Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Little things are bigger in a place called home

I was in my hometown the past few days—getting to see people I love, do things I enjoy, visit places I cherish. 

I spent time with my parents and my young adult grandson, I attended a writer’s workshop and concert at Carl Sandburg’s birthplace, and I visited two libraries that helped in many ways to nurture my interests and provide resources as I completed my late-in-life college degree. 

It’s funny how such things, which appear small on first glance, can be so large when viewed through a stronger lens. 

My parents, as do I, continue to grow older – no brilliant observation, but one that grows clearer over time. Our time together, because of this, becomes more precious with each visit.

My grandson, once in our lives day in and day out, has grown up and no longer lives in the same community in which we do. It’s a joy to get to know the older him as he discovers who he is and where his life will take him.

The Sandburg Days writer’s workshop, an annual affair for me for a number of years, has become with distance a rare treat. Yet each time I attend, regardless of presenting author, I grow myself as a writer – and remember with renewed clarity how much and why I love what I do – putting words on paper.

Something that I find most encouraging about Galesburg’s event in honor of its hometown poet is the way the “Festival for the Mind” celebrates a diversity of arts, from poetry to photography, from encouraging budding writers to showcasing gifted musicians. It’s a special treat when one of those musicians happens to be a high school classmate come back to the ‘Burg to play a few tunes. 

I can’t remember a time I didn’t love books or libraries – from the first ones my mother read to me as a small child, to the ones I chose from book order forms in elementary school, to the diversity of genres I’ve savored as an adult. 

One thing is certain. No matter what community I called home through the years, one place always made it so – the library. And, of all the libraries I’ve visited in the past six decades, two stand out above all others – the Galesburg Public Library and Seymour Library at Knox College. 

At tables in the corners each of these repositories, I took sanctuary so I could study in tranquility. In the stacks I found books about subjects I was assigned and those I enjoyed. I savored and used as reference volumes about regional topics, looked with longing at names of people from West Central Illinois who worked with words – Carl Sandburg, Earnest Elmo Calkins, John E. Hallwas, Martin Litvin and more. 

As I did, I often mused, “Someday, perhaps, my name will be found upon these shelves.”

Though it still doesn’t appear as author, today I delivered to the archives at each library a volume I had the privilege to see even before it was a book – “Abraham Lincoln Traveled this Way: The America Lincoln Knew“ with photographs by McLean County’s Robert Shaw and narrative by Lincoln scholar Michael Burlingame. 

Way in the back, on a line that credits those who helped to edit the copy, you’ll find this name: Ann Tracy Mueller. 

It’s a little thing – that string of 15 letters and two spaces – but gigantic to a former Galesburg resident who hoped for a half-century to add, if even a little, to the literary tradition of her hometown. 

In a way, perhaps, I have. 

© Ann Tracy Mueller 2013

(Image via)

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Flames, passing can’t snuff out memories

The first bit of sad news came in a text from my husband as I sat, late Easter afternoon, writing in my home office: “Ted’s Garage burnt down.” 
The next appeared in a Facebook post a week later: “Ozark Opry catches fire.” 

The third was another text from hubby, as he sat in his recliner watching TV: “Annette Funicello died.” 

My text response to that one? “Aw-w-w.”

The Facebook post I wrote a few minutes later, linking to a YouTube video, read, “RIP, Annette Funicello. A little of me died today. “         
The flames that engulfed Ted’s Garage and Lee Mace’s Ozark Opry took a bit of me, too, it seemed. 

As I mused over these three—two landmarks and one lady—I dug through the rubble of the losses for some memories I could hold tight and cherish forever. 

Here’s what I found.

The common bond

The Clinton, Ill. eatery, the Osage Beach, Mo. music hall, and the Mouseketeer had something in common.

Each of them had a way of beaming us from the 21st century back to a place and time, when we were younger, more idealistic, perhaps, and less distracted by a 24-hour news cycle and the technology that keeps it and other interruptions in front of us. When we stepped through the doors at the 50s-style diner, sank into our seats at the Opry or watched Annette on the black-and-white TVs in our parent’s wallpapered living rooms, we left distractions behind and lived in the moment. 

Ted’s transported with classics

Classic food and classic cars—that’s what you’d find when you stepped into Ted’s Garage. The retro eatery next to the community’s Chevrolet dealership was known for its d├ęcor and oldies menu reminiscent of Arnold’s on “Happy Days,” and for classic cars at the front of the restaurant and in a glassed-in showroom. 

My hubby and I didn’t visit it often—maybe a half-dozen times or less in the 11 years we lived nearby—but each time we went there was a special time. Maybe that’s why we went infrequently—to keep it special, to make each visit a step back in time—to make us feel young at heart, to help us remember those days when kitchen tables were of Formica, chairs were covered in vinyl held on with silver thumbtacks and when a burger, fries and a chocolate shake, cherry Coke or Green River were a really big treat.

When my husband and I moved from our house in Central Illinois a year ago, we knew we were also leaving favorite places. Some we’d see again, some we wouldn’t. 

Ted’s was one of those. 

Now, gutted by fire, it’s less likely we’ll return, but we can still close our eyes, look back and remember the taste of a tenderloin, the sound of Chubby Checkers on the jukebox, the shiny chrome on a ’57 Chevy. A wind-fed fire on Easter Sunday can’t burn those records on the turntables in our minds.

Mace’s mesmerized with music

When my husband and I first started vacationing at the Lake of the Ozarks more than 20 years ago with several members of our extended family, we were looking for kid-friendly activities. He remembered visiting a music show a decade or so before. He said it was comical, entertaining and fun. He thought the rest of us might like it, too.

Though I always hate to type these words, that day hubby was right. 

We didn’t just like Lee Mace’s Ozark Opry. We loved it. Everyone on the stage—from the piano player pounding out “Great Balls of Fire,” to the guitar,- sax-, harmonica-, fiddle-playing, banjo-picking talent in the band, to Goofer, the comedian—looked as if they enjoyed entertaining as much as the full house enjoyed being entertained. 

It wasn’t just that way the first time we visited. It was that way every time. 

As annual visitors for a number of years, we came to notice several things about the Ozark Opry—for instance, the way the parking lot attendants, ticket agents and popcorn servers seemed to enjoy what they were doing as much as the cast. It was as if they were all family. I learned later, some of them were, by blood. The rest were, I think, related by their passion for the magic that was Mace’s. 

I also noticed that Joyce Mace, widow of the founder and man for whom the show was named, could always be found in the same seat when the lights were dimmed and a spotlight shone on a big bass fiddle as a recording played of Lee Mace singing “Ragged Old Flag.”

And, I came to learn that if you told the ticket office attendants who you were, where you were from and that you had little kids or guests new to the Opry and asked politely, they’d do their best to get you a seat up close to the front. 

When we moved to the Lake of the Ozarks full-time last year, we lamented that the show had closed its doors a few years earlier, but were grateful the building still stood, much like a monument in a cemetery, a sentinel standing guard, paying tribute to the times so many cherished. 

I drove past the charred building the other day, leaving the window rolled up to keep out the smell of smoke and keep inside the car the memory of the late Steve Tellman singing “Forever and Ever Amen,” Helen Russell  clogging, Goofer wearing his comical collapsible cardboard hat—and the warmth we felt each time we entered there. 

Mouseketeer kept us kids

Seems like forever ago sometimes, like yesterday others,  the era of black-and-white TV, when the number of channels was only three, when up too early or awake too late, all that looked back at us was the test pattern.

In those days long past, TV time was limited. If we were lucky, we watched Captain Kangaroo in the morning, Lawrence Welk and Mitch Miller on Saturday nights, The Wonderful World of Disney, Lassie and Bonanza on Sunday, and the Mickey Mouse Club of an afternoon. 

The years have wiped away the memory of most of the Mouseketeers, but if there’s one name most Baby Boomers remember above all others, it’s Annette Funicello.

What was it about Annette that made her every young boy’s sweetheart , the girl each young lady longed to be—her big brown eyes, the bounce in her step, or the way she seemed so wise and full of life? 

Even before she became a beach movie babe, she was one of a handful of girls who epitomized her day. 

We watched her grow to a teen, remembered her locked somewhere twixt the two—Mouseketeer and movie star—until the day, when growing older, she shared with us her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. 

We wished well for her, remembered her in our prayers and shed tears on learning of her passing. 

With us always

One thing’s certain, though—until we join her and Walt Disney at the Mickey Mouse Club in the sky, we’ll remember her ever. 

To those who don’t know better, it looks as if a restaurant and an empty building burned and an aging has-been television star died. These are the kinds of stories that are texted, tweeted, posted on Facebook, buried in newspapers and read by an anchor on the local news nearly every day. 

To this Baby Boomer, they’re more than that. They’re pieces of my past. 

A fire may have claimed the buildings and death the star, but just as I died a little hearing of their losses, remembering them helps me to relive moments I’ll never forget. 

Each of them—Ted’s, the Opry and Annette—leave a legacy that can never be extinguished.   

© Ann Tracy Mueller 2013