Category Archives: Sara Etgen-Baker

December 2 – It’s Fruitcake Weather!

by Sara Etgen-Baker

Tears stream down my cheeks, splattering upon the keyboard as I write this.  ‘Tis the holiday season, you see, and I delight in the memories of my childhood yuletides.  One such memory stands out as clearly as the glittering angel atop my Christmas tree.

November’s blustery winds arrived weaving frost spider webs onto Mother’s kitchen window. “Oh, my,” she’d invariably say, staring at their intricate designs, “It’s fruitcake weather! I’ve much to do!” Yes, ours was a blessed fruitcake house.

I can still see Mother and me driving into town lugging home packages of my favorite things: candied cherries, candied pineapple, figs, walnuts, pecans, raisins, dates, and candied citron.  Back in her kitchen, we chopped the nuts, the candied fruits, the dates, and figs, blending them with the heavy batter, and dumping the glorious mixture into fluted cake and loaf pans.

Three hours later, the cakes emerged from the oven only to be wrapped in cheesecloth; doused in peach brandy; then stored in every nook and cranny Mother could find.  Every few minutes, it seemed, I pestered her.  “Are they done yet, Mother?”

“No, not yet. They must age.”

After what seemed like months (It was really only three to four weeks.), she’d proclaim, “The fruitcakes are ready for wrapping.”

Out came the rolls of wax paper, aluminum foil, ribbon, and the mailing cartons.  Having bundled up our packages of cheer, we took them to the post office.  On the way home we dropped off mini fruitcakes to neighbors, teachers, and friends then tootled home, warmed with the knowledge we’d brightened the Christmas of friends and family.  My head sank into my pillow dancing with visions of folks unwrapping our fruitcakes; sniffing the cinnamon, cloves, and peach brandy; and eating a slice of our dense, sweet fruitcake topped with a dollop of thick whipped cream.

Folks felt blessed by Mother’s thoughtfulness, and soon our mailbox was stuffed with cards and notes of gratitude.

Even now, I love eating fruitcake and don’t understand why they’re underappreciated and maligned, often being referred to as bricks, paperweights, or doorstops.  They also bear the brunt of many holiday jokes. I remember the first fruitcake joke I heard.  “The worst Christmas gift is fruitcake,” cracked Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. “There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and year-after-year people send to one another.”

“Sure, Johnny, considering how long a properly made and stored fruitcake can last, it’s quite possible. The alcohol alone acts as a preservative, allowing people to keep or regift it for years.”

If only I’d known. I would’ve kept some of Mother’s fruitcakes; and when the holiday season arrived, I’d retrieve one from my freezer; thaw it, and re-douse it with peach brandy.  I don’t have Mother’s fruitcakes.  Instead, I have our fruitcake-making memories. I’m heartened that Mother loved making those fruitcakes, and I’m touched with how thoughtfully she involved me in a decades-old family holiday tradition, a tradition I revisit every year when it’s fruitcake weather.

A teacher’s unexpected whisper, “You’ve got writing talent,” ignited Sara’s writing desire. Sara ignored that whisper and pursued a different career but eventually, she re-discovered her inner writer and began writing. 

Her manuscripts have been published in anthologies and magazines including Chicken Soup for the Soul, Guideposts, Times They Were A Changing, and Wisdom Has a Voice.

 

October 21 – Walking Backward

by Sara Etgen-Baker

Backwards Clock

As a small child, I loved walking backward and did so every chance I got. One
day, I even challenged myself and walked backward almost the entire distance from my house to my elementary school. I’d walked forward along that route hundreds of times. But when I walked it backward, suddenly everyone and everything looked different somehow—a difference I didn’t understand or couldn’t quite explain.

Something shifted inside me, too,—something that made me different from the other kids. The following year I entered junior high and gave up on being different and on walking backward, quickly forgetting the perspective that moving backward gave me.

Sand FootprintsNow I’m 67 years old and find myself walking backward through my life. My friends call this walking backward my life review. Life review isn’t simply about assembling the details of my past. It’s about finding meaning in even some of the
ordinary events. Suddenly everyone I knew and everything I experienced looks different somehow. I re-experience the emotions—the joys and sorrows—that accompanied many of the events of my life. I face some of the people with whom I interacted and become acutely aware of the kind acts I committed as well as the pain I inflicted on others. I soon realize that every word, thought, and action—no matter how small—affected everyone and everything.

Sometimes I ponder, Would it make a difference in the way I lived life if I lived my life in reverse? Suppose I was Benjamin Button, old first and then young again. Would I enjoy the fact that I could do mundane, everyday chores because I knew what it was like to watch others sweep the floors from my own nursing home bed? Would I visit elderly family members and neighbors more
often, especially those who are housebound or in a nursing home? Or just send a card or letter?

Postage isn’t all that high when I realize how important mail is to a lonely person. Would I stop my morning walk long enough to talk with my neighbor, the mother of five boys, knowing she yearns for adult conversation? Would I resist the ugly urge to retaliate…insult for insult… after one of my husband’s cutting remarks? Would I look past my stepdaughter’s edginess and recognize the pain and fear behind it? Would I put myself in the other person’s shoes, especially when I have a complaint about a product that didn’t perform as I expected it to? Do I really have to be nasty to the person I am relaying my dissatisfaction to? Would I respect and honor somebody else’s truth as much as I do my own?

But I’m not Benjamin Button, and I can’t live life backward. Yet, the past is always there to look back upon, to remember the joys and the sorrows of my life, and to reflect upon how I lived my life. And I can mindfully live in the present, applying the lessons I’ve learned from walking backward.

A teacher’s unexpected whisper, “You’ve got writing talent,” ignited Sara’s writing desire. Sara ignored that whisper and pursued a different career but eventually, she re-discovered her inner writer and began writing. 

Her manuscripts have been published in anthologies and magazines including Chicken Soup for the Soul, Guideposts, Times They Were A Changing, and Wisdom Has a Voice.

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October 7 – Remembering the Landline

by Sara Etgen-Baker

 

Though landline phones may be on the endangered species list, in the 1950s and before, they were the lifeline of communities. For nearly 100 years, the landline was how we talked with someone who wasn’t in the room with us.

We had only one telephone, a black rotary one, that sat on a built-in phone cubby. There was no caller ID, no robocalls or telemarketers intruding in our lives. So when the phone rang, we were curious. The caller could’ve been anybody, but in truth, the caller was usually one of four or five people who had our telephone number. Morning calls were certain people; probably neighbors and evening calls were relatives. No one called before 9 a.m. or after 10 p.m., and we lived in fear of any call after midnight.

The phone didn’t ring a dozen times a day, and its sound was a kind of minor event. We kids didn’t pick up the phone and answer it, nor did we make a phone call without first asking permission. Father didn’t answer the telephone; answering it fell under the duties of the homemaker. When Mother answered the telephone, we didn’t listen to her conversation, but we knew by her tone whom she was talking with. When we were teenagers, my brothers and I were allowed to make limited telephone calls and answer the telephone.

There’s a wonderous landline moment that doesn’t exist today. The telephone rang after dinner one evening. My brother answered the phone. “Hello,” he said. After a moment, he hollered loud enough to notify the entire household, “Sara, it’s for you; a phrase that is long gone because no one shares a phone anymore. Using his phone etiquette, my brother asked, “Who’s calling?” Then he yelled, “It’s Robert,” a name that had never been said aloud before in our house and the sound of which piqued my parents’ interest. I sprinted to the telephone cubby. “It’s Robert,” he shouted, “that boy from school!” I yanked the phone from him, ignoring his satisfied grin. “Hello,” I said softly. Robert needed to know what time he was picking me up for the sophomore dance. I was tongue-tied and embarrassed, answering him in monosyllables: yes, no, okay, sure, yes. Bye.

Standing at the phone cubby in a household with a landline, the news was now public. I had a crush on Robert, and he was taking me to the dance. The village had been alerted.

There are no such shared moments like these in our homes today. No one stops and listens to the phone ring, wondering who the caller might be. Robocalls, caller ID, and telemarketers have killed our curiosity. Cell phones and instantaneous texting have made the landline extinct. Yet, I yearn for those days of removing the phone’s handset from the cradle, listening for the dial tone, placing my fingers in the number hole, rotating the dial and waiting for that almost magical connection to be made and hearing someone on the other end answer, “Hello.”

A teacher’s unexpected whisper, “You’ve got writing talent,” ignited Sara’s writing desire. Sara ignored that whisper and pursued a different career but eventually, she re-discovered her inner writer and began writing. Her manuscripts have been published in anthologies and magazines including Chicken Soup for the Soul, Guideposts, Times They Were A Changing, and Wisdom Has a Voice.

September 9 – Monday Was Wash Day

by Sara Etgen-Baker

Helen Morain Stainbrook

Last Thursday my washer quit spinning, leaving in its wake a tub full of wet, heavy clothes. I grumbled and stared inside the washer, knowing I lacked the arm strength to wring out the excess water in each item of clothing. What I wouldn’t have given at that moment to have my grandmother’s old wringer washer.

I can still picture her standing beside her wringer washer that sat on a little back porch behind her kitchen. Come rain, shine, cold winter days, or hot summer afternoons, she washed clothes EVERY Monday. She rose extra early, built a fire, and heated wash water. She filled the washer and twin rinsing tubs with scalding hot water; hand scrubbed each individual item, using a washboard to remove bad stains. Once clothes were scrubbed, washed, rinsed, and sent through the wringer, Granny hung her laundry to dry on clotheslines strung between two tall posts. As I recall, there were some basic clothesline rules she and women of her time followed.

•       Clotheslines were cleaned before hanging any clothes. She walked the length of the line using a damp cloth, removing dust, dirt, and bird poop.

•       Clothes were hung in a certain order: “Whites” with “whites,” always first.

•       Sheets and towels were hung on the outside lines. “Unmentionables” were in the middle out of public view.

•       Shirts were hung by the shoulders; NEVER by the tail.

•       Socks were hung by the toes, NOT the tops.

•       Pants were hung by the BOTTOM or the cuffs, NOT the waistbands.

•       Hang clothes out to dry on Mondays only. Never on Sunday! For heaven’s sake!

•       After taking down dry clothes, ALWAYS gather up the clothespins. Pins left on the lines look tacky.

Although using a wringer washing machine took a lot of time and required tremendous body strength, my grandmother thought she was lucky to have a wringer washer. At the end of wash day, Granny sat on her stoop occasionally recollecting her youth when she built a wood fire under an iron pot where she washed clothes with lye soap; something she did in the early years of her marriage during WWII when it was impossible to buy a wringer washing machine.

I take a lot for granted these days. I have an automatic washer and can wash clothes any day of the week and at any time of the day or night. I have an electric clothes dryer so I don’t have to tote laundry baskets full of wet clothes outside in all kinds of weather and hang them out to dry. In fact, drying clothes on a line is rarely seen these days.

Granny certainly wouldn’t have much patience with me for complaining about my automatic washer having gone on the fritz. She’d be shocked knowing I’d gone soft, lacking the strength to lift wet clothes out of my washer and wring out the excess water. She’d probably fuss at me, too, saying, “Why the heck are you washing clothes on Thursday anyway? Shame on you!”

A teacher’s unexpected whisper, “You’ve got writing talent,” ignited Sara’s writing desire. Sara ignored that whisper and pursued a different career but eventually, she re-discovered her inner writer and began writing. Her manuscripts have been published in anthologies and magazines including Chicken Soup for the Soul, Guideposts, Times They Were A Changing, and Wisdom Has a Voice.

August 5 – Turning Pointe

by Sara Etgen-Baker

“Point your feet! Rotate! Don’t stick your butts out! Stay out of your heels.” I looked up from where I was sitting.  There was no music; only the thump-thud sound of the dancers en pointe and the ballet master shouting. “Dance to the tips of your fingers and toes! Plié! Spot!”

Ann obeyed, sweat running down her face. “Tours chaînés déboulés,” the master barked. She struggled, her sleek muscles quivering with exhaustion. I’d never seen my aunt rehearsing. So, the contrast between seeing her stage performance where she glided effortlessly on the tips of her pointe shoes and seeing her studio rehearsal baffled me.

“Rond de Jambe en l’air and Frappé.” The master paused; the dancers gathered at the barre. “Fifth position, preparation sur le cou de pied. Single frappe en croix each position getting two counts.”  He strolled around the dance studio.

“Close Fifth position front.” Ann panted for breath. “Single rond de jambe en l’air en dehors twice at 45°.” Her corded tendons stood out like insulated cable. …“Now close to sous-sus front.

But when the curtain rose later that winter evening, there stood my aunt; her feathery light body rose en pointe.

Ann lifted her arms, breathed in the music sending it through her torso, arms, and legs. She surrendered to the music and spun like the wind across Swan Lake; her tutu fluttering like the wings of a bird at dawn. Dancing became her body’s song, and Ann sang it beautifully, her body telling the story of Odette, the Swan Queen, and her love for Prince Siegfried.

Backstage afterward, I cringed when Ann removed her pointe shoes revealing calluses, misshapen toes, black nails, and reddish-purple flesh. The contrast between her beautiful pointe shoes and her battered, ugly feet startled me.

“I didn’t know how ballet dancing was so painful!” I searched her eyes. “How can you endure so much pain?”

Ann silently walked over to her dressing table, wrapped her pointe shoes in soft tissue paper, and placed them in a pink satin drawstring bag. She scribbled a note, tucking it inside the bag. “I’m not quite sure how to explain it to you, but take these. I want you to have them. One day, you’ll understand.”

I left the performance hall and opened the drawstring bag, running my fingers over the pointe shoes’ pink satiny smooth surface and read her note.  “Each time you see these, remember life, like dance, is a beautiful art form. It’s hard work. It’s painful. It’s ugly. You sweat. You fail. You succeed. You try again. You push. You fight. But always remain graceful.”

At the time I didn’t understand the wisdom in my aunt’s message. Now, though, I recognize my aunt’s gift was not her pointe shoes; rather it was her enduring words that served as a turning point in my young life when I learned that life, like ballet, is a battle between beauty and pain.

A teacher’s unexpected whisper, “You’ve got writing talent,” ignited Sara’s writing desire. Sara ignored that whisper and pursued a different career but eventually, she re-discovered her inner writer and began writing. Her manuscripts have been published in anthologies and magazines including Chicken Soup for the Soul, Guideposts, Times They Were A Changing, and Wisdom Has a Voice.

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June 17 – The Subversive Needle

by Sara Etgen-Baker

Once upon a time (and not so long ago), I spent my summer vacations with my Aunt Betty. She was a non-traditional, career-minded, single woman in the ’50s who each morning ventured off to work at the nearby Western Union office.

“Don’t go outside until I get home,” she emphatically said, leaving me alone to while away the hours as best I could. She didn’t own a television so I occupied myself reading her books and magazines, playing her 33 1/3 rpm records, and listening to such greats as Glen Miller, Rosemary Clooney, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Perry Como.

“You’re wearing out my records,” she told me one day. You need something else to do.”

Off we went to the local five and dime store where she purchased a set of seven bleached feed sack towels, skeins of colored embroidery thread, embroidery needles, and a package of hot iron transfers. We returned to her tiny crackerbox house, where we cut out the transfers and positioned them on the feed sack towels. Using her steam iron we pressed the transfer for 30 seconds until it magically appeared on the fabric.

“Wah-lah!” she exclaimed. “Now you can embroider while I’m at work.”

And so I did, lost in choosing the color of thread, embroidering the design, and making the pattern come alive. During my time with her, I created seven towels–one for each day of the week that represented the agreed upon prescribed daily duties for women of the time. Monday: Wash Day; Tuesday: Ironing Day; Wednesday: Sewing and Mending Day; Thursday: Go to Market Day; Friday: Clean House Day; Saturday: Baking Day; Sunday: Day of Rest (or church attendance).

I loved embroidering from the start, for it not only allowed me to occupy my mind and fill the time, but it also allowed me to express my creativity. I still have many of the pieces I completed that summer and the summers afterward.  When I look at them and think back to those summers spent at my aunt’s house, I realize that embroidering also taught me how to be a feminist.

What?” you say. “How could embroidering, a seemingly negative symbol of traditional femininity, sweetness, passivity, and obedience, provide the skills and qualities necessary for a feminist?”

Femininity and sweetness are part of a woman’s strength, but passivity and obedience are the very opposite qualities necessary to make a sustained effort in any type of needlework. What’s required is a host of physical and mental skills; fine aesthetic judgment in color, texture, and composition; disobedience of convention; creative expression; assertive individuality (in design and application); as well as patience and determination.

I doubt my aunt knew just how subversive the embroidery needle, hoop, and threads could be. With them, she inadvertently created in me a mindset that would serve me as I grew into womanhood and became an ardent feminist. I am grateful for her and for all I learned while using a simple embroidery hoop, a needle, and skeins of colorful threads.

A teacher’s unexpected whisper, “You’ve got writing talent,” ignited Sara’s writing desire. Sara ignored that whisper and pursued a different career but eventually, she re-discovered her inner writer and began writing. Her manuscripts have been published in anthologies and magazines including Chicken Soup for the Soul, Guideposts, Times They Were A Changing, and Wisdom Has a Voice.

June 3 – A Close Look at Guilt

by Sara Etgen-Baker

canstockphoto19971916racorn

©CanStockPhoto/racorn

Guilt and worry are perhaps the most common forms of my personal distress. With guilt I focus on a past event, feeling dejected, hurt, or angry about something that I did or said, and use up my present moments being occupied with feelings over past behavior. With worry, I use up my valuable nows, obsessing over a future event. Whether looking back or looking forward, the result is the same: I’m throwing away the present. Why would I do such a thing, and where does my need for guilt and worry come from?

Like most of you, I’ve been subjected to a conspiracy of guilt in my lifetime, an uncalculated plot to turn me into a veritable guilt machine. The machine works something like this: Someone sends me a message designed to remind me that I’ve somehow been a bad person because of something I said or didn’t say, felt or didn’t feel, did or didn’t do. I respond by feeling bad in the present moment, becoming the guilt machine; a walking, talking, breathing invisible contraption that responds with guilt whenever the appropriate fuel is poured into me. And, I am a well-oiled guilt machine, for I’ve been totally immersed in our guilt-producing culture.

Why have I bought into the worry and guilt messages that have been laid upon me over the years? Largely because I’ve bought into my inculturation that says I’m “bad” if I don’t feel guilty, and “inhuman” if I don’t worry. It all has to with caring and what caring looks like to other people. The subtle message seems to be, “If I really care about anyone or anything, then I must show this concern by feeling guilty about the terrible thing(s) I’ve done, or by giving some visible evidence that I’m concerned their future by worrying and fretting about them.

For me, guilt is not merely a concern with the past; it’s a vicious cycle producing present-moment immobilization about a past event. The degree of immobilization can run from being mildly upset to being depressed. Let me be clear. Learning from my past and vowing to avoid repeating some specific behavior is not guilt. Guilt occurs when I prevent myself from taking action now as a result of having behaved a certain way in the past.

Learning from my mistakes is healthy and a necessary part of my growth and personal responsibility. Guilt, on the other hand, is unhealthy because I’m using up my energy in the present feeling hurt, upset, and even depressed about a historical happening. In that sense, guilt seems like such a useless emotion. It’s futile and unhealthy. I must remember, therefore, that no amount of guilt on my part can ever undo anything, and no amount of worrying can change the future.

A teacher’s unexpected whisper, “You’ve got writing talent,” ignited Sara’s writing desire. Sara ignored that whisper and pursued a different career but eventually, she re-discovered her inner writer and began writing. Her manuscripts have been published in anthologies and magazines including Chicken Soup for the Soul, Guideposts, Times They Were A Changing, and Wisdom Has a Voice.

 

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