Tag Archives: childhood

June is Busting Out in Peonies

May 28 peony 2

Peony in my front garden. I shot this image on May 28.

I grew up in various places in the United States—I was born in Tennessee, although I was so young when we moved from there that I don’t have any memories of that place. I have a few dim snatches of memory from Schenectady, New York, although we moved to California just before I turned 4.

From ages 4 to 8, we lived in several towns in California. I have numerous California memories, but honestly, they tend to be a rather confusing knot that doesn’t specify time or place all that well. My son lives in San Francisco, and I know I visited that place in the 1960s, but when I took a trip out there to see him, absolutely nothing at all looked familiar (my main memories of 1960s California were that we toured a Canadian destroyer which had steep stairs, seemed huge and was a dull grey; and a minor earthquake had occurred and some storefronts had broken glass. As an adult visiting the city by the bay I saw zero Canadian destroyers and no broken shop windows.)

My more organized narrative memory, which honestly is not all that great, really starts in Clinton, Iowa. For a short time, we lived in an old rented house on Third Avenue South, but then we moved to a house on Seventh Avenue South after, I think, about a year, which means we lived there from about 1967 to 1972.

In my mind, that house in Clinton is probably the one I think of as my boyhood home. I learned to mow grass and appreciate girls while I lived in that house (the two are unrelated). There was a huge hedge in back, and while I sort of liked it sometimes, I’ve never been tempted to plant a hedge in any of my houses. They get big and get out of control.

My father planted numerous trees while we lived on Seventh Avenue, and the tree-planting bug clearly took root in me. I am glad to say that I have three live redbud trees in Iowa in a place where the climate is pretty much the same as Clinton—we tried planting that kind of tree in Clinton and they always died. I don’t know why.

The house in Clinton had a large front porch with a porch swing (whose chain my sisters and I occasionally broke through rather rambunctious swinging). That porch served as lookout post, pirate ship and thunderstorm hangout. The house also had a lip on the wooden siding that the brave or foolhardy could use to travel all the way around the house, toes on the lip, fingers braced on the underside of the siding, sidling across a 10-foot chasm over a driveway cut into the basement.

It was in this house that my father grew a small garden that for some reason yielded plenty of tomatoes, sweet corn, cucumbers and other garden treats for a large family. My father’s ability to grow food for the family is something I have always envied—and never been able to emulate.

And there were a few flowers at the Clinton house. In the back by the alley, at a corner gap in the hedge, there was a big lilac bush, and its blooms always smelled sweet and heralded the coming of spring and the ending of another school year. I disliked school and learned to love lilacs.

On the east and west sides (the house faced north) of the back yard, beyond the hedge on the west (there was no hedge on the east) were lines of peony plants. And perhaps because they also heralded the end of tedium and boredom known as a term at Sacred Heart School, I have kept a lifelong appreciation for the peony.

And this year, June 1 is just past the peak of peony season in Iowa. These pretty flowers mean the transition away from spring to early summer—the prevalence of ants, the appearance of fireflies, the freedom from school (as a professor, my attitude towards school has grown a bit more positive, but I will also freely admit that my favorite months of the year still are any that start with J and don’t end in anuary).

Peonies! You fresh pom-poms of color. I plant more than I ever get to grow and bloom, but I do have some that bloom, and I like that. They are pretty and smell nice—they have a subtler fragrance than a lilac, you have to lean close to experience it, and it you do, be careful of the ants or bees when you sniff.

They are the flowers that announce the best time of the year is here in Iowa. Hip-hip hooray!

Campus May 29 2

May 29–Peony blooming at Mount Mercy University.

Campus May 29

Another May 29 image of peony on MMU campus.


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A Better Version of the Ketchup Pizza


Dinner Tuesday night–quick, easy and tasted good.

It’s amazing to look back at things that I called “food” when I was growing up.

White bread sans crust crushed into a tiny cube (and, of course, I’m sure I was consuming plenty of the bacteria from my fingers). Instant mashed potatoes with cottages cheese mixed in. Dill pickles wrapped in thinly sliced sandwich pieces of corned beef, with horseradish. And the infamous ketchup pizza.

It was an English muffin, topped with ketchup and Velveeta “cheese,” warmed in the oven or toaster oven. It was amazing where that yellow glop would end up in our diets—in an omelet, a grilled cheese sandwich or even as the only cheese in lasagna.

Clearly, my younger years were filled with food sins. Some, I would never repeat. I vow never to again touch a Velveeta lasagna, so help me spoons. On the other hand, some of the treats, don’t seem quite so bad—that combination of horseradish, dill and salty meat still is not a terrible idea.

But, never again for the English muffin pizza.

I’m not too much of a snob to eat Velveeta. It would not be my first choice for a sandwich, but if someone made one for me, I’d eat it. And processed cheese-like substances are still OK on pasta, just not OK in lasagna.

These days, when I want a quick pizza, I’ve discovered a more awesome trick. I use a flour tortilla wrap, put actual pizza sauce on it, and cover it with a little cheddar and a lot of mozzarella. In the one pictured, peperoni, too. I don’t know what that does for the family weight loss challenge, but it’s a good, quick meal when we’re hungry and want to eat in 15 minutes (5 minutes prep, 10 to bake—one reason this is a good pizza option it that it’s also quick).

I like the results. I don’t know if young Joe would have liked them, but young Joe ate bread cubes and instant mashed potatoes. Voluntarily. And I’m pretty sure young Joe would be OK with it—one area of food agreement that both old Joe and young Joe agree on is that pizza in any form is usually a good idea. I just draw the line on this side of Velveeta, now.

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In Which The Lady Rides Tree Try Tree

Tristan enjoys a game of "horse" with me. My dad--and oldest sister--used to play this with me when I was  young.

Tristan enjoys a game of “horse” with me. My dad–and oldest sister–used to play this with me when I was young.

I was thinking about child development the other day, because I was lecturing about language in class, and it occurred to me that I have six grandchildren and two more on the way—and only a few have entered their “biographic memory” phase of life.

At ages 4 and 3, Nikalya and Elizabeth are having some experiences that they will later look back and reflect on. It’s hard to tell with Tristan—but he’s old enough that he might, for example, later in life recall riding with me on my bicycle.

As for Amelia, Juliet and our youngest grandson? None has reached the age of 2, yet, and while it’s possible some dim impression of their lives now might persist, for the most part their internal lifelong biography hasn’t even entered the introduction area, let alone chapter 1.

Not that they don’t remember. They just don’t remember in that narrative way which will let them later reflect on events. They clearly know those around them. The three know many words. Amelia, last time she had a sleepover at our house, woke up at 3 a.m. and demonstrated, over and over, to the chagrin of Audrey, that she knows substantial snatches of the “ABC” song.

Anyway, one of my early preschool memories, which must have been from when I was around 3, was of a simple game my dad used to play with us, and that I played with my kids and now play with my grandchildren. Amelia calls it “tree, try, tree,” and will crawl into my lap, fix me with her Queen Amelia gaze, and command, in her cute little girl voice, “tree, try, tree!”

She has a cousin who is about her age. Although the tree-try-tree game, which I’ll call “horse” from now on, is properly done with two knees, the cousins are small enough that each fit comfortably on one knee, so they discovered today that they could have a two-person version of horse from grandpa, which they loved. Maybe it didn’t help that Tristan was sitting on my shoulders at the time, but, to be honest, the grandpa horse got a bit worn.

Anyway, this particular activity requires a small child (or two)—big enough to sit up comfortably on your knees facing you. Have said toddler or child face you, tell them to hang on, and take his or her hands with yours.

Then, you bounce your heels up and down in unison, and repeat this rhyme:

“This is the way the lady rides, tree, try, tree. Tree, try, tree, try, tree-try-tree.” Naturally, you’re bouncing in rhythm to the syllables.

Next, exaggerated the bounce a little, slow the pace, and make your knees go up and down in opposition rather that unison. Hang on tight to little hands as the child sways back and forth. While doing this, chant:

“This is the way the farmer rides, hobeldy hoy, hobeldy hoy, hobeldy, hobeldy, hobelty hoy.”

Finally, bounce your knees up and down vigorously and increase the frequency so that the child feels like he or she is racing. And state, in a slightly increased volume at a quicker pace in time to the quicker bounces:

“This is the way the young man rides, clippety clop, clippety clop, clippety, clippety, clippety clop.”

Of course, you want to be careful. You don’t want to jar the child too much with your gallop, and you want to pay attention should they start to “head bob” because you want to avoid an accidental chin punch. But, with six kids and numerous grandchildren, I don’t recollect any injuries associated with this game of “horse.” Of course, it’s both slightly sexist and disparaging to farmers, which makes it interesting that it came to me from my dad, who fathered six girls (and one boy) and whose family history included some farming. Anyway, the fact that it’s a very old game, at least in my experience, is part of the charm.

The two-toddler versions only requires that you swing your knees back and forth and use your hands to sway the kids side to side for the farmer ride. Other than making sure each kids has a tight grip with two hands on one of your hands, the lady and young man can ride as usual. The middle ride is not exactly the official farmer hobbeldy hoy, but both Amelia and her cousin were satisfied.

Tristan, at age 3, only rode solo—but he enjoyed the ride, too.

Jan 20 update: On Facebook, my sisters pointed out that my father’s final verse was: “This is the way the gentleman rides, gallop-a-trot, gallop-a-trot, gallop-a, gallop-a, gallop-a-trot.” I stand, or sit, corrected.

Jan. 24 update: I tried to use the “gallop-a-trot” line when giving a grandson a “horse” ride the other day.  The result was a near riot. To my spouse and children, what I was doing was “wrong.” Clearly, in my family, the “young man” will always ride “clippety-clop.”  Somehow, there is a case study here in how a folk game and a folk rhyme evolve. Too bad, gentlemen, in the new century you don’t to gallop or ride at all. At least the ladies are still around.


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A Very Short Faux Haiku Blog Post

Tristan rhymes
with piston and
this is no coincidence

OK, OK, it’s not much, and not even structurally really haiku. I just got done playing with the cute little ball of energy, and also, after engorging myself on chili and pumpkin bars, was bounced on by his 2-year-old sister.

“Nikayla” should rhyme with “piston” too-and she does, even if her name doesn’t.

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