In the Mood

Christi Craig is one of my writing mentors. I love her prompts — they get me to write about subjects I hadn’t thought of writing about. Take this one, for instance: I wasn’t necessarily “in the mood” to write about the prompt for the week (mood) but when I posted this, everyone in the group liked it. I hope you will too.

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Whenever a particular word lodges in my brain, the music-loving side of my personality joins in. Hey, she says, remember “I’m in the Mood for Love”?

Why of course I do, and You Tube offers a couple of choices. First there’s Frank Sinatra crooning seductively, and I can imagine myself on the dance floor. No particular partner in mind but if it were Frank himself to cut in and say, May I? I could easily be in the mood for whatever  he had in mind. Jilted partner? you might wonder. Well, whoever he is doesn’t emerge in my imagination with any identifiable features so it’s okay. In my reverie I’ve simply switched partners because I was very much “in the mood.”

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Remember when we listened to music like “In the Mood” on records like this?

But take a different recording – one by Nat King Cole – and he’s singing a jazzed up version of the same song. Any lovestruck couples on the dance floor would have to find some quiet corner or else – get into the mood with Nat, doing the jitterbug or some other fancy-footwork dance.

Now that in turn reminds me of the time back in the 1970s when I was a member of a women’s chorus. Women of Note, we called ourselves, under the direction of Margaret Purser. We had chosen to choreograph Glenn Miller’s popular jazz song “In the Mood” for a community-wide variety show. There we were, all thirty of us outfitted in our pink dresses going through our routine with as much grace as you might imagine from a group of enthusiastic middle-aged women showing off on stage. I wish I had a video.

I believe that music can affect our moods – bring us up or bring us down – it’s a matter of choosing just the right kind of music, the right song, the right tempo. A person just has to know which songs or symphonies to play on a given day. Something to match the current mood – or something to draw us out of it.

It’s the same with colors. Moods can color our outlook on almost any situation. It could be a sunny and glorious day outside but if the cloud of gloom has settled over your head, well sometimes there’s little you can do other than give in to a particular mood. Just remember – moods can be catching, and pretty soon everyone around you may find it difficult to maintain a sunny disposition when forced to contend with your surliness, sullenness, self-pity. . . .and all the rest.

One of my favorite stories about my granddaughter, Ella, comes from when she was 3 years old, sitting at a table with her dad and coloring. She put away the blue crayon and paused, considering her other choices. “How about red?” Robert suggested but she turned it down. “Green?” No again.

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“How about yellow?” Ella’s patient father offered, and her face lit up as she reached for the crayon and resumed her coloring. “Yellow understands me,” she confided to Robert.
I think I know what Ella meant. Some days there are certain songs, certain colors, certain people that cheer us up if we’re feeling down. They match the color of our mood. They “understand” us.

A Bookcase and a Phonograph

My father, an excellent carpenter, crafted a beautiful wooden bookcase out of an old icebox. The icebox had been replaced by an electric Fridgidaire in the 1940s and came with us from Milwaukee when we moved to the farm. The bookcase, I remember, was stained a golden brown and had three separate shelves which held all our family’s small collection of books. It was located in the upper hallway: on the southeast corner of the second floor, at the very top of the stairs.

On top of that bookcase sat another treasure from my growing-up years: a wind-up phonograph that played cylindrical records.  My mother and her sisters had received the old Edison phonograph when they were girls growing up on a Minnesota farm. It had been a gift from an aunt who favored them, and for some reason it ended up with our family, though my cousin Joanne remembers having it at their home sometimes too. Today it belongs to another cousin, Judy, in Oregon whose mother Mae was one of the co-owners of this musical gift. Joanne and I hope that someday it will be donated to a museum for others to enjoy.

To play one of the scratchy-sounding cylinders, which were kept nearby in a fabric-lined laundry basket, I would first raise the lid of the wooden box, carefully position the needle at the outer rim of the cylinder, turn the simple switch from off position to on, and then sing along with one of the songs our whole family had come to learn by heart.

There was “Oh Katerina” and “I Laughed at the Wrong Time”; there was “Casey Jones” and “What Does the Little Dog Mean When He Says Bow Wow?” As the phonograph wound down, the tempo would slow until the last syllables died out and we would have to crank it up again.

I just located a similar machine being sold on Etsy for $350. Now I think I should pass that news along to Cousin Judy. If she decides not to donate it to a museum, she could probably make good use of money like that.

The Romance of Anna Smith

Three years ago I published a book of stories, The Romance of Anna Smith and Other Stories, with the help of publisher David Gawlik of Caritas Communications. 

“How long did it take you to write that book?” is a question I was often asked, and I didn’t have a short answer. Many of my stories were memoir so they were in the pre-drafting stage for many years. In the mid-1970s I started to get serious about my writing so looked for teachers and writing groups for direction. Some of the stories in my collection started taking shape way back then. Over the years, I amassed quite a collection of stories and “story starters” (not finished) and I’d go back to my favorites and revise them, using comments and suggestions from people in my writing circles to guide me.

The very first story in my collection – also the story of the title – is “The Romance of Anna Smith,” about a teacher at Sheldon School, which I attended from 1947 – 1955. Miss Smith was the teacher (“schoolmarm”) who taught all eight grades when I was in 4th and 5th grades. She came back to us when I was in 6th grade, but by then she had married and so we called her Mrs. Hallman. 

The focus of my story is the “romance” of this much-loved teacher, as seen through the eyes of two schoolgirls – myself and my friend, Sylvia Robinson. I’m posting that story on my blog today. If you’d like to read the rest of the stories in this collection, you can find it on Amazon

Or you can order an autographed copy directly from me for $10, including postage. For details, contact me here.


Click page 2 to read an excerpt

One-Room Country Schools

From 1947 to 1955 I attended Sheldon School, a one-room country school in Marquette County, Wisconsin. I haven’t been able to track down a photograph of Sheldon School from those days, and I haven’t found another school that closely resembles it. The image, though, remains fixed in my memory. It was larger than the one pictured in the photograph below, from a website about John Muir, who lived in the area for several years during his childhood. 

Photo from John Muir Home

For one thing, there were cement steps leading to the front door of the white-framed building. It was larger too – a coatroom at the entrance, separated by a wall from the classroom. At the back of the classroom was a huge woodburning furnace, which kept us warm in the winter months. On the wall opposite the furnace was a water cooler and a place for us to put our lunch boxes. 

“In the Wisconsin heyday of the one-room school, about 6,200 were operating in rural areas across the state, said Dale Williams, site director of the Reed School in Neillsville, which today is a historic site operated by the Wisconsin Historical Society. “They hit their peak in the 1930s, Williams said. “By the 1960s, they were virtually all gone. A few tiny schools remain in the state, including one on Madeline Island, but most have vanished or been transformed into museums, gift shops, bed-and-breakfasts and the like.” (from Madison.com) In the case of Sheldon, the school was remodeled in the 1960s as an attractive country home for the in-laws of George Robinson (my classmate, named in the story) and is now owned by George and his wife, Christine. 


For other photographs of one-room country schoolhouses, see:

Remembering My Mother, Vivian Johnson: Social Distancing and Isolation in Rural Wisconsin – 1940s/50s

This photograph of our family was taken when I was four years old, before we moved to the farm. My mother’s pleasant facial expression is the same one she wore for family and friends, throughout her life.

This morning I was thinking about my mother, Vivian Ellingson Johnson, who spent many years in virtual isolation on our little farm in Marquette County. This was before we had TV. We had no telephone. She didn’t drive. My father was gone weekdays working in a foundry at International Harvester in Milwaukee in order to make enough money to feed his family and pay the mortgage on our small 100 acre farm. He had bought the farm on land contract so during hard times (like strikes and lay-offs from International Harvester) he would ask the mortgage holder for a little extra time until there was enough money in the bank to pay. 

But back to my mother. During the week when we four children were in school, her only connection to the outside world was the radio. There was a little one perched on top of our Frigidaire and a large wooden one in the living room. WTMJ came in clearly, bringing her such soap opera heroines as Stella Dallas and Lorenzo Jones’s wife, Belle. As the World Turns and Search for Tomorrow brought melodramatic life stories to her farmwife’s inner life. 

And there were her letters. Lovely penned letters at our kitchen table — a daily ritual. After they were each sealed and affixed with a three-cent stamp, she would walk across the road, put the letters in the mailbox, raise the flag to signal the rural mail carrier There’s mail here! And the highlight of every day except Sunday was to retrieve other mail from the mailbox. She could keep in touch this way with her mother, Ella, in Milwaukee, her sister Mae in Oregon, other sisters, in-laws, relatives, and friends in other places, mostly Minnesota and Wisconsin. Mom was a wonderful letter writer, but since her life was routine, she filled those stationery pages with highlights of her simple life. 

Our two nearest neighbors in walking distance were two bachelors — Otto Zellmer on the east, Edwin Klawitter across the road and a bit west at the end of a long driveway. Neither had a phone, so when she got sick in the middle of the night, my 15-year old sister Wanda (who had a special farmers permit) drove to the nearest phone, woke Helen and Harold Schoenfeld and called the doctor in Montello, 8 miles away. He came to our farmhouse that night and, though there wasn’t much he could do to help her, diagnosed her pain as gallbladder. Mom had surgery later that year and our aunt Maisie came from Milwaukee to stay with us.

Before we moved away from Milwaukee, Mom had friends and relatives walking distance from where we lived, and she could take a bus or streetcar to places in the city. 

Although I didn’t give it much thought at the time, I suppose Mom got lonely sometimes on the farm. But she wasn’t one to complain. 

On the farm she found plenty of things to keep her busy. She liked to sew and always had one or more projects going. She was an excellent baker too. When we came home from school there was often freshly baked bread, pie, cake, or cookies. 

Then too she had the dog, the chickens, and a few other farm animals to keep her company. And sometimes the neighbors from two or more miles away — the ones with cars — would stop by. But not too often. And then, as I said, she had Gordon Hinckley from WTMJ on the radio. And those soap operas. 

Mom didn’t have  TV – that came later, when I was in high school. Sometimes I wonder what she’d think of today’s technology: computers, emails, smart phones, Facebook, Twitter – and Zoom.

Even without all that, she survived. And so have I.

Merzy Eisenberg: A Song in Her Heart

From the time she was a little girl, Merzy Eisenberg had a song in her heart, and ever since the time her sixth grade teacher asked her to sing a solo in the spring concert, Merzy has willingly shared that soprano talent. “I knew that I would always sing,” she said.

Merzy (pronounced MAIR zee) is now an octogenarian living on Milwaukee’s North Shore, and music continues to be a central part of her life. In fact, she currently belongs to four choirs, including the Milwaukee Jewish Community Chorale and the Bel Canto Seniors Choir.

These past months, living in semi-isolation because of the Covid-19 virus, Merzy hasn’t been able to meet in person with other chorus members or their directors. Fortunately, she is married to a man who loves music as much as she does. And fortunately, that man (retired United States Bankruptcy Judge Russ Eisenberg) is an accomplished pianist who is delighted to accompany his wife whenever she has a song in her heart that just won’t hold back. They also enjoy listening to music, both classical and show tunes, and to the free streaming of Metropolitan Opera on their website.

The two of them were making music together before they were married, when Merzy would perform such numbers as “I Enjoy Being a Girl” and “It’s Almost Like Being in Love” — and other songs from Brigadoon. Sometimes the performances were part of a public concert, other times for private soirees. Both Merzy and Russ were longtime members of the MacDowell Club, which promoted music and other arts in the community for over a century before it disbanded last year.

For many years before her retirement, Merzy taught modern Hebrew at Whitefish Bay High School and Hebrew and Jewish Studies at Milwaukee Jewish Day School. Although she didn’t have time during those years to join choirs, she took delight in perking up her lessons with music. She remembers one of her favorites, “The Conjugation Dance,” an original composition calling for many gestures and body language to make Hebrew verbs come to life.

“The impact of Covid-19 on my form of artistry is huge,” Merzy said in a recent interview. “Choir work by its definition is group work. The choirs in which I sing are composed of four parts: soprano, alto, tenor, bass. Thus, once we began to be quarantined, the choirs could no longer exist as they were.” And it’s not just the singing she misses. It’s the people. “Choirs often become vocal music communities. In some choirs the singers become so close they feel like families.”

To compensate for the missing musical dimension in her life, Merzy has already participated in two virtual choir experiences, one from synagogue Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun. She especially appreciates the efforts of Rebecca Renee Winnie, the director of the Bel Canto Senior Singers, for featuring a choral piece on Facebook every day. “Rebecca calls the project ‘Choral Connections Through Listening,’ Merzy said. “I take full advantage of that musical gift by listening every day and following through by learning more about the composer or the piece of music.” Merzy also expressed her gratitude to Enid Bootzin Berkovits, director of the Milwaukee Jewish Community Chorale, for offering Zoom meetings. “This helps me feel connected to the others in our chorus and I appreciate Enid’s efforts to produce a piece of virtual choir music.”

Merzy remembers those days before cellphones and the internet, when she kept in touch with family and friends by the almost lost art of letter writing. People thought twice before making a long distance phone call. Now there’s email, texting, Facetime.

Some of her chorus friends “get together via Zoom once in a while,” she said. “Everything helps.”

“I’m used to paying attention and receiving attention from people I love.” Nothing, not even the Covid-19 virus can interfere with that.

B.C. – Before Computers

People of my generation sometimes joke they were born “B.C.” – before computers.  When I was a sophomore in high school, I took a typing class from Mr. Kaczmarek, a tall, thin man in horn-rimmed glasses.  I can still remember the sound that reverberated through the classroom as we took a timed typing test on our Remingtons.  Reaching the end of a line at our own pace, we each hit the carriage return, creating a keyboard symphony: “Clicky clacky, clicky clacky, WHACK!  Clicky clacky, clicky clacky, WHACK!” 

It was a decent way to develop our left arm muscles.  Later, of course, there was a carriage return key — where the “Enter” key is found on today’s computer keyboards.  To help us keep our eyes off the paper in the typewriter, a bell would sound to let us know we were reaching the end of a line.  Momentary pause as we would think, Is there room for the entire word or should I hyphenate?

Then came “Word Wrap” – a term many computer literate young people aren’t familiar with.  To me, it was a technological miracle that the word processor knew when there was no more room for print on the current line, “wrapping” the word around to the next line.  As these machines became more and more sophisticated, they even knew where to place the hyphens.

Typing is definitely one of the most valuable classes I’ve ever taken, and I’m reminded of that every time I watch someone at a computer, searching the keyboard for a particular letter or symbol.  Even once they’ve become familiar with the precise location of each letter, number and symbol, the best most of these self-taught typists can do is use two or three fingers on each hand, and they can’t take their eyes off the keyboard while they type.  Over the years I sometimes earned extra income by working for temporary agencies; my typing – fast and accurate – helped me learn what it would be like to work in offices at Harley-Davidson, Midwest Express, Northwestern Mutual, Ameritech or Magnetek Engineering.  I also worked in a variety of law offices.

One of my first temporary jobs was for the law firm of Lipton and Petrie in downtown Milwaukee.  Every letter, every brief, had to be typed perfectly in duplicate.  These days duplicating a copy is easy – we just hit the “print” command and specify the number of copies we want.  If we send an e-mail, we can send a duplicate e-mail to another person by indicating “cc” (carbon copy) — or “bcc” (blind carbon copy) if we don’t want Person A to know that Person B is receiving it.  In the “B.C.” days at Lipton and Petrie, we used real carbon paper – the kind with the purple backing which marked the hands of any secretary who made too many errors.  One mistake on the top copy meant repeated mistakes on the copies underneath, and there was no “erase” key to undo the damage.  Each mistake had to be carefully whited out and the correction made so that it was imperceptible.  Even one noticeable correction meant the entire page had to be retyped.  This, more than anything else, improved my accuracy.

In the 70s, when I started writing news and feature articles for the Hales Corners and Franklin Hub, I worked from home on my personal typewriter.  As in the law office, I was required to make a carbon copy of each article submitted for my files.  If I made a mistake, I could mark up the carbon copy any way I chose, and the editors weren’t fussy about corrections on the page turned in, as long as they could read it.  After editing it, they turned it over to a typesetter where it had to be keyed in a second time. 

Today even some kindergartners can find the right keys on a keyboard. But I wonder how many will learn touch typing? Most people in the 21st century will probably get along fine on their laptops, tablets and smartphones with a self-taught version of accelerated hunt and peck.

Remembering My Mom

My mother, Vivian Marcella Ellingson, was born 107 years ago in Fillmore County, Minnesota. Her grandparents – the Ellingsons and the Stensgaards – had immigrated from Norway to that area of southern Minnesota. That’s where she met my dad, Willard Johnson, descended from another farm family of Norwegian immigrants. My two older sisters and I were all born in Fillmore County too – in a small, rented farmhouse, delivered by the local midwife, while waiting for the country doctor.

But times were not good – farms were failing and there wasn’t much work to be had. And so in 1942 my parents packed up their three daughters and moved to Milwaukee. Later that year our brother was born – in a hospital. What a luxury for our mother!

When I imagine what it was like – taking care of four children all under age seven – I’m filled with admiration for my mom.  The six of us lived with her mother – Grandma Ella Ellingson – on the third floor of an old, once glorious home on 27th and Vine Street.  We lived there until I was seven. Meanwhile, my father, who had been working all those years in a foundry, longed for the country life and saved up enough cash for a down payment on a small farm 100 miles north.  It couldn’t have been easy for my mother to say goodbye to family and the many friends she had made in the city, and move to a small farm on a gravel road where there was no indoor plumbing, no telephone.  She had never learned to drive either – it made her nervous – but all those years on the farm I never heard her complain about the isolation she must have felt.

For our father, you see, needed to keep working his factory job in Milwaukee to support his family, so he rented a room during the week and took the train back on weekends.  Essentially, he was a weekend farmer, and my mom a single parent for five days a week.

But she wasn’t a complainer – she had a courageous spirit and a happy disposition. She’s been gone now for 44 years, but the gift of memory keeps her close.  What follows are a few of those memories.

Every Monday my mother washed clothes on the enclosed porch just outside the kitchen.  That meant heating water on the wood range to fill the wringer washing machine.  All year around the baskets of clean wet laundry were hung on clotheslines outside.  I still have a vivid memory of Dad’s long-legged underwear frozen solid and then brought inside to finish drying over the hall railing.  Mom had other chores too – feeding the chickens and bringing in the eggs, starting the wood fire in the morning and keeping it going all day – even in the summer, because most of our meals were made on top of the wood range.

Mom was an excellent baker – bread, cookies, cakes, pies – always something waiting for us when we came home from school.  Before she was married, my mom had taught all eight grades in a one-room country school; now her children attended a school just like that.  We walked or biked the two miles each way.

We didn’t have TV until I was in high school, but radio was Mom’s link to the outside world.  I remember coming home to hear the latest installment of “Stella Dallas” or “Lorenzo Jones.”  In the evenings we would gather around the console radio in the living room and listen to “Dragnet” or “The Lone Ranger” or “Fibber McGee and Molly.”

Mom had lots of sayings: “If it was a snake it would have bit you.”  (That was after finding something that was right under our noses.)  “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” When my sisters and I thought we were “too busy” to do dishes: “You can wash a lot of dishes in 10 minutes.”

I’ve found that the implications of that 10 minute challenge applies to much more than a sink full of dirty dishes.  I can take any task, any project – no matter how overwhelming, break it down and start somewhere, anywhere.  The key is to just start.

Mom had a lot of energy, didn’t sit too much, yet she could poke gentle fun at herself with comments like “The faster I go, the behinder I get.”  Another of my favorites is: “I just seem to run around in a bushel basket.”  These days we don’t usually preface the word basket with bushel. But I conjure up an image of it right away: a wooden crate which held apples or potatoes. It’s harder, though, to conjure up an image of my mom in miniature running around inside that basket. So my imagination expands that basket until it’s plenty large for a woman to run around in, not getting anywhere.  Little basket or oversized basket, that image of my mother, Vivian, running around and around and not getting anywhere always amuses me.  When I find myself suffering the “bushel basket syndrome,” I can step back, lighten up, and remember my mom.

On the wall next to my computer is a framed picture of my mother, about ten years old, sitting in a field of wildflowers with her two younger sisters and their mother, Grandma Ella.  My cousin Dianne painted it, transforming the images from an old black and white photo into lovely pastels.  Looking at it, I am always reminded how I’m connected to the many generations of mothers and grandmothers before me and to the many generations of daughters and grand-daughters after me.

Joining Up With Jeff

I got sidetracked with my blog. It isn’t as though I took a hiatus from writing — I’ve been doing plenty of that — but I wasn’t meeting anyone at this WordPress corner.

Now here comes Jeff Goins. He’s been sending me emails about writing for several years, and I remembered that the last time I took up his 500 words a day challenge I started becoming more intentional about my writing. In 2017 I put together a collection of stories: The Romance of Anna Smith and other stories. It has been well received and a number of people asked me, “When are you going to publish your next book?”

The answer to that is “Very soon. . .possibly this month.” My second book is a collection of prose poems and short memoir titled Where I’m From: poems and stories. 

Meantime, I need to get reacquainted with WordPress, and I’m hoping other members of Jeff’s “tribe” will be willing to share some tips.

Meet You at the Corner. My little corner of the world.

Harrisville, Wisconsin – Home of Bratfest

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis past Sunday, the day before Labor Day, the little town of Harrisville, Wisconsin was overflowing with people who had come for the annual Bratfest. Madison claims to host the largest Bratfest in the world — and that’s on Memorial Day weekend , but if that’s true Harrisville is certainly giving our state’s capital some fierce competition.

It’s not just the brats which attract the crowds. And it’s not just the beer, though there’s plenty of that too. There are several bands performing throughout the day, a tractor pull, line dancing, softball and volleyball, a midway — with games and carnival rides, and free wagon rides through the town. You could even buy a Bratfest t-shirt in just about any size or color. As far as I know, all profits go to fund the all-volunteer Fire Department.

The first Bratfest was a community affair held in 1961, but people were looking for a “Last Hurrah” of the summer for the Labor Day weekend, so the numbers increased and more events and activities were added to appeal to various age groups. Oh yes, and the motorcylists turn out by the dozens. (Mostly Harleys but not all.)

My husband and I wouldn’t normally drive over 100 miles for a brat. ((Served with homemade potato salad and baked beans and ice cream, I should add.) But we enjoy the leisurely drive through the countryside from Fond du Lac through Ripon, Rosendale, and Princeton. And we enjoy walking down to the millpond and through the town. You can walk from one end to the other in 15 minutes.

Some things change over the years; others remain the same. The Town Hall, where the brats are served, used to be a one-room country schoolhouse. My Soiney cousins went there and their mom, Aunt Ina, was the teacher. The millpond is where I learned to swim and where Phyllis Frank tried to teach me to iceskate one winter. This past Sunday a woman stood alongside the bank, holding a fishing pole.

There used to be two taverns; now there’s just the Sportsmen’s Tavern, which my brother Vince claims to serve the best hamburgers ever. My friend Phyllis (now Phyllis Ingram) who still lives in the Town of Harris serves as the Town Clerk. Almost every Friday she and her friends eat the best fish fry ever at the Sportsmen’s Tavern.

That’s a long way to drive for a fish fry, but hey! maybe some day we’ll try it.

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