Surly Girlie

Writing to figure things out and just because she likes it

Archive for the month “June, 2010”

Ruth’s Advice/ My Shopping Mantra

This picture was taken in Key West, Florida in 2003 on Duval Street. Jim and I were on our honeymoon and I was so grateful for the dress above. It is my favorite, or one of them. I bought it in Miami at a store called Miami Twice, a ridiculous pun on Miami Vice. It is made of this very lightweight cotton, like crinkle cloth, with a tan/beige crocheted waist and panel down the front-middle and on the edges. Sadly, I am probably going to have to purchase a new bra contraption to continue to wear it, but oh how I have always loved the halter dress and how I still do, even though it might not be age appropriate (at least according to Stacey and Clinton of TLC’s  “What Not to Wear,” but who are they really?).

I seem to write a lot about grandmothers these days, so why stop now? My paternal grandmother, Ruth Marie Strong Cassell, gave me this bit of fashion advice: Whenever you find something truly special, even if you can’t afford it, buy it. That mantra has guided me through many an impulse buy, and mostly she has been right. I certainly had no extra cash when I found myself at Miami Twice, but as soon as that dress was on, it was as if she  (Ruth)  popped up like an angel (or devil, you be the judge) on my shoulder and insisted that I buy it. So, I did and I was so glad to have that dress when Jim and I honeymooned in Key West in JULY. Yes. I said, Key West in JULY. Mostly, we walked around wet from the pool– that’s how hot it was, but this dress, which I pretty much wore everyday, was just perfect for that trip, and once I get my new bra thingamajiggy, it will be just perfect for this hotter-than-is-right summer we are having in South Carolina.

I keep thinking that with the proper “foundation garments” (as Stacey and Clinton call them) and with some midnight, free-weight arm workouts, I can perhaps wear this halter dress forever.  I’ll be that crazy old lady in her garden with her wedged sandals and her halter dress. I bet you a million dollars I will be totally age-inappropriate– at least in my own yard– which, when you think about it is the least this world can give you when you have to put up with all the other crap it throws your way. I’ll bet you I am totally age inappropriate already. So be it.

My grandmother, Ruth, had a very strong sense of her own personal style. She was short, like me, and in fact I have pretty much inherited her figure to a tee (but she would tell you that her waist was smaller than mine ever was, and that was probably true). She, like me, was a fan of the wedged heel, the pre-Spanx “foundation” garments, Wind Song perfume, and the color Robin’s Egg Blue. She once wore wedged heels hiking at Turkey Run State Park and I can recall how impressed we all were that she actually didn’t twist her ankle and how annoyed we all were that it took her forever to get down a set of stone stairs next to a waterfall overlooking a mountain (I exaggerate, but you get the idea). It was dangerous and dumb to wear high heels hiking, but that was her style and she managed, so what’s it to anybody? They were her legs to destroy as she wished.

Ruth also was a fan of the costume bling, and I have some of it still on my dresser. One of my favorite pieces is this Tahitian looking bracelet. It has some sort of totem-looking figures hammered into a thick silver cuff with a black background. I always get compliments when I wear it and I think it is because in addition to looking funky, it also has some mystery to it. She also had a lot of turquoise, pearls (the long kind), and clip-on earrings. She gave me this wonderful Mandarin collared jumpsuit, which I want to have made into a sundress, but never find the time. An artist friend made the suit for her and this is one of the ways I know that I have her figure. Made for her and it fits me perfectly.

Ruth was an artist. She had an eye for the unusual. She liked knick-knacks with Asian themes and seaside landscapes. I suppose you could say she taught me what eclectic was before I knew what eclectic meant. She also used to make the most beautiful Easter baskets. One could call them almost glamorous. They certainly possessed sophistication beyond my realm, wrapped as they were in cellophane and sitting stoically on her table in the patio room. The candy was also special, purchased in downtown Chicago at some fancy store. There wasn’t a lot of candy, but what was there was good s**t (if you know what I mean). She also used to always put a white chocolate Easter bunny in the basket– not an ordinary old milk chocolate bunny from the drugstore, but a pure white chocolate bunny that looked like a real rabbit (as opposed to looking like a cartoon rabbit). 

One of the stories my mom likes to tell is that Grandma wore a mink stoll (which I also have, sorry PETA people, but the mink was gone a long time ago) to her June wedding in Southern Indiana when the temperature was somewhere near 80. The rumor is that she rented it for the occasion and then decided that she needed to have it, so her husband bought it and that was that. She must have decided that it was special.

While Ruth wasn’t really the kind to put peanut butter cookies in her pantry, or to coddle you with goochey-goo stuff, she was the kind of woman who possessed a sense of her own style and wore it well. She wasn’t afraid to let you know that you could use a little eye-brow pencil or that your lipstick needed re-application, or that a certain hairstyle suited you. She wasn’t afraid to let you know when you were being too righteous or self-important, or critical of the people she loved.

She so worried that I would never get married. I am glad that she met Jim. She died the spring after we married. She had been in a slow decline with dementia, which was heartbreaking to witness. I can recall that even at the nursing home the last time I saw her, she told me that she had lost some weight. It was a loop in her brain that kept playing over and over (she was always worried about her figure) and I thought, “Ah, geez. Is that crap always going to play in our heads? Even when we’re 90 and in a nursing home?” And the truth is, if we care about ourselves? Probably.

She called her walker her dune-buggy. She was insulted if anyone ever bought her anything in a size over medium. And I’m sure, on that last day I saw her, she was wearing the proper foundation garment.

Not that it matters, but Stacey and Clinton would have approved.


What Stays


My Great Granny, Cora Willamena Finke, lived in a small house on Walnut Street in Osgood, Indiana. The house is still there and every time I go back home, I drive by it and think about all of the Christmases and family dinners that were had there. She was an amazing cook. There was always a coffee cake (made from scratch) ready to be eaten. She used to make peanut butter cookies, too—the kind with the streak marks from the fork tines—and would store them down low in her kitchen pantry in used Folgers coffee tins.

“Why don’t you see if you can’t find something to eat in there?” she would say to my curious and pudgy-self wandering wide-eyed through her kitchen. And, lo and behold, I would always find that coffee tin full of peanut butter cookies.

“Oh,” she would say. “I didn’t know those were in there. Well, go ahead and have one or two.”

And I would take three.

These are small gestures, but like I was writing in my last blog, these are the ordinary kindnesses that tend to be remembered, at least by sentimental souls like me. Now, I sometimes, like to put princess gummies (or some other disturbingly sugar-laden, Disneyfied version of food) down low in my pantry and one of my nieces will “stumble upon” them and  I will say something like “Oh, I didn’t know those were in there. Let me open that for you.”

And it will be as if they just had an amazing stroke of good luck. And I want to give them a feeling of having amazing good luck as much as I can.

I still have afghans that Granny made for us. She made me two to match my rooms. One is pink and green, and one is orange and green. They are still in pretty good shape and I use them like I would any blanket. Hayden has recently developed an affection for the pink and green afghan and every time I look at her with it I am stunned at what stays, what survives the test of time. I know Granny would be glad to see that someone was still using something that she made and that the someone using it appreciated it for not only its utility but its cozy character and charm.

Unfortunately, I inherited NONE (I repeat NONE) of Granny’s touch for sewing or quilting or knitting or cooking. I do not make coffee cakes from scratch or grow my own grapes to make homemade wine. I cannot make outfits for my nieces that they design themselves (like Granny did for my mother).

But I do keep a basket of familiar unglamorous toy-things in the same spot always just as Granny always had for me a small china tea set, a Nanny and the Professor coloring book, and probably the same set of crayons.

And I can’t cook a great home-made meal, but I did make a completely decent pre-fabricated meal for Jim yesterday and it was the kind of meal Granny would have made: meatloaf, mashed potatoes, green beans, dinner rolls, ice tea. What made me think of her was that Jim ate around four o’clock which is what people from Southern Indiana call “dinner.” Basically, “dinner” (in those parts) is an early supper. I remember Granny used to make these fantastic tables for my Uncle Gene and cousin Tim when they worked as masons. They would stop by and she would have the table set with goblets and china and I can see them still taking the time to sit down and eat, Uncle Gene smoking his pipe, Tim laughing his great laugh, and me just a little girl thinking, “Wow! So fancy for an afternoon” and then traipsing off with my peanut butter crumbled fingers to color some more in my Nanny and the Professor coloring book.  The adult chatter in the other room more pleasant than any television show and the aromas of Granny’s house enveloping it all.

I am sure that some of my memories are idealized, but I feel so fortunate to have had teachers like Cora Willamena Finke, who inadvertently (or maybe not) highlighted what was important in a day: a well-laid table, a good meal, a contented child, a sweet treat.

These are the pleasures that slip away. These are the lessons.

I am a teacher, but only in a literal sense. As we all know, teachers are all around us. I feel so lucky to have had so many great ones. It must be I that has had this amazing streak of good luck all these years, like a girl who has stumbled upon a tin full of cookies, I suddenly realize the treasures of my years.


I have been looking at all of these amazing blog-sites where people are really freeing themselves from having a particular blog theme or focus and choosing instead to just see where their writing takes them. This is something I constantly preach to my students. Write into (your own) knowing, I might say. And they usually look at me with an expression that reads, “Okay, hippy-dippy, yoga-smelling teacher.” (I don’t smell like yoga. I don’t even do yoga. That’s just something I think they think I do). However, like most advice, it is easier to dispense than it is to practice. And so, I find myself thinking about what to write and it seems easier to write for my students about my summer (something they will never read, but I do it anyway) than to just write about myself for myself, and that is sort of sad, I think. Or perhaps it’s the mark of maturity? After all, I have filled spiral notebooks by the hundreds with the mysterious “broodings” of my soul.  They seem pretty pointless to me now, but on an occasion I will sit and read them and ponder how much I have changed and how little I haven’t. So, here I am trying to write a blog and wondering why and then deciding I really don’t need a reason.

This summer has been different than I expected so far.  My Gran Florence’s death has reunited my family with our “McCreery” cousins on the West Coast.  It also meant I went to California twice in two weeks, which was odd, but fine.  I had a previoulsy planned vacation with my friend Holly and so, the funeral and the vacation were four days a part. Also, my father’s family (and mine, obviously) from Pennsylvania are coming to the beach for a reunion sort of vacation.  So, I have been in touch with my paternal relatives and my father much more than ever I think and my dad wants this vacation to be really special for the “PA Peeps” as I am calling them and gave me the task of creating welcome buckets for when they check in at Litchfield Beach Resort. I love crap like that! I’m a craft cornball at heart. (Hey, there’s a clever blog title, full of alliteration! Crafty Cornball Crap. I like it).

I have put myself on the vampire schedule of my youth. I stay up until 2 or 3 AM and then wake-up at varying times from 10-12 PM. It suits me just fine except that I know I am at odds with all the malarkey I read in magazines about “getting up early for that morning jog!” I feel I can be more creative late at night when the only sound is the infrequent snoring of Jim from the bedroom and the intermittent clinkety-clink of the ceiling fan’s toggle. I surf the net, watch bad TV (think E! and Bravo!). I organize drawers and label, label, label! I spray for bugs and do the dishes and sometimes the laundry. I google random things like “how to make your own doggie door” because if we ever have a cat again the litter box is going to be very far away in the garage and the door to the garage will have a doggie door. I read a lot. I like to read more than one book at a time and I love magazines. I craft and think about crafting. My mom gave me a loom like I used to have when I was eight or nine. Maybe you had one? The kind that comes with loopy elastics that you string to make potholders? No? Well, get one. There tons of fun. All of these things feel incredibly indulgent when I think about the world racing around without me.

Life would be more bearable if everyone could get off the wheel, disappear from the grid. I had a boyfriend once who loved punk music. He used to always say, “Because if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.” And, I agree. It is so hard to s.l.o.w. myself down, even with all of this time to moodle.  I have to remind myself to stop and take a breath because I will find myself unconsciously jazzed on Diet Coke running from one task to the other buzzing from the “I can check this off my list” mentality, and what is that all about?

It takes such a huge amount of time to really get to the point where one can even begin to ask the question. WTF? What am I doing? And then the year ticks by. And then its Christmas again. And then your nieces are going to school. And then…well, you get the point.

I love the play Our Town by ThorntonWilder because it stresses this point in the most “crafty cornball” way possible.  If you have never read it, please rent/or netflix the PBS version where Paul Newman plays the Stage Manager. Life rushes by so quickly and in the midst of it all are these beautiful ordinary treasures. Quiet and moons and chocolate and memories and love and laughter and yes, sorrow, too.   It’s not that I am too stupid to realize such things, I mean after all, Oprah has told us all we must have gratitude journals! However, it is simply that I do it all too fast.

One of my lovely Southern friends said with genuine kindness, “I think you would come across (pause)… differently if you just went a little slower.” She was referring to the cadence of my speech at meetings and with students. (One of the gifts of Southern womyn is that they find it almost rude to rush through anything, and so enjoy everything…differently.)

But being the zippity-do-da go getting Midwestern gal that I am, I feel the thrill from crossing off the list. Getting it done. Being effective. This is all well and good, but as I am defintely over the hill or at least at it’s daunting precipice, I am seeing that time will go by faster and that I will have to move more slowly. 

When I lived with my Grammy in Southern Indiana about ten or fifteen years ago, she told me that her mother used to say, “Why are you in such a hurry, Mary?” when they were walking to town. She said the same thing to me once in her driveway bustling in to the car, “Why are you in sucha hurry, Shannie?” and then she told me about her mother.

I’m sure my answer was, “I don’t know.” And that is still the truth.

But what I do know now is that there are times when going slowly is exactly what the doctor ordered and for me, summer is that time. I will try. I will try. I will try to stop and smell the roses more than I wake up and smell the coffee. This is sure to irk many, but it is my life to be lived as slowly as I like.

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