Downsizing: Homage to stairs

April 30, 2014 by


We are downsizing. That is, we are moving out of our beloved century-old monster of a house (really just a comfortable old four-square hip-roofed full-basement three-stories-high place) into something with fewer stairs.

The stairs in this house are like the stairs from houses of my entire growing- up years as well as most of our married life.

The stairs to the second floor here have two landings, one big with a big window, the other just a few steps up, off the entry foyer. The basement steps have one landing, which turns, goes on down, and ends in concrete. No attic steps here, just a pull-down ladder that is truly impassable for one of my age and size. Outside, both the front and back porch have steps and there are steps off the street that lead to the stairs up to the porches.



The front walkway to the house, the first steps to be maneuvered — the construction bits are from the renovation of the front wrap-around porch

Anyway, we must escape the stairs. We hadn’t thought this would happen. Not to us.

But one day I noticed that I wanted the light at the top of the second-floor stairs on, all the time. And I found that when I descended, I didn’t want to be holding anything in my right hand; I wanted to clutch the railing. The basement steps to the first landing doesn’t have a railing. If I fell there, I would hit my head on the foundation; the shorter flight to the bottom with its railing isn’t so scary, at least so long as I don’t have a laundry basket in my hands.


The basement stairs to the landing.

But I love stairs. I have always loved stairs. One of my first memories was of playing with my paper dolls on the landing at our first house in Pine Station, the house beside the run (a small creek), the house that sat just at the point at which the road went up over Pine Mountain. That landing had a big window, a bit like the window in this house, and it was where I learned to love sitting in the sun, like a cat.


The stairs down to the first landing (there are two) in the big house we currently inhabit.

Our next house in Pine had curved steps that were narrow at one side and wide at the other — a bit dicey, now that I think about them — but I always loved the curve in those stairs.

For kids, the advantage of stairs, especially the kind that curve or have landings, is great. Listening to grown-up parties or to the sounds of Christmas Eve preparations is easiest done when the steps keep the adults from spotting you.

In our next house, across the river in Avis, there were also many stairs. That house sat on a bit of a hill, so unless you went in the back door, you climbed the steps to the front porch, more steps, and then into the front hall. More steps to your right and upstairs, in the middle of the hall, were the attic steps.

I was fifteen when we moved to Avis and my room was in the attic. I don’t remember much about the room and the steps were a straight flight (as I remember them). What I remember most vividly was my mother, standing at the bottom of the steps, holding my lunch and books and papers as I flew out the door, inevitably late, to catch the school bus. That bus sometimes stopped in front of our house — why, I have no idea. But it allowed me to stay in bed until the last possible minute and then, with my mother’s help, breeze out the door and into the bus, where I finished my hairdo.


The second (big) landing of our current house

At the foot of those stairs, which were wide and spacious like those of our current house, was the telephone on its stand. Sitting on those stairs, my mother spent hours on the phone with my cousin Doris; I spent hours on the phone with my best friend Sandy. No cell phones those days, so when my father came home, both Mom’s and my phone time was limited to “business.” My father hated the telephone and often made one of us do official business calls for him. And I can still hear him hollering at me to “get off the phone.”


The steps leading to the art studio and the back porch

I don’t think we had a party line in Avis, although we did through the mid 1950s in Pine. A party line is very like Facebook (everyone could listen in), although the news was a bit more limited. And there were no ads. The extended phone calls (before my father came home) were just an early version of the teenage cellphone usage. The princess phone was around then, and some “spoiled” suburban kids that I read about in Seventeen Magazine had private lines in their bedrooms, but it was totally outside the realm of thought in our house. We were just lucky to have a phone line without a party; at least that was my father’s opinion.


The back porch stairs at SE Main

So stairs, in all their glory, lead directly to other realms of observation, some personal, some a bit less so, some dating me, some seeming to be current.

I have photographed and painted stairs in many ways. We had stairs in a lot of places we lived during our 50 years of marriage. Our stay in Jerome, Arizona, delighted me with its stairs, and I attempted to record them in oils. Those stairs, outdoors, hand-crafted, made of uneven stones and with different riser heights, are beautiful and treacherous.

This house, out of which we now see we must move, has wonderful stairs, spacious, well-lit, leading to delights both up and down. Comfortable stairs, the kind of stairs that one thinks could never betray one.

And certainly, these stairs haven’t betrayed us. Only time, the Old Trickster, could do that.



JOU, Mary’s Stairs, Hand-painted Cotton, Machine-stitched, @2005

On the occasion of Jer’s 21st Birthday

March 7, 2014 by

Going through boxes of memorabilia, I found these two cards, given on the occasion of Jer’s 21st birthday:

From Grandma Ruth Underwood:


Message inside:


And from Jer’s Mother and Dad:


Message inside:


Lest you wax eloquent about the joys of the good old days, consider this anecdote: a few years later, when Jer showed up at his brother’s wedding with a beard, his grandmother took him aside and read him the riot act (i.e. she gave him hell). And when he said to her, “But grandma, you said ‘to thine own self be true'” there was a serious question about whether she would smack him or walk pointedly away. She chose the latter. His mother, who felt the family honor besmirched, merely broke into tears.

I myself would allow as how he fulfilled all the rules, just not in the way they envisioned. Be warned, those of you with small children.

New Analysis of Hockney’s Drawings

March 4, 2014 by

On Ragged Cloth Cafe, one of my old haunts.



Notions: Letter from Mom, Jan 17, 1974

March 3, 2014 by

From Ann Oechler, [June’s Mom] Thursday Jan. 17, ’74. The reference to oil and gasoline at the end is probably a reference to the shortages at that time, with lines at gas stations, etc.

Dear June, Jerry, & Jan, Cats, kittens, Rats, and mice, cockroaches and cooties–

I could spend the next two pages — trying to explain — apologize and condone my neglect of all youse — Please understand that you aren’t the only ones. My poor Christmas turkey is still languishing in the freezer –!

Here’s a rundown on what’s been going on — Al [Mom’s older brother] came in alone Dec. 19th — we saw all 2 of his kids Sunday evening. Mon. he took Blazer [car] and saw friends in WMsport — I put up Xmas tree and walked down town — for nothing — just looking for Christmas? Christmas day Al & I got up, poked around and started out — to the Wyants [daughter, son-in-law, 3 grand-children] — all was joy & excitement — ate a bit of turkey etc. Carol had dinner like I’ve been having, Nothing served — but lots to eat. We left there and went to Pine. The O. Jr’s [son, daughter-in-law, 3 grandchildren] had a beautiful tree & mostly everything they wished for — warm –well fed and happy. Took off for Betty’s [niece], spent a couple of hours. Over to Doris’ [Betty’s sister]– they had a fine Christmas then home & bed. Wed we went to Wmsport to Mary’s [daughter] for a couple of hours. then down town to pick up Al’s big suitcase (he came by bus and it got sidetracked someplace). Saw May [Mom and Uncle Al’s sister] and home. Friday Al and I went to camp [Cedar Pines, 35 miles up winding country road] — there an hr. and a call from Carol rushed us back to Avis — Al came too so that he could keep the Blazer. Jonathan Michael Wyant arrived at 4:45 — 1/2 hr after admittance. From then on I stayed in Avis. Sun AM Denise got up with the mumps and Grammy [Mom] was busy [she was taking care of Carol’s other three children]. New year’s eve. Chip [Carol’s husband] & I celebrated by taking down Christmas Tree etc. etc. Tues we cleaned house (mostly Chip did). Al came down from Camp and ate saurkraut and went to visit his kids. Wed. Carol came home — Al & Carl [Dad] up there for supper and then home — I stayed in Avis of course — Thurs Carl took AL to bus at midnight — took him 20 hrs to get home (due to snow, etc) Sat A.M. I went to camp and cooked our noon meal in my Christmas present — an electronic oven — it’s a fabulous gadget and if I ever get to use it right –?– I’m going to like it. Sun. noon I was on my way to Avis — Chip had to go to work and I didn’t want Carol heaving “2 ton tessy” (Denise [Carol and Chip’s toddler]) around just yet. — Mon back home & a usual week (Carol’s & home sog-out). Then Piper (Bangor Putnam, Chris Craft) cracked down — Carl started working 12 hr days (7 t0 7) — a bit much but Finn Estelick is working right beside him so —-. On Sat Jan 12th Denise went into the hospital with an infected gland in her neck. So I cooked Sun. dinner (noon) in my oven — a big flop after such a big success the first try — and ran for Avis to keep kids [two older one and new-born] while Carol went to see Denise (Chip worked). Since then I’ve taken down my sick-looking tree & decorations — cleaning a bit and going up each evening to keep Carol’s kids while she goes to see Denise each evening. Chip goes down for a half hour in the afternoon before he goes to work. Denise is having a ball — her infection has tapered off. It never did bother her much but it refuses to dissipate completely and they’re keeping her there –expecting it to flare up again — meanwhile the nurses are spoiling her — she’s so _dear_ no one can help it and they’re not too busy at present. They’re feeding her too much — which is worrying Carol — she tend to be fat (is fat) and will eat on and on– so they feed her on and on!

I haven’t sneaked in yet — we have our usual ban on mid-winter visitors at JS [hospital] and — I’m not sure I can take it. She is a darling kid!

Master Jonathan is really doing fine. Carol is breast-feeding him and he’s gaining weight like crazy — sleeps good — not fussy — and of course cute & cuddly & adorable. The other two are happy about having a new brother and very co-operative.

Mary and family are perking along nicely. I talk to her each morning and see them now and then. She is looking forward to spring. Just waiting to see her tulip bulbs etc come up. I’ve news for her — they won’t even peek thru until about mid-March or early April.

I’ve finally gotten time to read my New Yorkers — had been nibbling here and there — now I know what I want to read first etc. Love the thing from the jokes to the dumb parts I only read because they’re there.

Mike [youngest son] is really serious about his European out (12 mo extension on his fare home after discharge). I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for him — if he can support himself in the duration but it will be so much longer ’till I get to see him!! Whatever he decides I’m for — and I hope it will be the best for him. I’d kind of like him to come home — get more education and started on “life” — but then he’s only 21 years old and when will he get another chance? As far as I can see and feel — he’s still the same brat he ever was! I have a beautiful album of pictures that he has sent home — the Alps (I hate to admit) seem much more impressive than the Am west! –Don’t hit me! –The few pictures I’ve gotten of him seem to get more and more German each time — old Kaiser mustache and so forth. He really seems to be having the best of his overseas tour. Played and sang for 2 kindergartens — an orphanage — and the U. S. service children over Christmas — right up his alley — kids — guitar– etc. He wrote about his ears — says they’re no worse than they’ve been — he’s just smarter than their electronic testing machines that got him out of field work — big ordinance and riding in transports that are big and noisy. I don’t know if he’s snowing _me_ or not –? Any way he’s got 9 months to go — 1/2 of his overseas are behind him and 1 and 1/4 of his draft time — without it getting him down.

We just can’t believe the weather you have been having 60 degrees — 70 degrees oh no! You’re sposed to be cold & miserable. We had about 6″ of snow — in two falls. a lot of melting –now it’s dirty ice and black mud — a bit of sunshine and a lot of overcast. Typical Pa. January thaw!

Our apt is quite comfortable — 72 degrees to 74 degrees. Camp has lots of oil. Gas can be bought anyplace — most any time. Everyone is relaxing — I’m afraid we’re going to get clobbered later or is it only a scare? I’m pessimistic — as usual — not scared! I’ve done without before and with Carl’s ability & ingenuity I’m sure we won’t be suffering — just inconvenienced. He talks more and more about retireing at 62 and I’m with him (much as I like money). I’ve always been willing to go along with him and I’m getting much too old to change– you’ll never believe I’ve reached 112 lbs. don’t look like a war orphan anymore –just like a badly put together old lady — I’m beginning to try camouflage (loose blouses –etc) the first step toward acceptance–! “Old Rocking Chair’s got me”

Well, I’ve spent the whole Today show sitting here scribbling when there’s lot to be done — Today I want to go to the P.O. with your pkg — mike’s big envelope that has to be weighed. Get check cashed — take Cora to Wmsport & be back by 2 — Mary’s coming up — Thurs is her day. –poor Mary — she’ getting a call saying — sit tight — I’ll get there eventually. Then supper cooked and read for dishing up & off for Carol’s at 6 pm until 8 — outside of that I just might flop on the bed and take a nap — “You come too”

Love Mom

11:30 Hi again — your 1973–74–75–? pkg. will go out same time as this letter if USPO will accept the Rube Goldberg packing.

Not too many people get gifts for Ground Hog Day — but have a happy — Me.

Sent to the Underwoods, Laramie Wyoming, from Jersey Shore Pennsylvania, and found in a box of memorabilia that had been untouched for 30 years. Mom was 60 years old.


Ann Oechler, Christopher Oechler (on her lap). Odd family members all ’round. Perhaps 1983.

Notions: Children — Employees/ Employers

February 18, 2014 by

In the NY Times book review of Feb 2, 2014, a review of Jennifer Senior’s All Joy and No Fun had one of those insights that left me gasping: today’s children are “economically worthless but emotionally priceless.”

Think about (as Senior has) the language differences between “housewife” and “stay-at-home Mom”. Those are job descriptions, the first from the 1950s, the second used right now. In the olden days (and still in many countries) children were essential employees, supervised (in both senses of the word) by their parents; today in the US, they are employers, using parents to attend to their needs — taking them to day care, after school skating and chess lessons, attendance at soccer games, cooking dinner for them, doing homework with them. Children used to be employees of the parents, now they are employers.

I grew up in the 40s and 50s and was on the cusp of the change. My parents’ families saw men and women as contributors’ to the family’s income, contributor’s to the world’s well-being. My daughter was never seen by us as vital to our family’s economic health and well-being. And she was of the new generation, being a good employee of our grandchild (although I must say, she had good boundaries about that role).  She has, also, been an ongoing joy to know and be attached to. And that, says Senior, is the joy of contemporary parenting.

Copy of MsWillardManagesW

Senior describes what parents no longer do: they no longer teach kids math, give them medical treatment, sew their clothes, grow their food, provide vocational training or essential home maintenance skills. What they do do is nurture the child, constructing a life narrative that includes delighting in the child’s development as human beings, their growth into kindness and generosity.

As a girl, I was lucky. My father didn’t have much faith in the female of the species and he wasn’t in charge of my  job skills or my training in car maintenance or sewage repair or basic electricity (he supervised my brothers in those respects). My mother wanted me to be “free”, and one of her mantras, when one of us girls failed to be the proper employee, was “I’d rather do it myself.” And indeed, she made my 8th grade home ec apron.

The change-over of children’s roles in the family has been a hundred years in the making.  Sometimes the change has been couched in pejorative terms: coddling children or allowing them to be irresponsible.

But do we want to go back to the days when we were employers, with all the crazy-making scripts that requires? Making sure the jobs are done as necessitated, and the employees (the children) do financially essential jobs before they are allowed to settle into homework or sleep?  Do we really want our kids to wake up at 4 AM to muck out the barn before they get ready for school? I didn’t have to do this, but I went to school with a number of kids who did. And the escapes that children used in those days — heading out for the territory, hiking through the wilderness alone — are no longer available to them.

Copy of WilliYearnsW

Senior doesn’t dwell on the employer style of parenting. Rather she points out the difficulties and joys of the new style: “Children may complicate our lives, but they also make them simpler — children’s needs are so overwhelming and their dependence on us so absolute that it’s impossible to misread our moral obligation to them… We bind ourselves… and through caring for them, grow to love them, grow to delight in them, grow to marvel at who they are.


The book is All Joy and No Fun, The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, by Jennifer Senior.


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