening to the Oriole game.

This is how I remember the summer days of my youth. Baseball games, steamed crabs on Sundays, snowballs at night. I can close my eyes and conjure up the smell of Nana’s rose garden after an afternoon storm and hear the whistle of the trains passing the house and smell the tar of the street that was too hot to walk across in bare feet.

I tried to recreate those summers for my own children; the freezer stocked with juice pops, a wading pool in the yard, a gentle dog to keep watch. I have an air conditioner in the window I rarely use. When we first moved to the house we only had a few fans. In the morning I’d strip the beds and load all our sheets in the freezer for the day. At bedtime we’d grab them out and run as if the devil chased us up the stairs, throwing ourselves onto the sheets not even bothering to smooth them out or tuck them in. We just wanted to enjoy those few moments on the icy bed.

The coolness of the sheets was as brief as those summers that we remember not so much for the warmth of the days, but the happiness of being together.

Readers: What are your favorite childhood summer memories?

 

 

The Detective’s Daughter — The Emerald

Kim in Baltimore soaking up the sun…finally!

I’m sure every woman has heard the cheesy line “what’s your sign?” at least once in their life, but how about “what’s your birthstone?” No, really, I’m asking. What is your birthstone? As you’ve probably guessed from the title, mine is an emerald. That’s right, I’m a May baby and on the last day of this month I’ll be…well, it’s only a number, right?

I’ve been told a girl’s first piece of “real” jewelry is her birthstone. That was true for me. On my tenth birthday Nana and Pop-Pop gave me my first ring, an emerald. I wore it everyday for years and still do on special occasions. They bought it at Earkes’ Jewelry store on Light Street, the same place Dad bought presents for Mom.

You can only imagine how grown-up I felt with my emerald ring. I’d always admired my grandmother’s rings. Nana had been married twice. On the ring finger of her left hand she wore the wedding set  Pop-Pop had given her and on her right hand she wore a large square diamond which had been the rings given to her by her first husband, John. After his death, Nana had the set combined to make one large ring. Though her diamonds were sparkly and beautiful, and maybe even a girl’s best friend, they were not as lovely as my small emerald.

The first year I taught school I did a really stupid thing. Well, I probably did a lot of stupid things, but this one landed me in the emergency room with my fingers stuck in a plastic toy. It was one of those boxes where you hammer in a shape. The shape was stuck and I thought it would be easy enough to stick my finger in and push it out. The problem was my ring…the emerald… got caught on an edge. After a few teachers prodded and pulled at my hand, my finger swelled. I was in tears by the time they got me to the hospital, but not because I was in any pain, I was terrified my ring would be destroyed. Fortunately, my ring survived, the toy wasn’t as lucky.

The emerald is the symbol of rebirth, fertility, and love. It is believed the owner of an emerald will have foresight, good fortune and youth. It may even cure stomach problems and ward off panic, keeping the wearer relaxed and serene. I’m not so sure about that, relaxed and serene are not two words anyone would use to describe me!

My grandparents have been gone many years and I now have Nana’s rings. Every Mother’s Day I wear them to honor her. Gemstones may have healing powers, but this emerald holds the power of keeping the memory of my grandparents alive for me.

Readers: Do you wear your birthstone? Have you investigated the history and meaning of your stone?

The Detective’s Daughter — Seeking Fortune

By Kim in Baltimore where April is living up to its shower promises.

On Mulberry Street, a mile or two from where I grew up, sits an abandoned shop that once housed my family’s favorite Chinese restaurant. It was called The White Rice Inn. When Nana didn’t feel like cooking her traditional Sunday feast, or I had a good report card, or some family tragedy had befallen us, we visited The White Rice Inn.

It was an exotic place for a little Irish girl who was use to white potatoes for dinner. I loved it all – lo mein, chow mein, fried rice, chop suey – but none of that compared to what was served afterwards.

At the end of each meal, along with the check, fortune cookies were delivered. There was one for each of us. First you ate the cookie, then everyone had a turn reading aloud what was written on their paper. You had to choose your own cookie, no one could hand it to you.

Through the years I have eaten hundreds – really, I’m not exaggerating – hundreds of fortune cookies, and I have saved nearly every single fortune paper that was tucked inside. I have boxes of fortunes, tiny papers stuffed in drawers, hung on bulletin boards, taped on my laptop, pressed between the pages of books and bursting from my wallet.

In 2004 my family and I took our first cross-country trip to San Francisco on the Amtrak. With such beautiful sites as the Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower and Lombard Street to see, I chose the most spectacular of all for our initial tour…The Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory.

Opened in 1962 and family owned, the factory is located at 56 Ross Alley in China Town. We headed down the alleyway unsure that our directions were correct and finding the sign, stepped into the small establishment. In a cramped room an older woman sat at a table pressing snips of paper between the edges of warm cookies. The aroma of vanilla was heavenly. I held my camera up to snap a photo, but the woman put out her hand towards me.

“No, no. One dollar,” she said. I gladly unfolded the dollar bill from my purse and gave it to her. She shoved it on a shelf where a wad of crumpled bills overflowed from a cigar box. I would have given her ten dollars for the photo had she asked.

I bought so many bags of fortune cookies – who knew they came in chocolate! – and worried they would be eaten or crushed in our suitcases before we returned home. The Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory is always the top item on my itinerary anytime I visit San Francisco.

Did you know that fortune cookies originated here in the USA and that they were not available in China until 1993? In China the cookies are advertised as “Genuine American Fortune Cookies.” I tried my hand at baking these several years ago for Chinese New Year. The cookies tasted good, but they hardened so quickly I couldn’t get the fortunes inside. Instead I had my guests take a cookie then choose a fortune from a bowl.

Last week I went away on a retreat with my good, good friend, Ramona. About twenty-five writers attended and we were each asked to bring a dessert to share. No, I didn’t bring fortune cookies, but someone else did. A lovely lady named Teresa had baked them herself and they were delicious. Maybe even better than the factory cookies! Inside she had tucked sweet messages such as “eat a brownie” or “what would Dr. Phil say?” Most of them, though, had messages related to writing or being mindful which was good considering we were participating in the Mindful Writers Retreat. Teresa was kind enough to share the recipe with me and gave me permission to share it with you. I haven’t attempted this recipe yet, but it’s on my to-do list.

The night I arrived home from my retreat I was tired from driving and didn’t feel like cooking. We ordered Chinese food. After dinner I went in search of the cookies only to discover someone (I’m not going to mention any names, but if you’re a wife you have one of these!) threw away the take-out bag before removing the cookies. This will never happen again.

Here is the recipe:

FORTUNE COOKIES

5 tablespoons butter, melted*

1 cup sugar

1 pinch salt

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon almond extract

4 large egg whites

1 cup all-purpose flour

5 tablespoons milk

Plug in fortune cookie maker and preheat for 5 minutes (until ready light is on.)  Combine egg whites and sugar in a bowl and mix until frothy and well blended.  Sift flour and salt into egg white mixture and stir until fully incorporated and lump free.  Add melted butter, milk and extracts  and blend until the batter is thick and smooth.  Coat top and bottom of fortune cookie maker with melted butter and apply a tablespoon of the batter into the center of each plate.  Close cover.  Cook for 2 minutes, until lightly golden brown, then remove cookie.  Working quickly, place fortune in center of cookie and use the folding tools to shape.  Fold as directed.

*  Let the butter cool after melting, it should be lukewarm when you mix it into the batter.

NOTE:  The amount of sugar in the batter determines how dark the fortune cookie gets with baking.  Add less sugar to make lighter color fortune cookies.

Kim, this Fortune Cookie Maker comes with a ladle, a fork-shaped thing to lift the cookies off the griddle, two little plastic pieces to hold either end of the cookies to help close them and the top of the plastic box they come in has two indentations to help keep the curved shape.  When I need room for the next two, I use a cupcake pan to completely cool them.

I hope you enjoy them!

Readers: has your love of a certain food inspired you to take a trip? Do you keep your fortunes? Do you have a favorite?

 

The Detective’s Daughter — Slither!

Kim in Baltimore watching the snow melt on the first day of spring.

I don’t like snakes, never have. Growing up in the city amongst concrete and black top, I’d really no reason to come across one, but it didn’t stop me from checking under the toilet seat or searching under my bed before I went to sleep.

Most children are afraid of the dark, afraid of some inanimate object eerily coming to life in their room, or of a monster lurking under their bed or in their closet. My fear was something I could name, a reptile I could visit in the zoo or, worse yet, at the circus my mom and Nana insisted on dragging me to every March. The circus train would pass our house each spring on its way to Penn Station. On many occasions it would stop just outside our back doorstep, waiting for what I was never sure. It was in these moments, as the train sat silently, I worried the most.

Suppose one of those slithering creatures escaped? I was never concerned about the lions or tigers, they’d be missed immediately. But how long would it take to notice a lone missing snake?

It was Thanksgiving morning. I was fourteen years old. We had just begun to prepare the relish trays, I was in charge of the pickles and my sister took care of the olives. The sirens from a radio car and fire engine broke the calm order of our holiday. We were good neighbors, so we shuffled outside, coffee mugs in hand, to stand with the rest of our block. We did our duty and showed our concern by standing on the pavement and gawking at the house where the emergency vehicles were parked.

“Kitchen fire,” said one neighbor.

“Heart attack,” said another. But there was no ambulance. Seconds later Animal Control pulled up. One man carried a large stick, the other man held what looked like a laundry bag.

“Snake,” Dad said.

The poor woman in that house had found an eight-foot python behind her stove. A young man several blocks away had been in search of his pet python, Serena was her name, all morning. Fortunately, Serena had been well fed and cared for by her owner and the woman or her Toy Poodle had not been on the python’s Thanksgiving menu.

I learned two things that day; snakes seek out warmth, and that my fear was not as unfounded as my parents led me to believe. There’s more than one benefit to sleeping in a cool room, I thought.

When I was twenty-five years old I taught preschool. A local nature center came to give a presentation one afternoon. The center was known for their care and rehabilitation of wild animals. I arranged for this program because I wanted my inner-city students to see these animals up close and to learn how to respect nature. The director of the center brought along with her quite a few animals that included an opossum, a barn owl, a hawk, and, of course, a snake.

“I need a volunteer,” she said to the crowd. My principal pushed me forward. “This was your idea, after all,” she  reminded me.

My job was to hold the snake. I thought I was going to faint. I could actually hear my heart beat in my ears along with great swooshing noises. I swallowed my fear and held out my hand for the small yellow and brown corn snake. Her name was Lipstick and her skin felt soft as silk material, not like slime or leather as I’d feared. She gently moved her body around my wrist and up my arm flicking her tongue in and out. It was the only time I’ve ever held a snake.

My dad was sixty-one years old when he came to live with me and my family after his house  burned down. As the months passed, it became apparent he was not well. It was hard for him to put sentences together or to walk very far. We turned our family room on the first floor into a bedroom for him where he’d have easy access to the bathroom and the back porch where he could go to smoke.

By year’s end he began to have mini strokes and was now unable to move around on his own. I took him all his meals and sat with him drinking endless cups of coffee while watching game and talk shows.

One evening, after everyone was asleep and  I was up reading, I began hearing odd sounds. I checked the children, but they were sleeping soundly. The dogs were curled by the fireplace. After checking each room without discovering the source of the shuffling sound, I decided to check on Dad. He had been asleep for hours. I opened the door at the top of the stairs and saw a brown pattern move on the steps. I screamed and flipped on the lights. There was Dad slithering up towards me, his tongue twitched from side to side as he slid on his belly maneuvering his way up the stairs.

“Did I scare you?” he asked and rolled over on his back. I could barely breathe. My body shook so hard I had to sit down on the floor. I reached down and touched his shoulder to reassure myself it was only my dad. His face was covered in sweat from exertion.

“I want that brown stuff in a mug,” he said.

“Coffee?” I asked. “I will bring you your coffee.” But I still couldn’t move.

“I scared you,” he said again and began to laugh.

He laughed so hard for so long he sent himself into a coughing fit. It took the fire department to get him off the steps and back in bed. He continued to tell the story and laugh about it for days afterward. I believe it was the last hearty laugh he enjoyed.

In my childhood I was not afraid of ghost or the dark, but of something slithering near me. My dad has been gone from this world for eleven years now, but there has not been one time since that evening that I have not been leery of opening that door and just a bit terrified I might find him slithering up towards me.

The Detective’s Daughter: The Lost Art of Letters

Kim'spolicehatNot long before Dad’s house burned down, he gave me the family photos. There were boxes upon damaged boxes of photographs, letters, postcards and telegrams dating back to the early 1860’s. They had sat in the dampness of the basement pushed behind trunks of dishes and forgotten housewares on the bank under the house.

I will admit that I was snooping. For the last year or so I had been keeping an extra eye on him since his illness. I’d show up every few days to clean or make him a meal and to toss out the tower of pizza boxes that accumulated no matter how often I’d visit. He never let me take anything home and always insisted he was just about to use whatever I wanted to throw out or donate. When he gave me the mangled boxes to take home, I was surprised.

“You like all that stuff,” he said and helped me drag them to my car. I can spend hours, days sometimes, sorting through the photos and trying to figure out who is who. My favorite things, though, are the letters. I still write letters, but I must admit, they are usually sent as an email. When did letters go out of style? Occasionally I receive one in a Christmas card, and even those are usually printed from a computer.

My grandmother was a great letter writer. She had family across the country and overseas that she kept in touch with through the years. I love reading their responses to her and try to imagine her reading them at our kitchen table in her housecoat drinking a cup of coffee.

Letter from Uncle Al to Nana.

Letter from Uncle Al to Nana.

The letter I cherish the most is one written by my Uncle Al. He was my grandmother’s older brother and also one of her closest friends. By the time Dad was two, my grandmother was a widow. On her first Mother’s Day without her husband, Uncle Al sent her a letter, a poem really, that he sent to her from Dad. It is sweet and I keep it alongside a note my own son wrote to me on a Mother’s Day not so long ago.

Email is wonderful to send a quick note, but it will never replace the excitement a letter brings when received in the mail, nor will it ever hold the faint scent of lavender or be tucked between the pages of a favorite book. I think it’s time the handwritten letter made a comeback.

Dear Readers,
Please tell me the last letter you wrote or received and how that made you feel.
Best regards,
The Detective’s Daughter

The Dective’s Daughter-A Heartfelt Memory

kimspolicehatKim in Baltimore watching the snow falling…again!

February is a month many people think about hearts and love. Love isn’t always easy to find and a lot of us take for granted the love we receive. I think this may be especially true when it concerns family. I was raised in my grandparents home. Well, really it was Nana’s house, she allowed Pop-Pop to live there and wouldn’t let my father leave. I’m not complaining, I had a wonderful and happy childhood. I lived with four people who watched my every move more closely than Kennedy was watching Cuba. image
The most vigilant of the group was Pop-Pop. There was not one thing I did that he wasn’t at my side. I think he would have gone to school with me had Sister Angela Marie allowed him.

Pop-Pop had never had any small children of his own. He’d married Nana when my dad was seven years old. When I was born I was treated in the same manner as a porcelain doll and Pop-Pop made it his main mission in life to see I didn’t get broken.

Of course I did several times which only increased his anxiety and watchfulness of me. “Landing in Normandy was easier,” imagePop-Pop would say under his breath as Nana gave him instructions as to what I was and was not to do while we were out of the house. We were going to run a few errands for her on Light Street. I was still in an arm cast and sling from my most recent operation so there were even more rules than usual. No skipping, hopping, running, jumping or swinging my arm around. Watch where I was going. Hold Pop-Pop’s hand. Stand up straight, don’t bump into anything. The list went on.

We never made it to Light Street. Pop-Pop stopped at the corner to visit his pal Mr. Palmer who owned the tavern a block away. They watched the ball game and drank a beer while I sat spinning on the stool eating a pretzel stick and drinking a Coke. Three spins in and I went flying off the stool. Who knew Pop-Pop could move so fast? He caught me in one hand while holding his beer in the other, never spilling a drop.

imageHe was my best friend, my first friend. He took me to my first burlesque show, my first bar and a funeral parlor everyday after school to visit his friend who was the mortician. He tried to teach me to play guitar and I learned to sing every song he knew. We played poker, rummy, dominoes and any other game that I could play while sitting down to limit my chances of injury. Pop-Pop sat with me at Children’s Hospital on more than one night and when I was in middle school he watched all my soap operas and gave me a complete rundown in the afternoon when I came home. He was there everyday and I could no more shake him off than I could my own shadow.

When I was twelve he died of cancer. It was near the end of February and neither my sister nor I had been told he was sick. I wasn’t allowed to see him at the same funeral parlor where we had spent so many afternoons together. It was the greatest loss of my life.image
The day of the funeral I stayed home with my cousin. We made the coffee and put out the luncheon meats and pastries. After nearly everyone had gone home I overheard one of my aunties tell Nana she had lost her best friend. It was the only time I’d ever seen my grandmother cry.

When my son was born there was only one name I would consider for him. His name is Louis, in honor of my grandfather. I have told him every story I can remember about Pop-Pop. I think how proud Pop-Pop would be to have a child named for him and how I wish he could have lived to see my beautiful boy. I’ve done my best to teach him all the things my grandfather taught me. Louis can play rummy and poker, he knows how to sit at the bar and drink Cokes and eat pretzel sticks and can sing all the words to Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey. We’ve hung around a funeral home or two, but have yet to take in a burlesque show. Maybe when he’s twenty one.

If we are lucky, some wonderful person will enhance our life. If we are smart, we will acknowledge their gift.

Readers: Who made the strongest impression on your childhood?