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In this column:

"When it is time to look a gift horse in the mouth?" and

"Breathe in. Breathe Out"



When it is time to look a gift horse in the mouth?

  by Sally D. Ketchum


We all know: classic bad gifts, the loud tie, apple blossom bath salts, and green soap-a-ropes.  And, the most embarrassing glitch of all, “Haven’t I seen this before? (Pondering a minute) “Oh, I gave it to you last year.”  In fact, my own family has given outlandish gifts and received insulting gifts. But then, I am not exempt since I have endured severe cases of gift-backlash with little wiggle room to get out of the mess without “Scrooge” tattooed on my forehead.


The Clip-On Tie Incident is old. I was about seven or eight when, and on my gift-buying trip to the five and dime, I discovered a black plastic clip-on bow tie. Cabbies and bus drivers wore them back then. I knew my parents had a formal holiday party coming up, and in my ignorance of fashion (that still plagues me at times), I paid 10 cents for the tie. Dad would look like Cary Grant. The thing is that my dad wore that tie—at least he left wearing it--either from his sense of humor or thoughts that I would be hurt. The next day he told me, “Everyone said I looked like Cary Grant.”


Good intentions twice caused family disasters involving holiday spirits of an alcoholic nature.  Dad was an advertising executive, and in that business expensive liquors in elaborate bottles, old Scotch, rare brandies and such, were the traditional gifts among clients, account managers and executives. Bottles flew back and forth like juggler’s clubs.

Meanwhile, my mother was busy with family gifts, new socks and mittens; boxes of chocolates, nuts, and fancy jars of bath salts for the aunts, and sets of after-shave and cologne for uncles and cousins. Day after day, I studied the magnificent bottles under the tree--the liquors and the fancy toiletries. Enchanted as I was, the Bottle Top Muse descended me. Clearly the fancy bottles of the liquor needed more ornate tops. So, Christmas Elf that I was, I switched tops. The plain corks and screw tops of the liquor bottles went on the toiletries. The tops of the toiletries--the white plastic horses, the golden crowns, rampant dragons and brightly colored glass knobs—went on the liquor bottles.


Of course, the old Scotch was ruined, along with everything else. The spirits smelled and tasted more like bay rum than rum, more like apple blossom than applejack. 


While my father was only a social drinker, he understood the prices of the good stuff and was angry.  I hoped that, after all, he appreciated my aesthetic intentions.


A disaster precipitated by my brother the very next year carried much the same theme. Brother Dick attended the local Methodist church since it had the best boys’ basketball team on the east side of Detroit.  There he was coached not only in basketball, but also in the virtue of temperance. So it was that, as the holiday collection of bottles of strong drink grew around the Christmas tree, Dick felt temptation the growing strong, too.  So one evening after coming home from basketball practice (and probably prayer), Dick collected the bottles, and one by one, poured the contents down the kitchen sink. In this case, dad did not like Dick’s intention at all.


My own silliness, lack of forethought, perhaps, led to an incredible situation that had all elements of gift disaster:  mistakes, embarrassment, pride, emergency, blindness to possibilities, but most of all hilarity in madness. To begin, my Christmas-loving family gives many small presents, favorite pickles, cans of sardines, and joke presents. (Yes, there was the Christmas of the rubber chicken.)  But, like the current year, that one was a hotbed of politics, and my mother-in-law, Jane, was a proud and loud Republican. Further, her devotion was clear in her adoration of Barbara Bush, the President’s mother.  As you probably recall, Mrs. Bush was known for her multiple strings of pearls—choker style. So, in the spirit of fun (and also since I had no other gift idea), I purchased a pretty fine replica of Barbara Bush’s pearls, good costume jewelry.


Had I left well enough alone, all would have been well.  But no, silly me, I had to be funny. I wrote a note, thanking Jane for her vote, for her continued support, stuffing mail, and so forth, and signed it Barbara Bush, and put it in with the pearls. What fun!


I should have seen it coming. Jane loved the pearls, but in a wicked twist of fate, she did not understand the joke. She thought that the pearls were, indeed, from Barbara Bush!  We were all embarrassed by Jane’s naivety (or was it a sense of self-importance?) Yet, the situation was hilarious, we were variously snorting into handkerchiefs, coughing, turning away to look at the outside Christmas lights outside and so on.  Never did we think that Jane would believe the note!


Now, the situation was much worse--it was catastrophic! If the pearls were from Mrs. Bush, I had no present for Jane, my mother-in-law. Desperate, I excused myself and dashed upstairs to raid the closets for extra gifts. I recall emptying a wicker basket of yarn and tossing things into it --English soaps (no ropes), a box of ladies’ handkerchiefs, two tea towels, a cellophane-sealed collection paperbacks--Jane Austen’s novels, some apple blossom bath salts, and other sundries. I put the frilliest ribbon I could find on the basket’s handle with a sentimental note. (Oh, how I love you, let me count the ways…)  So the evening passed happily and it turned out to be a lovely Christmas, even if it smelled more of apple blossom than balsam.


Sally Ketchum writes from northern Michigan—very close to the North Pole. She has a large collection of Christmas books and lore. One book, a Dutch book, includes a map that shows there is a dense population of gnomes in the Grand Traverse area.

Breathe in--  Breathe out

by Kas Winters

Women always have too much to do! I'm not sure why this is, but I don't think I've ever found an exception to the rule. So when things get overwhelming, take a minute to breathe! Sounds simple but you have to remember to do it and be willing to set aside a moment or two. Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Hold it just a little and then let it all out. Repeat this a couple of times and you'll be able to cope with the chaos at hand just a little better. Try it! I just did and it worked very well!


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In this column: "It's an Alleluia Day" and "Reminiscing: Childhood Memories


It's An Alleluia Day!

by Kas Winters

Ever have "one of those days"? We sure have them in our family too. When we begin experiencing one of those days when everything seems to go wrong, my youngest son and I declare that it is an "Alleluia Day". As we ride around town running errands or work around the house, we sing all of the "Alleluia", "Hallelujah" and "Hosanna" songs we can think of, beginning with the Hallelujah Chorus. Then we loudly sing any other "up" song that comes to mind. Before long, we find that we are happier and the gloom of the day has been left behind. It's almost like flipping a switch. What started out as a "bad day" has taken a lighter approach and we find ourselves laughing and singing together instead of grumbling and complaining about everything that is going wrong. Of course, Murphy and his law are becoming less popular around here. We're working on the theory that anything that can go right will go right if we plan, follow through and overcome the obstacles! I even have a T-shirt that says "Hosanna" Now, if I can just manage to wear it when we're having "one of those days". . .

A former teacher, Ketchum recalls the happy, funny and even outrageous episodes in the childhoods of her former students, her three children and her own happy childhood.


Reminiscing: Childhood Memories

by Sally D. Ketchum


We all know the scenario: The generational family tale that begins, not with  “Once upon a time,” but with father to son, saying,  “When I was a child, I….” Then the tale proceeds about how things were harder then, but better; how childhood was often harsh then, but educational; disciplined then, but character-building, and so on.  I intend no comparisons here, just a look at happy childhoods. 


I reminisce about the simple joys of my youth that I miss as an adult.  I’m thinking of things like finding lost treasure, like the rotten wooden object you fished from the creek—surely it’s part of the mast from a historic war ship.  The exuberant fun of spitting watermelon seeds into a ditch, and later--by gosh! -- finding that some have sprouted.  The excitement when the penny put in the slot twists downs the chutes of a “slot machine,” one that was self-constructed from unpainted, wooden blocks.  These experiences might have been naïve, but they evoked happiness so pure that it is found only in childhood. 

Recovery of the lost was sweet in childhood. The feeling wasn’t always the epic like the return of the family dog to the back porch after he was gone over the whole night—in the dark! The Eureka feeling was often in such simple crises as, “I lost my yoyo.”  Then the hunt began: socks flew from drawers, dust whirled under the bed and hedges tunneled by the hunter.  Then the sweet moment of recovery, “There it is—my yoyo! Right in my shoe that I left by the back door.”


I miss the giddiness I felt the day the calendar turned to June. June held the best days of the year for me, except Christmas, of course.  The reason was clear: My birthday and the last day of school were in June. Then it felt as if we were released into the world.


The outdoors was ours to conquer, hose-drenching days, lemonade stands, reading under the trees eating peanut butter and grape jelly sandwiches. Summer pleasure was nearly ecstasy when we were given permission to stay up late midsummer evenings. We reveled outside,  “pushing the envelope” as it is called now. These hours, tag and Red Rover turned into an audacious and madcap game of “Bloody Murder.” Enormous naughtiness and escalating frenzy—was anything better? 


Neighborhood parades were close. They were group projects—that made them swell.  The two absolute requirements for a good parade were at least four or five participants to march (Dogs and cats in the doll’s buggy didn’t count) and noise.  Good marching elevated the parade to art. This demanded individual rhythm, not necessarily coordinated, however.  Approved rhythmic steps, in any execution, any order, were the traditional hop, skip and jump, but also a good stomp, kicking goosestep, a jazzy “step, ball-change” (Some of us were in tap dancing 101.) and a pre-moon-walking shuffle.  We shouted the songs,  “Yankee Doodle, ” “Comin’ Round the Mountain,” “Bingo” and some we made up. Others, like “On top of Spaghetti, all covered with cheese,” were ok, but hard to march to. Count off songs, like, “This Old Man, He played one, Knick Knack Paddy Whack,” were the greatest. But all parades needed banging on pots and pot lids.  Potato chip can drums were treasured drums and never left out in the rain. We marched with any type of flag handy, Old Glory, pirate or pillowcase. These were held high, or if both hands were busy, stuck in our belts, even in parades long as around the block—twice!


Also, the arrival of visitors intrigued us, and invited company coming was exciting.  The hospitality involved overt fun, having such adult responsibilities like taking coats and passing out napkins, but covert, cerebral fun was the best. So much to observe and consider!  Was Mrs. Harvey going to have a baby or did she just forget her girdle?  How could you tell if Mr. Harvey had false teeth?  And, were these the kind of people who would give you the sticky cherries from their cocktails if you asked politely. This type of studied observation showed us using your brain could be fun--much better than spelling bees, checkers or Hang Man.


Mature now (well, mostly), I think back on childhood happiness when there’s a sing-along by a campfire, when I set a fancy table for guests or when I pull off an April Fool’s joke first, before my husband fools me.  Although I haven’t seen a kid-organized parade in years, I have seen a pack of kids and dogs follow a small town parade down main street.  Of course, now kids know when Mrs. Harvey is pregnant.  She’ll be wearing a T-shirt saying “Baby” while an arrow point to her tummy.


Perhaps some wonder is lost, perhaps not. When I see a youngster blow a large bubble gum bubble right up to his eyes, I feel the joy of childhood, just as joyous as when I found my yoyo in my shoe.

MotherLodeCover.JPG (116195 bytes)

Mother Lode

The Ultimate Collection of Ideas for Keeping Kids Busy

Over 5,000 ideas for infants and toddlers through teens.

At the rate of one idea per day, it will take about 15 years to use them all!

By Kas Winters 

USD $30.00


In this column: "A Woman for All Ages"


Mom's Night Off

"Mom's" All Purpose Apron

A gift basket for a woman

A Woman for All Ages

by Eileen Birin


While still living in Chicago, I attended a writing seminar conducted by Dr. Dennis Hensley, author of seven books and more than fifteen hundred articles. The meeting focused on how to be a successful freelancer, and Dr. Hensley made it a point to tell us that he always carried a notebook, camera and recorder with him wherever he went, even on vacations, sometimes to the dismay of his wife and family. He knew there were, and possibly even looked for, stories everywhere.


One story in particular, I have never forgotten can be summed up as follows.


While on a mini-trip driving the scenic back roads of the mid-west, the Hensleys came across a small town, enhanced with charm and character. They stopped. With camera and notebook ready, Dr. Hensley set out to explore the town's historic treasures.


He was fascinated by what was once a decorative opera house, art deco architectural style, now in various stages of deterioration, which stood in the town's center. Therein laid a story.


While inquiring about the old building, Dr. Hensley was delighted to learn there was a senior resident who had recently taken it upon herself to record the history of this turn-of-the-century town, its notable buildings which included the opera house, as well as, some celebrated happenings. She was hoping her memoirs and research would provide younger generations, caught up in fast-paced progress, an American small town experience.


Dr. Hensley was even more impressed with the woman herself and once back in his motel room made a quick long-distance call with a "hold the press" edict. This woman's article needed to be published in the next magazine issue.


"Now Dennis, wait a minute," the editor responded. "Why such a rush? Let's wait and see what the lady comes up with and see if we can actually use the material."


"But you don't understand," Dennis exclaimed, "the woman is 101 years old!"


This 101 year old aspiring writer lived to be 104 and had seven magazine articles published in the second century of her life. She believed that you live the first 100 years and then write about your life the second century. Mark Twain held a similar belief, but his was a 50/50 split - maybe a bit more realistic.


I don't recall Dr. Hensley ever mentioning the woman's name or the name of the town, but that's not important. What matters is that a centenarian was able to invest her time and years of experience so wisely. Wouldn't it be great if we were all so privileged?


With the start of each new year, this woman for all ages inspired me to start today fulfilling my own writing dreams and goals. There's no guarantee I'll be granted a second century of life, but one thing's for certain, I'm not waiting. TODAY I start the rest of my life, writing and otherwise.


Author, Eileen Birin


For Books by Eileen click on the links below.


Chalkboard Dust


Go Ahead.




Thirty fascinating people share their extraordinary collections


Come, Sit a Spell

Recalling and Writing Memoirs

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