February 3, 1959: The Day the Music Died

Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and pilot Roger Peterson were killed in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa, shortly after takeoff from Mason City on a flight headed for Moorehead, Minnesota.

I remember hearing this news, despite the fact that I was very, very young at the time. A baby, practically. I loved the Big Bopper, and especially this song. (He had me at Hellooo, baby!)

Miss C.’s Poetry Voice

I had the same teacher, Miss C., for both the third and fifth grades. She wasn’t my favorite teacher — she was quite demanding and didn’t have a warm or sympathetic manner. Third grade was a difficult year for me because I was moved from second grade to Miss C.’s third grade class in November, and I had the feeling that she disapproved of the double-promotion and didn’t want me in her class. And fifth grade was a terrible year, because my father was sick and he died during Christmas vacation.

She did give me some good advice, though. In the first few months after my father died, I missed a lot of school. I would get up in the morning and just not feel well enough to go to school. Miss C. kept me after school one day and showed me my attendance record, and told me I needed to stop missing so much school. She said that even if we don’t feel well in the morning, if we make an effort and go off and do our duty to go to school or work, we might find that once we’re there, we feel better. I was doubtful about that, but since I didn’t want her to give me another talking-to, I started making myself go to school every day and she was right, I did feel better. I still have trouble dragging myself out of bed and off to work in the morning, but, thanks to Miss. C., unless I am actually sick, I get up and go, and usually feel just fine once I’m there.

But the thing I remember best about Miss. C. was how much she liked poetry. She read us poems in a slow, dramatic voice, made us copy poems as handwriting exercises, and had us memorize them and recite them to the class.

A lot of her poems were seasonal, like October’s Bright Blue Weather, by Helen Hunt Jackson. I remember sitting at my desk in our classroom on the second floor of the Charles J. Capen School, dutifully copying the poem on composition paper, hearing Miss C.’s poetry voice in my mind:

O suns and skies and clouds of June,
And flowers of June together,
Ye cannot rival for one hour
October’s bright blue weather…

I paused for a moment after writing the last line and looked out the window, and there it was — a dazzling blue October sky! This was a thrilling moment for me, literature and nature coming together. And every October, that phrase sings in my mind, every time the sky is blue and even when it isn’t. I think it’s a beautiful phrase, but I don’t know if I would have appreciated it if Miss C. had not read it to us in her dramatic poetry voice.

But my favorite of the poems she taught us was Wordworth’s I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud, still one of my favorite poems. She did a great reading of this, dreamily reading the first two lines, “I wandered lonely as a cloud, That floats on high o’er vales and hills…” pausing slightly and then switching to her surprised voice for the next two, “When all at once I saw a crowd, A host of golden daffodils!” There isn’t an exclamation point in the original poem, but that’s how she read it. Every time I see daffodils, I hear her poetry voice in my mind.

I also remember her reading us a psalm every morning after the Pledge of Allegiance. Hard to imagine such a thing now, and I don’t remember any other teacher reading from the Bible. Her favorite was Psalm 24, King James Version. The first few lines she delivered in a matter-of-fact fashion:

The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof;
the world, and they that dwell therein.
For he hath founded it upon the seas,
and established it upon the floods.

But then she’d switch to dramatic mode to ask the questions, placing emphasis on the word who:

Who shall ascend into the hill of the LORD? or who shall stand in his holy place?

And then to her teacher voice to clearly state the answer:

He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart!

She recited this as if there were an exclamation point, and I always expected her to add, “That’s who!”

Miss C. is no longer living, but I picture her spending eternity on top of the hill of the Lord, standing right next to his throne, inspecting the hands and hearts of incoming souls to decide who shall pass and who should fail. It would be a perfect job for her — she had high standards and knew how to enforce them, and I can’t imagine her ever wanting to rest in peace.

[Edited and reposted from an earlier version]

Westwood Scout House

Scout House

My earliest memories are set in Westwood, Massachusetts, where my family lived until I was seven years old. I was passing through Westwood a few days ago and pulled into the parking lot of Town Hall to take a look at the Scout House. It looks exactly the way it did before I started school, when my mother used to bring me to meetings of the town’s Girl Scout leaders. I loved this little building. Town Hall is a large and impressive building, and it seemed something like a castle to me. The Scout House is directly behind it, down what seemed like a secret path which made it seem like a something out of a fairy tale, like a cottage in the woods where the young Prince or Princess is being hidden from danger.

I was the only child tagging along to these meetings, and I knew it was important that I entertain myself quietly and not disturb the meeting. I would sit on the window seat and look at my books or draw. I felt proud of myself. I enjoyed the praise of my mother and the other women for being so quiet and good. I also like hearing my mother tell my father and others how well-behaved I was and that she could take me anywhere. The first time I went to the Scout House, I behaved well because I wanted to please my mother, but I loved the praise. I was showing off by sitting quietly during these meetings. I wasn’t trying to be good, I was trying to be the BEST LITTLE GIRL IN THE WORLD.

I liked being the center of attention. I still do.

I have always liked revisiting places that were significant to me at different times of my life, but I find I get more out of it when I am taking pictures. Maybe it’s just because it makes me get out of the car, walk around, focus my attention, look at different angles, and spend enough time to let the memories develop, like watching the image slowly appear and become clear on a Polaroid print.

Fifty Years Ago

Crystal Park, Worcester, Massachusetts

Like most members of my generation, I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard that President Kennedy had been shot.

I was a freshman at South High School in Worcester, and my class attended the afternoon session due to overcrowding. That November day I was sitting in Mr. Timon’s Latin class, trying to pay attention. I remember Mr. Timon’s little jokes — if you couldn’t answer quickly, he’d say “Tempus is fugiting!” The classroom door opened and the Assistant Principal came in and announced that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. That’s all he said — he looked shocked, gave us the news and walked out. If I remember correctly, our classroom was near the office and I think he just needed to tell someone. We were all sitting there looking at each other waiting for Mr. Timon to say something and just a minute later we heard the chimes of the PA system followed by the announcement that President Kennedy was dead. Then there was some confusion, and they sent us back to our homerooms and dismissed us early. I remember the awkward feeling of everyone standing around not knowing quite how to react, what to say. I left the building with a group of friends and we just stood around on the sidewalk on Main Street by the Main South library branch in a block with some stores and a coffee shop. I remember looking in the window and seeing the shocked-looking customers sharing the news. Eventually we walked over to the corner of Main and Maywood Streets, across from Clark University and in front of Crystal Park. (There was a sign identifying this as University Park, but I never heard anyone call it that.)

We just stood around there for a while, feeling historical. Someone mentioned that this was like when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, and we talked about how there was no television then, and maybe a guy on a horse would have ridden up to our school to give us the news three days later. We knew this was a major event, sad and also scary. We had grown up during the Cold War, hearing about the Atomic Bomb and fallout shelters and watching Khrushchev bang his shoe on the table at the UN. The previous autumn, we had lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, watching President Kennedy on television addressing the nation, and we could see this was serious. I watched the address at a friend’s house at the top of our hill, and when I was walking home I remember looking at my street, my house, the streetlights illuminating the leaves on the ground, a chill in the air, thinking how beautiful and special it all was, my world in all its ordinariness. Would the peace be broken with the sound of planes about to drop bombs on us, ending it all? And that’s what was on my mind when we were standing around at the edge of Crystal Park — what did the President’s assassination mean? What would happen next? Please let things just go back to being ordinary again.

Caroline Kennedy and her pony MacaroniWe stood around on Main Street talking until it started to get dark, and my friends got on buses to take them to their neighborhoods, and I walked home. I dreaded going in the house and having to talk about the death of our young, handsome President, who seemed like a regular dad playing around with his young children. My own father had died a few years before, and I tried to avoid thinking about that, or saying anything that might remind my mother of our loss.

The next few days were rough. Our life centered around the news on television, and we went to a memorial service at a church downtown. I tried to avoid connecting the assassination with the loss of my father, but on the second night I remember going into my room and crying uncontrollably for a long time, holding the pillow over my face to try to muffle the sound. Then I wrote a lengthy sympathy note to Caroline Kennedy, telling her how sorry I was that she had lost her father and that I understood just how she felt. I remember saying random things that I hoped would somehow make her feel better, like that I thought she was pretty and that I loved her pony and thought “Macaroni” was a really cute name. But writing the letter just made me upset so I ripped it up.

Riderless Horse at President Kennedy's FuneralThe news came so fast in the next few days. We saw Lyndon B. Johnson sworn in as President, Lee Harvey Oswald caught and then shot by Jack Ruby. We saw endless photographs and video of Jackie Kennedy looking beautiful and tragic, and heartbreaking pictures of the Kennedy children. I had not attended my own father’s funeral (my choice, one I deeply regret) and I became somewhat obsessed watching the President’s funeral and looking at all the photographs in the newspaper and Time magazine. I think I conflated the two funerals in my mind, and to this day when I imagine my father’s funeral I picture a riderless horse and a flag-draped coffin.

I don’t have an ending for this. My friends and I grew up listening to our parents’ generation talking about where they were when they heard the news about Pearl Harbor. We knew this was going to be our generation’s “where were you…” moment, and I just wanted to record mine.

Ice Cream Memories

When my daughters were young, White Farms in Ipswich was one of our favorite ice cream places. We used to stop here sometimes on our way home from sister’s house, or after Sunday visits to the flea market, or sometimes when we just felt like a little outing. We never called it White Farms, though — it was always just the Place with the Cow on the Roof.

Bubbling Brook I wish I had a picture of this place taken back then. I wish I had a picture of my little girls standing there holding ice cream cones, many pictures taken over those years, all ages and many flavors.

And I wish I had pictures of myself and my sister at our family’s favorite ice cream stand, the Bubbling Brook in Westwood. I still drive miles out of my way to go back there once in a while, just to remember the happy days, take a few photographs (and also enjoy maple walnut in a sugar cone.)

I wish I had pictures of all the ordinary places in my life — not just the ice cream stands but the coffee shops, sandwich places, restaurants, bookstores, libraries and all the other places that were once part of our family’s lives, places where we once were regulars. I sometimes wish that I had spent my whole life taking as pictures as casually and prolifically as I do now, so I would have pictures of every place and person and thing in my life. But then I remind myself that I do have all of those pictures, as memories if not as photographs.

RIP Annette Funicello, 1942-2013

Annette FunicelloMy older sister and I used to play Mickey Mouse Club. She played Darlene and I played Doreen, mostly because we liked having cute matching names.

In our games, Annette was the popular girl who kept getting all of the good dancing and singing parts because Master of Ceremonies Jimmie Dodd liked her best. It was always just the two of us playing, so all the other characters were always offstage, so to speak. Our games always opened with one of us pretending to run into our dressing room, saying something like You’ll never guess what Annette just said!

Our stories usually had the same plot: Darlene would finally get a chance to star in a big musical number because Jimmie suddenly realize that she was a better singer and dancer than Annette. (Or sometimes because Annette broke her leg or something.) My role as Doreen was to be Darlene’s sidekick and backup singer, and to say things like Oh, Darlene, you’re way more talented than Annette and way less show-offy! Darlene would have moments of triumph but then somehow Annette would be back on top, so in the next episode Darlene would once again start as the plucky underdog.

We played this off and on for a year or more. It was an adaptable game — sometimes we played for an hour or two, with a lot of singing and dancing. Sometimes we’d just slip into dialogue for a few minutes, more like a private joke than a game. We usually played at home, but sometimes on car trips we’d whisper back and forth to each other, pretending to be on the Mouseketeer bus on our way to a special audition. We’d put the game aside for month or more and I’d think it was all over, and then one day my sister would look at me and say something like Annette is getting a special dressing room with her own swimming pool! and off we’d go.

Annette Funicello died today, and now I feel a little guilty because of the role we always gave her in our games. Through the last several years, I have read and seen reports on her declining health and she seemed to live with grace and courage. Rest in Peace, Annette, and I’m sorry I called you “show-offy” so many times. You couldn’t help being the star of the show.

My Mother’s Casserole

My mother was a wonderful woman: intelligent, kind and loving. She loved her husband and three children dearly, and when she was widowed at the age of 34, she did her very best for us in difficult circumstances.

She had many fine qualities, but she would be the first to admit she wasn’t much of a cook. She didn’t feel bad about that — she thought of herself as a modern, Post-War woman, and embraced all labor-saving appliances and gadgets, and time-saving frozen and packaged foods. She always baked our birthday cakes using cake mixes. She baked cookies, but we were among the first to use the rolls of refrigerated cookie dough. She loved the modern convenience of frozen TV dinners, instant oatmeal, whipped cream in an aerosol can, crescent rolls from dough that popped out of the tube, and recipes that started with a can of soup.

Her favorite recipe was her special casserole. She originally got the recipe from a magazine feature with recipes from singer Kate Smith, best known for belting out “God Bless America.” We originally called it “Kate Smith’s Casserole” and then “Mummy’s Casserole” and eventually “Mummy Mummy Casserole,” a name from the period when my little brother created possessives by doubling names. Somehow that’s the name that stuck, although I find it embarrassing to use in conversation, even just with my family.

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0767905024/ref=nosim&tag=ethomsenThe casserole is a mix of pasta (we would have said “macaroni”) with diced onion, green pepper and ground beef browned in a skillet, canned stewed tomatoes, topped with slices of Velveeta. I didn’t make this dish for many years, since I am a vegetarian and a cheese snob, but earlier this year I decided to try it. I substituted a couple of broken-up Morningstar veggie burgers for the ground beef, but I decided that substituting a different (better) cheese for the Velveeta would interfere with the spirit of the original. So I used Velveeta, the highly processed cheese of my childhood, feeling embarrassed the first time I bought it. They say “you can’t go home again,” but making my mother’s casserole made me feel as if I had, and I don’t think it would have been the same without the Velveeta cheese!

It’s a cold winter night in Massachusetts, and it’s the 39th anniversary of my mother’s death at the age of 48. It felt like a good night to make myself some comfort food, and to me, there’s nothing quite as comforting as this.

All Things Must Pass


A few weeks ago I bought a beautiful pumpkin at Canaan Farm and put it on my front steps along with some glorious autumn chrysanthemums. The flowers have been fading day by day and the pumpkin’s been looking a little less perky. I know pumpkins don’t last very long, but I was hoping this one would make it to Halloween. The flowers are now totally dead, and this morning I discovered that some disrespectful nocturnal animal left bite marks in my wonderful pumpkin. Time to give up and clear off the front steps, I think.

But at least I have this picture! Photographs can’t stop people and things from growing up, growing old, changing, breaking, getting lost and passing away, but they do let us cheat time just a bit by preserving the image of things just the way they were at one moment in time.

Not Quite So Pretty

Dover Country Store Revisited

Dover Depot

I made an unplanned sidetrip to Dover today and went to the old train station that was once the Dover Country Store, one of my family’s favorite places when I was a child. (I wrote about it here: Dover Country Store.) I had heard it was occupied by a real estate office, but it was empty, with a big FOR LEASE sign.

For one crazy moment, I thought my sister and I could lease it and restore it exactly the way we remember it, and I pictured myself sorting through the books and arranging the penny candy, with my sister in charge of everything else. I imagined myself calling her and telling her my plan and she’d say “Count me in!” and it would be the beginning of a new chapter in our lives, or maybe the pilot episode for a sitcom.

But that dream only lasted for a minute or two, because neither of us is looking to start a new chapter right now, we’re both otherwise occupied and neither of us lives anywhere near Dover. And our memories of that time and place lives in our hearts, we don’t need to try to turn them into a business. It was fun imagining it, though.

Happy Birthday, Robert Burns!

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!

Happy 253rd birthday, Robert Burns! My Scottish grandmother Agnes Greig (Ross) Rennie used to tell me his poems “To a Mouse” and “To a Louse” as stories. She always had a framed picture of him prominently displayed, and her frequent fond references to Rabbie Burns gave me the vague notion that he was a relative or old family friend she knew as a child back in the Old Country.

If I had any Drambuie in the house, I’d raise a proper Agnes Rennie toast to him tonight! But I don’t, so I’m settling for a cup of tea in one of my grandmother’s Scottish teacups, and listening to my favorite poems from the Librivox’s wonderful Robert Burns 250th Anniversary Collection.