Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Graham Cracker Incident

In my family, there are two things legendary about my sister: her luck, and her willpower.

One favorite story illustrates the latter with a simple graham cracker.

According to my mother, I was never spanked for the same thing twice.  "You were such an easy baby," she always croons.

And then there's my little sister, Natalie, five years my junior.  "She would've been our only child if she had been born first," my father always grumbles.  Whereas I would respond to a single spanking, my sister in her Terrible Twos would have to be spanked three, four, even five times for the same offense. 

And to add insult to her stubbornness, she would refuse to cry when spanked.  After my mother set down the spatula, my sister would look back at her impassively, as though to say, "That all you got?"  My mother, sobbing, would call my father at the office, wailing, "I don't think she'll ever learn!"

Natalie was lucky she was cute.  Our parents often say that her giant brown eyes and Shirley Temple curls were the only things that saved her skin.

She was quite the cantankerous tot.  Until her tiny iron will was finally broken.

But she didn't go lightly.

The story goes that, just after dinner, my sister was sitting at the table in her high chair.  And, holding out her small chubby fist to my parents, she said, "Gam cacka!"

"Graham cracker?"


"Say 'please'."

At this unsanctioned demand, my sister frowned and pursed her fat cheeks, withdrawing her hand to her chest, and with scandalized gusto, said:


"Then no graham cracker."

She cried and screamed.  She whined and pouted.  My parents didn't budge.  So she went to Plan B, shaking the arms of her high chair and whimpering, "Down!  Down!"

"Not until you say 'please'."


"Then you can't get down yet."

Oh, how she cried.

And oh, how she refused.

And thus began the battle of wills.

My mother took the first 20-minute shift, stubbornly running the same script with her tiny willful offspring.

"Do you want a graham cracker?"


"Say 'please'."


Crying. General melodrama.  Rattling the high chair.

"Down!  Down!"

"Not until you say 'please'."


"Then you can't get down yet."

More crying.

Over and over and over again.  Twenty minutes passed, and my mother threw up her hands.  "I'm gonna throttle her - your turn," and my father took the second shift.

Every atom in my two-year-old sister's being would rather sit in that high chair and WIN than have that graham cracker.

"Do you want a graham cracker?"


"Say 'please'."


Wailing. Flailing curls and arms. Kicking the high chair.

"Down!  Down!"

"Not until you say 'please'."


"Then you can't get down yet."

More wailing.

Over and over and over again.

Forty minutes gone.  My father reached his limit and turned it back to my mother.

"Say 'please'."


Another twenty minutes passed.

Sixty minutes gone.

An hour of "NO".

She would not give up.

It's unclear who was in the hot seat when the miracle occurred, but finally, finally, whatever it was, something clicked.

Wearily, they asked again, "Natalie, do you want a graham cracker?"


"Say 'please'."

She hesitated, slumped down in her high chair.  And then, with her chubby cheeks puffed out, her chin tucked into her chest, she sighed and reached out a pudgy little hand, saying:


I'm sure my parents' eyes bugged out - it was a Christmas miracle, on par with raising Lazarus from the dead.

After the shock passed, Natalie was praised for her obedience and then unbuckled from her high chair.  She toddled happily away, curls bouncing, with a graham cracker tucked into her tiny fist.

"She finally got it.  It was like night and day after that," my father always says with a snap of his fingers. "You would never know it was the same child."

"But it's

Friday, June 10, 2011

Special K Loaf

This story is a particular favorite in my family.

When my father was still a child, and all four of my grandparents' children were still living at home, my Nana's cooking had a spurt of vegetarianism. Her most memorably misguided attempt was a recipe she found on the back of a box of Special K breakfast cereal. The recipe was a vegetarian substitute for meatloaf named Special K loaf.

Here are the ingredients for Special K loaf:
1 large chopped onion
2 T onion soup mix
1 large carton of cottage cheese
1 cup chopped walnuts
Chopped celery, if desired
5 eggs, beaten
5 cups Special K cereal
Truthfully, there's no comparing it to a meatloaf recipe. The closest comparison could be described as replacing the hamburger with a blend of walnuts, breakfast cereal and cottage cheese.

Surprisingly, it was not a popular dish.

At that time, my grandfather worked 9 to 5 at Goodyear. He was home by 5:15, and was at the table at 5:25 for dinner. And at 5:26 one night, my grandmother lays this beauteous loaf of glop in the middle of the table with a proud smile.

To my grandfather's credit, and to the credit of my father and his siblings, they all ate a piece that night. Then my grandfather, rarely one to stand against my Nana, laid down his fork and declared, "I never want to eat this ever again."

A couple of weeks went by, and my Nana either forgot the mandate or figured the dish was misunderstood and everyone would like it if she made it just one more time.

So, at 5:15, my grandfather walks in the door and takes off his hat. At 5:25, he and the children sat at the table. And at 5:26 my Nana, with a smile and a flourish, placed the Special K loaf in front of my grandfather.

As the story goes, my grandfather was quiet for a moment. He looked at the loaf, looked at his plate, looked again at the baked lump of cereal and cottage cheese. Then he sighed, putting his hands on the edge of the table. "Alright," he said, and pushed back his chair as he stood up. "I am going to Giuseppi's Pizza. Who's coming with me?"

A few moments later, after a frantic scraping of chair legs, my Nana was left alone in the kitchen with her Special K loaf.

And, to my Nana's credit, she never made Special K loaf again.


"But it's


Tuesday, May 24, 2011

"But It's Vera"

Clothing from my Nana was a hit-or-miss affair. You could always swear by the quality of whatever she gave you, but that didn't mean the quality was always, well, wearable.

To be fair, she gave me some beautiful clothes. Just before I became a teenager, she bought me a lush navy blue coat for church that hung down to my knees. Of course, when she found the price tag still on it a year later, she (rightly) lost her mind about it. For some reason, probably to test her patience, God decided to give her tomboyish granddaughters, and she was constantly frustrated by my sister and I's early distaste for skirts.

It wasn't always lovely stuff I turned down. I felt perfectly justified in refusing that highlighter-orange trench coat she tried to force on me when I was 18.

But the last piece of clothing she tried to give me was particularly memorable.

Her last Thanksgiving with us was in 2009, and we ate dinner at hers and my grandfather's home that year. We sat at the Boyer family table and spent the evening playing cards together. And then, when it was time to go home, there was the usual shuffle of gathering coats and purses.

As I walked past the stairs toward the coat closet, I noticed two figures down in the den together. I could see my Nana's white sweater, and I could hear my sister quietly say, "No, thank you. I really don't think I would wear it."

Moments later, Nana was pulling at the railing of the den staircase, walking upstairs with what looked like a dead rabbit clutched in her left hand. She scanned the room, and her large blue eyes landed on me.

"Would you wear this, Heather?" She proffered the dead rabbit thing.

"What is it?"

"It's Vera Wang, darling," and she held it up with two hands. Now I could see the cut of the shoulders, and the holes for arms...

It was a vest.

A gray faux fur vest.

I didn't even need to try it on.

"I'm sorry, Nana, I wouldn't wear that," I said.

"But it's Vera Wang," she insisted.

No designer label can save a faux fur vest.

"It doesn't matter, I still wouldn't wear it," I said, and shrugged my shoulders.

Strike two. She sighed, exasperated. "Does anyone want this?" she called out to the room, holding it above her head. The vest dangled in her grip like a hunting prize. All the other untried women were averting their eyes.

"Can I look at it, mom?"

It was my uncle. Scott walked across the room and took the vest from her, pretending to examine it seriously.

"Vera Wang, you say?"

She smiled, "Yes." She seemed relieved by the interest.

He looked up at her and grinned. And then, pursing his lips, he shrugged it on, and began to strut, hands on his hips as he fluttered his eyelashes.

"How do I look, mom?"

Her mouth puckered. All the kids giggled. I pulled out my camera, and he started posing for pictures like a runway model. The giggles turned into a room rumbling with laughter as each pose became more outrageous. "It looks good on you, Scott!" his brother called out. We all laughed harder in response, and Nana was finally starting to smile.

By the time he took it off and gave it back, Nana was laughing, too, and playfully chiding, "Oh, Scott!" And she laid it on the back of the couch, forgetting it completely as she doled out goodbyes.

And that was the last piece of clothing my Nana tried to give to me.

K Loaf


Thursday, May 19, 2011

Extra Protein

My great-grandma Boyer's name was Alma. She was my grandfather's mother and was an excellent cook. She raised her family in a time when her husband came home from work and her kids came home from school to eat lunch. And she was faithful to always serve a full meal, from salad to dessert. "I don't remember us never having dessert," my grandfather said, "we always had dessert." This was the norm in the Boyer house.

My grandfather, Dinon, was the oldest of the three kids in his family. His brother Daryll is five years younger than he, and his baby sister Glenda is five years younger than Daryll. They were living in Wisconsin Rapids when Dinon was 11, and one day, as usual, he and 6-year-old Daryll walked home together for lunch. They met their father at the dinner table and sat down to the meal their mother had prepared, everyone - even Alma - unaware of the bonus protein lurking in the salad bowl.

"Well, we're sitting there eating, and we're attacking the salads," he tells the story, "And it had lettuce with maybe jello on top. Anyhow, my brother goes to take a bite of salad...and he gets it about here..." - he said, holding an imaginary fork an inch from his mouth - "...and it moves."

On little Darryl's fork, woken by its near-consumption, was a fat wriggling lettuce worm the size of a pinky finger.

"That really freaked him out!" my grandfather laughed. "He really had a tough time eating the rest of his salad. And we kidded him, of course, unmercifully: 'Oh, you like lettuce worms now, huh?'" He laughed again.

"And, of course, my mother was mortified because she always tried to be very careful when she prepared the meal. But it was just one of those things that slipped past her, and it gave us all a big laugh, and I can say that I really enjoyed it."


Saturday, May 14, 2011

Ffffettucine Alfffredo

The summer I was fifteen, my father's side of the family went on a trip to Colorado together. Somehow we managed to get 5 kids, 3 adults and 2 senior citizens out west without losing anyone along the way, and enjoyed a week full of activities ranging from a hailstorm horse ride to lasso lessons.

We fell in love with this tiny family-owned Italian restaurant and dined there twice during our stay. I sat in the middle and across the table from my cousin Brian during our second visit. Brian is my favorite cousin, and is two years my junior. He was thirteen at the time and carrying some awkward adolescent pudge.

Nana was sitting to my left, and my Aunt Susan was two seats down on my right. Susan was helping her preschool son pick his dinner, and Brian was hidden behind his menu.

"They have fettucine alfredo!" Brian exclaimed. "I love fettucine alfredo, my mom makes it for me all the time!"

Nana's eyebrows raised as she lowered her menu.

"...All the time?" she asked.

"Oh yeah," he gushed, "no one makes it as good as my mom does."

"If she makes it for you all the time, then no wonder you're so ffffffff..........robust."

I froze.

Conversation continued on either end of the table. I saw Brian's eyes widen and soften.

I saw Susan slowly look up, lips parted, looked to Brian, to Nana, back to Brian.

My 10-year-old sister, Natalie, was sitting beside Brian. Her brown eyes were round and wide.

Brian, Natalie, Susan and I exchanged glances as Nana returned to her menu, thinking her close call had been imperceptible.

Late that night, the four of us howled about it over a game of Euchre, retelling the story to my dad and uncle. It became the joke of the trip:

"How are you fffffeeling today, Heather?"

"Oh, just fffffine," I'd reply, and we'd burst into giggles.

And, no, Brian didn't order fettucine alfredo for dinner that night.



Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Limburger Cheese Prank

My grandfather is not much of a prankster.

But everyone has their moments.

In his junior year of college at The University of Wisconsin, he was dating a sorority girl. She and her roommates had recently been the victims of a fraternity panty raid, and in vengeance had struck back using chunks of pungent Limburger cheese.

After the cheese served its purpose, the girls didn't want the leftovers smelling up their fridge, so the food-item was pawned off on my grandfather. "She gave it to me in a little paper bag, and I carried out to the side because, ugh, it really reeked," he said. Getting back to his empty first-floor dorm room, he quickly opened the window and set it out on the ledge, closing the window so it couldn't stink up his room.

Later that night, while studying and trying to figure out what to do with his inherited hunk of Limburger, he heard his dorm mates laughing in the den over a game of cards.

And he got an idea.

"I sneaked into their room," he said, "and turned out all their lights, and took the cheese and rubbed it on the light bulbs. And, since we used steam heat, why, I made sure the radiators weren't on and then I rubbed it on the back of the radiators."

He slipped back unseen to his room, and set the smaller piece of cheese out on the windowsill again, innocently studying and waiting for the card game to end.

"Pretty soon, one of the guys went back to his room, and when he turned on the lights...the odor was terrible," he laughed at the memory. "He really yelled for his roommate to come, and they had an awful time trying to figure out how to get rid of the smell, I mean, it really reeked."

When asked if he'd seen anything, he held up his textbooks and notes, saying he hadn't seen anything because he'd been studying.

They never did find out what happened until he told them a year later, and they laughed about it together.