Find a Feeder

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Etta May -- Or Food For Thought About Turning The Other Cheek

Etta May is one of those people you meet in life you never forget. She taught me life lessons I was glad for long after I met her in high school.  She taught me the importance of turning the other cheek.

Who was Etta May? Etta May was in my Foods class in Lenape Regional High School. She was what was known in the 1970s as 'mentally retarded' but would now be described as 'intellectually challenged.' Whatever you want to call it Etta May was one person who taught me important life lessons-the value of independence for everyone no matter what their abilities and of meeting unkindness with kindness.

I admit, in school I was one of those kids in the advanced classes. Foods was a class I took to avoid study hall. I wasn't really expecting to learn a lot, although in the end I learned more important life lessons there than in any advanced English, Science or History class I ever took. 

Etta May wasn't a beauty, but she always smiled. She wasn't always able to read the directions for recipes, but she was unfailingly NICE to everyone. She tried her best. She looked for the good in every person and inevitably found something in everyone to admire. And she taught me the value of teamwork and that everyone on the team has something to contribute.

Etta May was on my team in Foods Class.  This meant I and the three other girls in the class worked with her on a daily basis.  We all reacted differently to Etta May's challenges. One girl was a bully and cruel, we all ran interference because we thought Etta May needed our help. 

What we didn't realize was she'd known this girl her entire life and had learned her own ways to deal with her with no help from us. She simply turned the other cheek. I know, it sounds so, goody two shoes.  But it worked.  The more Etta May met (I'll call her Maureen, not her real name) Maureen's barbs with kindness the more Maureen was frustrated at not being able to bully Etta May.

The other three girls worked with Etta May but tried to do things for her without giving her a chance to try herself.  I showed Etta May how to do it and then let her do it herself.  Seeing her sense of pride in her attempts (some of which were successful, some not) made it worth it.  While her work wasn't always perfect, the teacher and I had an unspoken agreement that it was more important to let Etta May try than to have a perfect result. 

Etta May's pride in her accomplishments were something I'll never forget.  Be the accomplishment big or small, she was thrilled she'd done it herself.  I can't take responsibility for the way I treated her, that would be 'thank you Mom' who was the queen of teaching us things without making it seem like she was even trying and letting us learn how to do it even if it wasn't perfect the first time.

Years later the lessons Etta May taught me came back to me when I was faced with the challenge of having two daughters with similar disabilities. I was also faced with helping them help themselves or taking the easy way of out by doing things for them. 

Thanks to Etta May's unwitting but valuable guidance (even though she never knew she taught  me anything) I became the mother my children needed.  Etta May made me a strong advocate of mainstreaming and independence for the differently able. 

There were many times it would have been easier to do things for my daughters.  But they're grown up now and both live on their own and hold down jobs. Without the lessons learned from Etta May I might have been a very different kind of mother to them.  There lives might be very different than they are today.

I've often wished I could find Etta May and just give her a hug--she helped ME so much. She taught me life lessons I wouldn't have gotten any else in my education. And better yet, as every mother knows, she helped my children, even though she never knew them. (We all know that people who help our children are high on our lists of favorite people). She changed my attitude and outlook so I could help them. So if anyone out there knows where Etta May is today, give her a hug from me and my family.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Historical Nuns--Or Nuns Who Knew How To Do It Right!

Some people you knew growing up helped shape you into the person you are today.  Anyone who went to Catholic School probably probably had a nun or a group of nuns in that all important group.  Anyone reading this who is Catholic (and maybe a few who ended up in Catholic schools some other way) have some memories of that nun who was just... the epitome of nundome! (Yeah I know, not a I care!) Mine was Sister Theophane Marie. Yes, I know, it's an unusual name, but some nuns had those in the good old days.  Not all of them had names like Sister Elizabeth Ann. 

Sister Theophane Marie was my first grade teacher-and my older sister's, and my younger brother's.  Not only that, she taught my dad in Sunday School, so her impact on our family, even if you just figure it out numerically, was significant.  Sister Theophane knew how to keep sixty-five to seventy students quiet and learning--all day long.  There was no ADD/ADHD in her classroom (or if there was it was too intimidated to come out.) 

My memories of Sister Theophane are so strong I can tell you just where her classroom was--walk in through the front door, past the Christ the King School office on the right and her classroom was the first one on the right!  Photo from the Parish Bulletin of Christ the King.

To me she seemed like she must be so so old! But actually she probably was a very young nun when she taught my dad, and not really all that old when she had us, but you know how it is when you're a kid--anyone over fifteen is old! 

Sister Theophane was a legend.  Not only did you have her while you were in school, her name and the memories of her class traveled with you for a long time.  I've run into total strangers, told them where I went to school and as soon as I mention Christ the King School they gasp and say "DID YOU HAVE SISTER THEOPHANE?"  My mom actually ran into people on a cruise who were talking about Sister Theophane (and it was the SAME one!).  What are the odds?

Full Teaching Staff at Christ The King in 1940 Top Row Left to Right: Sister Thomas Mary, Mother Vincent Marie, Sister Marie Agnes, Marie Lorraine. Botton Row, left to right: Sister Sylvato, M. Densie Boucher, Theophane Marie.  Photo from Christ The King Parish Bulletin.

Sister Theophane's one claim to fame (or claim to fame in my life anyway) was as the first adult who put me in charge of something and just left me to do the job.  Granted it wasn't a big job--but I felt like a big deal.  And she probably didn't REALLY leave me all alone, I'm sure she kept a good eye on us.  But the exciting position I held (just wait, I know you absolutely won't believe how exciting and important it was!) was as a candy girl.  I not only sold penny candy after lunch but I counted and wrapped the candy money each day. (Remember penny candy? Bit A Honey, Mini Hershey Bars, Tootsie Rolls, etc. School sold candy at lunch time and being a candy girl who sold candy and getting to count the money was a HUGE deal) OK, yes I know, not exactly head of General Motors or Citibank, but I was young! Give me time.

As an adult I've graduated from counting and wrapping coins, now I just head down to the local bank and dump it in a machine that counts it for me.  But by entrusting me with all those pennies and nickels and occasional quarters and making me one of the "Candy Girls" Sister Theophane not only gave me great math skills but she made me feel like a million bucks!  She taught me it's important to give children the opportunity to succeed on their own. 

For some reason I don't remember their ever being "Candy Boys,"  I'll have to ask my brother, he'll know.  Sexism was alive and well, and for once benefited females!

Sister Theophane had a few other impressive tricks. She convinced us all that there was a spanking machine in the janitor's closet. (We had no idea what was behind that big door but it sure looked big enough to be a big mean spanking machine!) and we were all cowed into submission.  Actually I was a goody two shoes anyway so it didn't take much convincing to stick to the straight and narrow!

She also showed me that sometimes showing that you know how to have fun and let people laugh at you is a good thing.  The school was having a music/talent show one year--and the memory of Sister Theophane teaching students to do the Charleston, her habit flapping with every move and students rolling in the aisles with laughter is seared into my memory.  Here was our religious, stern teacher, wearing a rosary around her waist and a large cross around her neck and she was kicking up her heels and showing us that people, even nuns, are multi-dimensional.  An important life lesson for every child. 

So kudos to Sister Theophane! She opened my mind to looking for the hidden facets in the people around me.  Sister Theophane was one of the first people outside my family who was highly influential in the woman I would become. 

Tell me about the first person who was influential in your life and how they shaped you into the person you are today.  Always happy to have someone guest post.

Mastering The Lake

Volunteering, how to do it, where to do it, and why... Mrs. Scarmuzzi was one of the people I encountered as I grew up who taught me some of my values about giving back to my community. Who was she?  She was my swimming instructor.  Because we lived so far 'out in the sticks' there weren't a lot of places to go in the summer time--you had to make your own amusement--but we all lived either on a lake or very near one.  And since we didn't have a lot to do, swimming was a big part of our summer.  Not in a pristine pool with all the accouterments of a fancy swim club, no we swam in cedar lakes, right next to the fish, the turtles and the ducks.  And thanks to Mrs. Scarmuzzi we all swam like fish too!  Thanks to her, none of us ever drowned.

Every summer Mrs. Scarmuzzi made sure of just that--she taught not just a few of us to swim, not just kids who had money for lessons to swim, but every child who was interested in learning to swim (and some whose parents probably made them show up to lake-proof them) how to swim. 

We started with beginning Red Cross classes and took classes up to and including senior life saving and a survival class. Mrs. Scarmuzzi taught all of us, day after day, year after year, every summer until we all had learned everything there was to know about swimming and survival in the water.  We weren't quite ready for the Navy Seals but Mrs. Scarmuzzi taught us all how to swim well enough that none of us drowned and many of us went on to become life guards or to teach swimming ourselves.

How did we thank her? I can remember baking her brownies (with my skills likely Duncan Hines) (as though brownies were ever enough to pay a woman back for teaching me a life skill that kept me alive, but what did I know, I was only ten or so when I remember baking those), but even then I appreciated what it took for her to take her whole summer to teach all of us swimming.  I know as a child I didn't realize just how huge a gift that was to the parents in the community, but as a parent now I fully recognize just how crucial what she did was in our small community.

But Mrs. Scarmuzzi didn't stop there.  She recruited some of the kids who were in the upper levels of swimming to help out on days when she invited inner city kids to come to the country and experience a day on the lake.  I'm not sure who got more out of those days, us or the kids who came and were awed by fishing, boating and swimming.  Mrs. Scarmuzzi was one of the women who taught me how to give back-graciously.  I'll never forget the lessons she taught me--not just the ones about swimming but the ones about giving of herself and her time to others.  All of us thank this gracious woman for teaching us more than she probably ever realized every summer.  And thank her for sharing her swimming skills as well.

Growing Up Watching Birdfeeders

Growing up we always had bird feeders outside our windows.  Over the years we watched squirrels consume more birdseed than the birds--finally along came feeders that let us feed just the birds, not the squirrels.  The grosbeaks and cardinals finally triumphed over mangy gray squirrels!

Sometimes the squirrels were defeated by technological feats designed by birders, sometimes the use of simple home grown ideas did the trick. And other times, alas, the squirrels consumed all the seed meant for the birds we loved.
Super Stop A Squirrel Wild Bird Feeder by Homestead (available on and other retailers)(I do not personally recommend any feeders, just providing some options for your to explore, please research their efficacy on your own)

Defeating the marauding squirrels became a family pastime.  To me defeating the squirrels became a life lesson in caring for the people in our lives who were important to us and avoiding the toxic people who try to steal all the seeds of joy from life.

 Are you a bird or a squirrel?  Are you on the side of the birds or the squirrels? Hmmmm...