Checkmate

Let me tell you about my husband Thom.  We’ve been married for thirty years, and he was the catch of a lifetime.

He was a kindergarten teacher, and courted me by reading his favorite picture books to me.  I should have known he was destined to become a librarian, but I always knew he would be a good Daddy.   

First to one…

…and then two.

Nothing could faze him–not even a Universal Bad Hair Day.

And he had tough shoes to fill.

I had a daunting checklist.  The father of my children had to be intelligent (check), compassionate (check), responsible (check), a man of integrity (check) and possessed of patience, LOTS of patience (CHECK!).  In fact, my mother always said it would take someone with the patience of kindergarten teacher to manage me, not to mention the children.  But most of all, he couldn’t be afraid to get his feet wet.

Or to dress up and play pretend.

Or to  know when to relax and put up his feet.

He has clearly been a good influence on the children.

He taught them everything he knows.

He helped introduce them to that wide world out there.

And all its wonders.

Big…

…and little.

From Australia….

…to (New) Zealand.

Past…

…and present.

With good humor…

…great teamwork…

…and dignity…

…always dignity!

Someone ought to raise a statue in his honor.

But I know he’ll settle for chocolate…

Happy Father’s Day, Thom!  Thanks for EVERYTHING!

All words and images Copyright 2013 Naomi Baltuck

Steppingstones (and the Kreativ Blogger Award)

On the river of life we look for steppingstones and move forward one step at a time.  When the river is raging, sometimes it takes a leap of faith.  I thought when I graduated from the University of Michigan with a BA in English, I’d have my path laid out for the rest of my life.  Wrong again!

1. My sister Constance and I didn’t know we wanted to do, but we did know where we wanted to do it.   We threw our bikes in the back of a drive-away pickup truck and headed Out West to seek our fortunes.

Biking down the Washington and Oregon Coast was an adventure.  We were drenched much of the time–“rain forest” printed on a map doesn’t mean much to a Detroiter until she actually gets wet.  Once we built up calluses in all the right places, we covered our miles, laughed a lot, met many kind people along the way, and filled up our story banks.


…until I was struck by a hit-and-run driver.

2. I was banged up, but not as badly as my poor bike.  Just like with my birdwatching adventure on Mt. St. Helens, I’d never have wished it to happen.  But if it hadn’t, I wouldn’t have stumbled upon the opportunity to teach “Eastern Canoeing” at Montecito-Sequoia High Sierra Camp for Girls in King’s Canyon National Park.  My best friends there were Twinkle, Sneakers, Scoop, and Aspen.  But that’s a story for another day.

3. Camp ended, and I determined to make a fresh start in Seattle.  My first job was with Northwest Airlines as a reservation agent.  I would earn more than ever, plus free airline travel!  I felt like a VIP when they flew me to Minneapolis for my interview.  Then the training began.  That job lasted three days.  They sat me in a huge hall with all the other trainees lined up in row after row of desks, opposite a wall of blinking lights.  Each light represented an agent whose every call was recorded.  Every second was accounted for—how many calls, even how many seconds per call.  I didn’t even look before I leaped!

4. I took a job as a plumbing radio dispatcher, plotting the course for eight plumbing crews throughout the city of Seattle.  “KYL  97 to 88, we have a clogged toilet in Wallingford…”  I couldn’t help myself—it took me a while to figure out that my boss had a radio in his car too, and I kept getting chided for dramatic communications (think “Enterprise to Bob, red alert!  We have a sewer backing up in Federal Way…or my favorite,”Captain Kirk out…”).  My boss said he never expected me to last as long as I did—I quit after eight weeks.   The next steppingstone took me all the way to….

5.  …Wyoming.  There I waited on tables at the Chuckwagon Restaurant at Colter Bay in Grand Teton National Park.

It was a grand summer in the most beautiful place on earth.

I could never remember whether to serve from the left or the right, but I could spin a yarn.  I’d already been to 49 states, and had something in common with everyone who sat in my section, wherever they hailed from.  They loved the customized sketches I drew for them on the back of their checks.  I hiked, camped, biked, canoed, and filled up my story banks with each cup of coffee I poured coffee for the local cowboys, park rangers, and tourists.  From tips alone I earned more than I could have working for Northwest Airlines…

…but being the best waitress in the world wasn’t enough to hold me.  I was looking for something more, although I didn’t know what.  As soon as the tourist season ended, I grabbed my jackalope and took another flying leap.  Strong currents and prevailing winds always carried me back to Seattle.

6.  I took a job teaching at Community Day School.  I loved working with kids so much.  I didn’t think of myself as a storyteller, although our Book Nook was a very popular place for reading and storytelling.  I stuck around CDS as head teacher, helping to establish their first summer camp program.  I was able to apply all I had learned at Montecito-Sequoia and the other camp where I was a counselor, the Bar 717 Ranch.

I took a puppetry class to enrich my teaching, but I was invited by our instructors, master puppeteers, Jean Matson and Betsy Tobin, to join the Seattle Puppetory Theater.  I am still grateful to them both for recognizing and helping me develop talents I might never have known what to do with.  Puppetry was my steppingstone, and my toe in the door to the performance arts as well as writing.  I co-wrote some of the material I performed.  The piece I was proudest and most passionate about co-writing and producing was commissioned by Physicians Against Nuclear Weapons, a play for adults called Peace Porridge Hot.  It was exhilarating, whether I was behind the curtain manipulating puppets or in front of the stage, interacting with them. My favorite role was Yo-Yo the Clown.

7.  I retired from puppetry and teaching in 1985, but they were my steppingstones to a career as a full-time professional storyteller.  Discovering storytelling was a little like falling in love.  It was as though I had come to a bend in the river, and I could look up and see which direction to follow all the way to the horizon.  For three decades I’ve been telling stories at libraries, schools, museums, festivals.  When the kids were old enough, they joined me on the stage for tandem telling.  My husband Thom is a teacher librarian and a great storyteller.  When he jumped into the act, we began telling as the Baltuck/Garrard Family Storytellers.  I still teach storytelling and do most of my performances solo, but my favorite gigs involve the whole family.

Even if you know where you’re going, you still have to put one foot in front of the other if you want to keep learning and growing, personally and/ or professionally.  I believe there are many ways to tell a story.  Storytelling led to writing.  First I adapted traditional folk tales, then began with original short stories.  That led to storytelling publications, including an award-winning anthology, Apples From Heaven, that I am very proud of.  Then came my first novel, co-written with my sister Deborah, The Keeper of the Crystal Spring, a Doubleday Book-of-the-Month-Club selection.  Eventually I found my way to writing this blog, which has opened up a whole new way of storytelling, and introduced me to blogging friends all over the world.  Where to from here?  I will keep the keyboard clacking and the feet moving one step at a time, and see where I end up.

Copyright 2012 Naomi Baltuck

Now there was a point to this story.  I was nominated for the Kreativ Blogger Award by Holly Michaels, a writer and a storyteller, a traveler and a mom.  Thank you, Holly Michael, for this honor. Check out her inspiring blog, Holly Michael’s Writing Straight.

Now that I’ve already told you seven (or eight or nine facts about myself), I get to recommend seven other bloggers for this award, and I hope you will check them out because they have so many stories to tell!   I have made so many wonderful blogging buddies and I have a backlog of awards to pass on, so if you did’t receive a nomination for this one, I’m sure you will for the next one!

Honesty  is a blog written by a writer, a teacher, a nurse.  She writes what she thinks, which is refreshing.  She is also looking for writers who are interested in sharing stories on her blog.

Scillagrace is written by someone who loves history and dancing as much as I do, and she spins a good yarn.  I love her voice.

The Teatime Reader is another Naomi who writes intelligent and interesting book reviews.  She always chooses intriguing books and my reading list is a mile long since I discovered her wonderful blog!

Seventh Voice is an important blog that addresses Autism and Asperger’s through poetry and prose, but more than that, it is about being human.

P ART ICI PATIO N is a blog by Dorotee Lang, who shares photographs of the world as a part of her daily journal.  I really like her work.

Sofacents: From Adman to Diaperman  follows the adventures of a 46 year old stay-at-home Dad.  It is fresh and funny, and I love the pictures.

Joy in the Moments is written by Char, a wife, a mother, a writer, and a reader who believes life should be lived for joy It’s a joy to read her blog.

Check ’em out!

Weekly Photo Challenge: Summer

Summertime is family time–school’s out for the kids, and Dad too.

We get to travel to new places.  Big cities….

Or little villages….

To learn the stories…

And the histories…

To take in the colors….

And the tastes….

See the sights…

Visit family…

And just be together….

Summertime sparkles!

Copyright 2012 Naomi Baltuck

Pandora’s Box

“You already have a pet,” I told eight-year-old Bea. “You have nineteen of them.”

“Fish don’t count, Mom. I need something with fur.”

“Cats and dogs make me wheeze and Daddy itch.”

“How about a rabbit?” asked her brother Eli.

“Too big to flush.”

I knew something of rodents in captivity.  My sister’s kids had a hamster named Little May.  She’d lived hard and fast, and died young.   A life of costume parties, wild shirt-pocket rides, playing the “show and tell” circuit, and a brief-but-thrilling flight career had proved too much for Little May.  She died at the tender age of six months.  I suspect it was suicide.

“How about a guinea pig?”

“They stink, you have to clean their cages, and for what?  Unresponsive vermin.”

“A hamster?”

“Well…”  Investing that degree of commitment into a pet project was something I might consider.  “If you can accept that a hamster lifespan is less than that of a guppy’s.”

Thus I found myself ankle deep in the world of hamster husbandry.  Why they call it that, I’ll never know; my husband had nothing to do with it.  ‘It’ was a black and white Teddy Bear Hamster.  The cost of the cage, igloo, water bottle, vitamins, cedar bedding and, yes, the hamster potty, for our six-dollar rodent far exceeded the dollar-a-month investment I anticipated.

We still needed a name, but at least that was free.  I voted for Wildfire or Hamlet, but the kids settled on Pandora.  Her purple cage became the infamous “Pandora’s Box,” and we opened it again and again.  Like that divine creation, our Pandora inspired story, song, poetry, even a new family crest, a black and white hamster sporting a golden crown.  Clearly, Pandora was destined to rule.

Rodent Fun Fact #1.   Feral gerbils feed on bed sheets and store the leftovers under the refrigerator.  This I learned in third grade when Napoleon, the classroom gerbil, stayed at our house for spring break.  In sixth grade, Linda Witkowsky put Winky, her hamster, into my hands.  It struggled furiously, went winky on my blouse, its eyes bulged, and so did mine.  I hadn’t touched a rodent since.

Rodent Fun Fact #2.   Hamster is from the German word for  “hamper,” as in laundry hamper, container, storage bin.  I reckon a hamster can hold about ten times its weight in cheek pouches stretching the length of its body.  No wonder they don’t carry purses!  This talent was graphically illustrated the first day, when the kids loaded Pandora with peanuts, seeds, carrots, Cheerios, and turned her loose in the bathroom.  She left an impressive hoard behind the toilet.  We left it there for three days, as a sort of monument.

Pandora was a good-natured little creature, tolerant of handling and mishandling.  She gripped a cracker like a kid with a peanut butter sandwich.  She used the same technique nibbling buttons off a shirt.  She was cute like other peoples’ grandchildren are cute–in a wallet.  I was convinced I could ride this out with no Close Encounters of the Third Kind, until the first time the kids changed her cage.  Holding out the Beast, Bea cooed, “Go to Grandma.”

I was soon babysitting on a regular basis.  Not content to sit in your lap and purr, Pandora was a perpetual motion machine.  In her exercise ball she rumbled like thunder as she raced down our long hall.  The kids made her Lego mazes and seltzer bottle airplanes  She could be a hula girl, Greek Goddess, fairy tale princess, or bikini-clad bathing beauty, depending upon which hole in the Kleenex box she peeked out.

They warn you against looking into a snake’s eyes, but no one ever said a thing about hamsters.

I’d drop laundry in Eli’s room and see Panny staring at me.  I knew what she wanted.  I half expected her to run a little tin cup along the bars of her cage.  The first time I caved, it wasn’t good breeding that brought Panny scurrying to the door to greet me.  I didn’t kid myself; mine were often the hands that fed her.  Dogs love their humans, but what drives a hamster?  Are they too stupid to know fear?  Are we too big to be regarded as anything but a landscape?   Still, it was oddly moving when she stepped into my hands, and I could feel her tiny heart beating against my palm.

One night the cage wasn’t latched.  Pandora climbed from the dresser top to the floor for a walk on the Wild Side.  Tears were shed.  Then we placed a peanut in each room, shut the door, and blocked the crack with towels.  If a peanut went missing, we’d know where to look.  In central rooms we placed treats in deep buckets with ramps leading up to them.

“I bet she forgot to pack her cheeks,” I told the kids.  “Sooner or later she’ll come out to forage; it’s the Hamster Way.”  I didn’t mention Cousin Jean’s gerbil that set out to seek its fortune.  Months later she found it trapped in a dresser in the basement, keeping the company of maggots.

While emptying the hall closet, I heard a loud grinding coming from the basement.

“Eli,” I hollered down the stairs, “try searching more quietly, so you can hear her.”

“What, Mom?” asked Eli, appearing beside me.

It had to be Panny down there, in the bowels of the basement.  We went downstairs and waited, listening.  The furnace clicked on, and we jumped.  Tick, tick, tick went the clock.  Finally we heard that noise again, like a chainsaw, coming from inside the staircase. That could mean only one thing…

Pandora had entered the Black Hole, where no hamster had gone before.  Our storage room sucks in all manner of objects and morphs them into high density matter.  Not just cardboard boxes and camping equipment.  Baby things for my unborn grandchildren, stacks of Rubbermaid containing every object d’art my kids ever made, a slide projector, medieval tankards, sci-fi dinnerware, my dead uncle’s stamp collection, the hardened dregs of house paint to match the color before the last.  Blacker than a Black Hole.

We peeled away the layers, from folding chairs that come out for parties to stained glass scraps from a class taken twenty years before.  Then I saw her, snug in a nest of sawdust gnawed from the underbelly of the stairs.  Just out of reach.  If I made a grab, I might scare her deeper into hiding.  My heart was pounding as I held out my hand.  “Here, Panny…”

Hamsters are loners, pairing up only to mate, and even that isn’t pretty.  They are so territorial that the most tender hamster mothers drive away their offspring the instant they mature.  What could we offer to match a brand new house in the sub-suburbs?  Why should she respond to the whispered promise of a yogurt treat when there was enough macaroni art down there to last a hamster lifetime?

“Come on, Panny.  Come to Grandma…”

Panny looked at me with her big brown eyes.  And crept out of her nest into my hand.

One evening soon after, Bea demonstrated Panny’s newest trick.  “Up, Panny, up!” Pandora climbed the bars to the ceiling of her cage.  I beamed at my grandbaby’s cleverness, and ran for the camera.  But the next morning she was trembling, listless, and had clearly been sick.  I cleaned her while the kids cleaned the cage.

“Maybe she just needs rest,” I said, but to my husband Thom I whispered, “It’s bad.”

Her condition worsened.  The next morning, the kids were distressed to see her lying listless.  My sometimes-too-practical husband picked up Panny and gently stroked her.  She looked so tiny in his big hands.  “We have an emotional investment to protect,” he said.  “It might be worth a trip to the vet.”

At that moment I knew I would love that man forever.  In for a Panny, in for a pound.  The vet gave our six dollar hamster a hundred dollars worth of antibiotics.

“Do other people bring in sick hamsters?” I asked, feeling a little foolish.

“Oh, yes,” the vet assured me.

“And do they get better?”

She hesitated.  “Sometimes.”  Then she shrugged.  “Hamsters get infections, just like people, but they’re fragile.  In the wild, most get eaten before they get sick.  Pandora should be at home, where she’ll be more comfortable, and the children can be involved.”   So it had come to hamster hospice.

We gave her a few CCs of water, and tucked her into her nest.  The next morning, Eli found Pandora’s lifeless body.  There was no comforting Bea.  She looked at the rain pouring down outside and sobbed, “Even Mother Nature is crying.”

She was in no condition to go to school.  Between bouts of tears Bea stitched a tiny quilt and pillow, fashioned a tiny golden crown, and a little gold coffin adorned with plastic jewels.  Bea tucked in Panny with a tuft of nesting material and a peanut.  On the inside lid she wrote a lullaby, “So it will be like I’m singing to her forever.”

It was an open casket funeral.  Eli constructed a Popsicle stick headstone, and Bea planned the service.  I made copies of Bea’s hymn, “Hamsters We Have Heard on High,” so the mourners could join in.  Eli played flute and Bea sang, “Sleep, Baby, Sleep.”

Bea’s tearful elegy was simple, but eloquent.  “Her Grandma said she never knew she could love a rodent, and her Grandpa never said he loved her, but he did.  She’s an angel now.  A furry little angel.”

I was surprised to see Thom wipe away a tear.

“Does Daddy love her?” Bea had asked, when Panny first fell ill.

“Yes, in his way,” I told her.  Did the kids love her?  Absolutely.  Did Panny love us?  I’m sure she did, in her Hamster Way.  She taught us much about love, and the sorrow that is the price we gladly pay for it.  And even the passing of a hamster is a reminder to appreciate every moment of this precious fleeting gift of life.  Bea will tell you Pandora Athena Baltuck Garrard lived a very full life and packed a lot of love into her 18 short months.  And I will tell you that my first grandchild will always be the one with fur on her face.

copyright 2012 Naomi Baltuck

Weekly Photo Challenge: Together

In a museum in Vienna we saw statues of ancient Egyptian pharaohs, usually standing alone and looking very grand.  Occasionally one was portrayed with his spouse, each sitting upon a throne, like salt and pepper shakers; a matched set, but separate.  Then we came to a sculpture of an Egyptian couple sharing the same seat, a simple stone block.  I don’t remember who it was, some Ramses or other, but it didn’t matter.  He leaned into her ever so slightly, and her arm rested gently on his back in such a fond and tender gesture that it warmed the stone.  Not just mummies waiting to happen, they were flesh and blood humans who must have loved as tenderly as we do.  Togetherness for all times, and all time.

In Vienna we visited The House of Music, where we saw this Mozart Family portrait.  Seated at the piano were young Wolfgang, his sister Maria Anna, and their father Leopold.  Anna Maria, Leopold’s wife and the mother of his children had died, but they couldn’t think of having a family portrait painted without including her.  They commissioned a portrait of the deceased Anna Maria within the painting, which strikes me as sad, but sweet.  Togetherness in any case.

Oh, my gosh!  I look at this picture of my husband and kids at an open-air history museum in Switzerland, and while I laugh aloud just to look at it, my heart is melting.  My sister Con says the one who wields the camera wields the power; if you are aiming a camera at folks and ask them to jump off a cliff, she says they’ll do it for the sake of the shot.  This photo might be taken as proof of Con’s theory, but I took it as proof of their love for the family photographer and to a certain sense of loyalty and fun.   Togetherness at any price!

But if I had to choose one photo to depict what “together” means to me, it would be this one snapped in the streets of Orvieto, Italy.  It brings to mind the marriage vows Thom and I made to each other twenty-nine years ago.  “Grow old with me, the best is yet to come…”

All words and imaged copyright Naomi Baltuck