Category Archives: Sara Etgen-Baker

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.

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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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May 20 – A GIRL, A BICYCLE, A LIBRARIAN, AND A MAGICAL SPELL

by Sara Etgen-Baker

I often mounted my bicycle and sped down the street, my hair whipping back as I let my feet off the pedals and flew down the hill at a speed rivaling a cheetah. When I reached the point where the street curved, I slammed on the brakes hoping the unevenly worn brake pads would bring me to a stop just as I neared the library’s front entrance.

I dismounted and pushed open the library’s heavy door, walked across the tiled chessboard floor, and tossed a penny in the fountain before climbing the stairs to the main hall where I encountered Miss Talbot, the head librarian.

Miss Talbot was a decipherer of secret codes, master of index cards, maven of the Dewey Decimal System, and sorceress all wrapped into one tiny human being. I truly believed she was a mind reader or, at the very least, part magician the way she could find whatever I was looking for; many times before I asked.

“You’re allowed to check out ten books at a time,” she always said rather matter-of-factly.

“I’ll take ten books home with me,” I replied in an elated voice, signing the borrower’s card inside each one.

“Return these by the due date.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said reassuringly.

I can still feel their weight in my arms as I lugged them downstairs and heaved them into my bike’s saddlebags. The books I checked out allowed me to magically travel through time and contact the dead; Anne Frank, Louisa May Alcott, L. Frank Baum, and so many more.

On chilly winter nights, I accompanied Nancy Drew as she gathered clues and unraveled mysteries. On soft, promising green spring days Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost taught me about the worthy art of poetry, giving me a sense of what is beautiful about the world. I also cherished those warm, lazy summer afternoons spent in the library escaping August’s sultry heat and breathing in the stale, sun-warmed dust of a thousand stories. The library was the perfect place to go whenever I felt unhappy, bewildered, or undecided. Inside books, I found encouragement, comfort, answers, and guidance.

A great deal of who I became is based upon my visits to the quiet, unassuming library; lit up during winter darkness and open in the slashing rain allowing a girl like me to experience actual magic. Each time I ventured inside and opened the cover of a book I wondered what I might find inside. Where would I go? Whom would I meet?

The stories I read were powerful, for they either sent me back in time or forward into the future and frequently transported me to other lands where I met ogres and talking rabbits. Some of my best friends I found between the covers of the books I checked out at the library using my simple library card. Even now when I enter a library and open a book, I fall under an enchanting spell, and I never want the spell to be broken.

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 rediscovered 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.

April 22 – The Beautiful Lady of Paris

by Sara Etgen-Baker

I spent the better part of the summer of 1970 traveling about Great Britain and Europe exploring many of the old world cathedrals and castles, and poking around historical museums. One hot June afternoon, I stood on Ile de la Cite, a small island in the middle of the Seine River, awestruck as I stared up at the towers and spire of the Gothic Notre Dame Cathedral. She was covered with sculptures vividly illustrating Biblical stories such as the Last Judgment. Even her rose windows and stained glass panes depicted Biblical subjects such as a triumphant Christ seated in the sky surrounded by his Apostles, Adam and Eve, the Resurrection of Christ, and Mary Magdalene.

Like other Gothic churches I’d seen, she was decorated with sculptures of frightening monsters including a gargoyle, a Chimera, and a Strix.

These sculptures were part of the visual message for the illiterate worshippers, symbols of the evil and danger that threatened those who didn’t follow the church’s teachings.

Beyond its religious significance, Notre Dame was a part of France’s history and the site of many French coronations including Napoleon Bonaparte. I couldn’t help but respect her, the imposing edifice who’d withstood the ravages of time, neglect, and war who towered above me, guarding Paris and perhaps the world from evil and providing hope for all Parisians and Catholics worldwide.But when I watched the news footage of the fire burning at Notre Dame, I felt powerless and helpless, as if hope itself was gone. I watched flames consume the venerable and noble Lady of Paris and in some ways, I felt as if I, too, was burning. How, I asked myself, could something that had stood the ravages of time suddenly fall victim to such a destructive force? Although I’m neither a Parisian nor a Catholic, an inexplicable sadness washed over me. Why is the burning of a cathedral thousands of miles away from me saddening me so? Was it the disbelief and helplessness I felt in seeing something so historical and beautiful destroyed? Certainly. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something more to the sadness I was experiencing and there was a lesson I needed to learn. But what?

In the aftermath of the Notre Dame fire, I was struck with something much deeper; the notion of impermanence. I had to face the fact that nothing, save one’s spirit, is permanent; not the structures we construct, the religious teachings we create, the history we build, none of it. Therein lies the truth that the mythical Phoenix learned. Our spirit as individuals and people survive the fire. Perhaps that is the lesson the Beautiful Lady of Paris intended for us. It is definitely one I needed to learn.

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.