Sunday, November 29, 2009


Family get-togethers on my Mom’s side of the family always involve guitars. After everyone is stuffed from the meal, and the leftovers are sitting on the table waiting to be cleared, one by one someone goes into another room and reappears with a guitar in hand. And soon the living room is full of music and all the toes in the house are tapping.

When I was a kid, the adults used to cram around the piano and sing in harmony to old favorites like the Everly Brothers’ Dream, or any of the Beatles tunes. At Christmas, we always sang The Twelve Days of Christmas, and one family member was assigned to each day. I was always "Nine ladies dancing," and Uncle W.C. always ended each chorus with “and a par-snip in a pan-try,” causing my Grandma to roll her eyes from the kitchen. Every year.

I usually was just a witness for the guitar jam sessions that erupted in the evening, but when I was in seventh grade I learned to play Dan Fogelberg’s Run for the Roses on the flute and got to be a part of the music, at least for one song.

Now we live across the country from my family, but every now and then our house in Las Vegas has that old-home-feeling, because my husband is learning to play the guitar. He will sit on the living room couch and slowly pick out Beatles melodies while I clean up after dinner, his brow furrowed in concentration. He may only know a few chords, but hearing that familiar strumming adds something to our house that nothing else can.

This Thanksgiving was no different from any other get-together among the Wheeler clan. While the leftover turkey cooled, a group of guitars formed in the living room, giving the day its familiar acoustic soundtrack. I tapped my foot from the kitchen table where my aunts and I looked at old family photos, now and then adding a line of harmony to the music in the other room. Grandma snacked on a pumpkin cookie and watched her great-grandkids play with Lincoln Logs on the carpeted floor. Outside the day turned to evening and Christmas lights began to appear on the neighborhood lawns. Anyone passing by on the sidewalk would have heard some rockin’ Duane Eddy coming from the house at the end of Yarmouth Road.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Search for Home

When I was a teenager I gave my mom a Mother’s Day card that said, “Wherever I travel, Wherever I roam…Wherever my Mom is will always be home.” And because of the special connection she and I had, she knew I meant it, and she framed the card in a black frame and hung it above the piano in her collection of family photos and artwork.

That framed card is in my house in Las Vegas now, and whenever I look at it I wonder exactly where home is for me now. Mom passed away over ten years ago, so if that card’s sentiment is still true, I am a little lost.

I’m writing this from Indiana during Thanksgiving Week, in the town I grew up in, where memories (good and bad) lurk around every corner. And the whole time I wonder, where is home? When I’m in Las Vegas, I refer to my hometown of Paoli, Indiana as “home.” But when I’m in Paoli, Las Vegas gets that title of honor. So, what is home to me? I’ve lived in Las Vegas for over 15 years, yet I don’t feel that it will ever feel like home. And it has been twenty years since I’ve lived in Paoli…I appreciate and miss the family history I have there, but it doesn’t feel like Me anymore.

So, if Paoli isn’t home but neither is Vegas, where would be the ideal place for me? My husband says no to anywhere he would have to shovel snow, so that limits my choices. Lately I think we would really like it in the Northwest, maybe Portland, Oregon, but the funny thing is that I’ve never been there! I’m looking for a place with open-minded people, people who appreciate nature & culture, a university, and access to city life and natural beauty.

But would that finally feel like home? The location would be great but still there would be no family connection or history, none of the friends from Vegas we’ve known for years, and my mom still wouldn’t be there.

I don’t think there is an answer. Instead, I will go on making memories, enjoying life, and making our current place a home. And then finally, someday, I’m sure I will suddenly realize that Home has a definite location for me. Someday.

Or maybe I should just be thankful that I have several places to call home. I’m lucky to have fond memories of the hometown where I grew up and the city home where I’ve led my adult life, and maybe many more places will earn that title of honor, even temporarily. If home is where the heart is, I can just spread the love around, right?

I write this from the only place in Paoli where I can get an internet wireless connection, with a view toward the southeast side of town. Let's see what memories I can stir up from my view out this window - memories that happened while Paoli was my home:

I can see the back of the library building, where I used to go in the side entrance to the children's section in the basement, where Mrs. Ott used to read us stories.

The market I sit in right now used to be the Variety Store, where as a child I loved to go because you could buy lots of cheap things - candy, toys, sewing projects, kitchen trinkets. Mom received many Christmas gifts that I purchased here, and when she was a child she used to come here with her mom.

My Grandma's church would be in view if it weren't for a large semi trailor that is blocking my view. During my childhood I spent summers in their basement for Vacation Bible School. It's also where we gathered for a free dinner with family and friends on the day of my Mom's funeral.

Farther on is the liquor store, where we never went, since my Mom was a teacher and this is a small town in the Bible Belt. I went in there once a few years ago and couldn't shake the feeling that I was being bad!

I can see the roof of Crockett's Flowers & Gifts, the florist from whom we ordered flowers for Mother's Day or birthdays or funerals, and where I would run inside to pick up my friend Pam for a playdate in elementary school. Just up the hill was where Jennifer C lived in a large yellow brick house...I think I may have spent the night there once or twice.

The highway that heads out of town to the southeast logged thousands of miles during my life in Paoli, when Mom and I went to Louisville to see musicals and ballets, to Kentucky to visit relatives, or to Florida or South Carolina for summer vacations.

And through the trees I can see the roof of the old brick Stalcup building - now converted into a business, where my Grandma, and my Mom and her sister, went to high school. Tall and stately above the trees, it was on its grounds that we rehearsed for the musical Oklahoma! when I was a kid, and I still refer to that time as "the good old days", when I began to love the theatre.

All of the above memories, just off the top of my head, from this one tiny window view.

I feel lucky to have called this place home, even if it was only for a while. And I think it will always stay on my list of places to call home. I'm thankful for that, no matter where I end up.

Monday, November 16, 2009

One Day in Paris

For some reason, most of my foreign travel has happened in the Fall. It's a great time to travel - fewer crowds, cooler weather, better prices. Recently I remembered we were in Paris in November, many years ago...

One day in Paris. We planned to zip from London to Paris on the first train of the day and return on the last train that night.

But the day held many challenges: the tube station in London was closed that morning, the French taxi driver stiffed us on our change, and all of the Musee de l’Orangerie’s most famous paintings were away on tour, which we learned after having purchased our tickets. And at about 10am, the rain began – bad news for us since we planned to walk everywhere, and it was November, and cold.

But our one day in Paris is still our best travel day to date. While the cold rain completely soaked our pants up to the thigh, we huddled together under our umbrella the whole length of the Champs Elysees, stopping to duck into a café for hot chocolate and the best chocolate doughnut ever, and into a small silent church where the clink of our donation into the wooden box echoed through the stone interior.

The best paintings in l’Orangerie may have been away, but we found a large oval room downstairs where Monet’s water lilies were displayed in panorama, and we sat on the center benches, entranced.

After nearly being blown off the top of the Eiffel Tower by the cold gusts of wind, where we were so wet and freezing that I said, “I’m so cold I don’t care we’re in Paris anymore!” we found a cozy café and ended our day by warming up with a warm French dinner and oversized glasses of beer.

Travel days that go perfectly aren’t nearly as fun.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Those Bleepin' Stickers

This week as George and I drove back home from the dog park, we sat at a traffic light behind an SUV that had stickers on the back window which proudly boasted that they have a husband, a wife, three tall children, one short one, and two dogs. Even as I write this, my upper lip is curling up in disgust at the memory.

So, why do I have such a strong reaction to these family window stickers that are so common nowadays? Yes, part of it is because my husband and I do not yet have a family of our own, and that issue contains a lot of emotion. But I know that these stickers would annoy me anyway.

Let’s also put aside the fact that it’s not safe to put your kids’ names on the back of your car for just anyone to see, inviting weirdos and rapists to call your three-year-old by name and take off with him.

My issue is this: Why do they think I care about the makeup of that car’s happy little family? These stickers remind me of the reality TV phenomenon that has given the population the idea that the little details of their life mean something to strangers. Watching hours of TV where grungy people sit around and complain that their roommate used all the toothpaste or that they can’t stand so-and-so’s attitude has made people think that their details are important, creating a mini-celebrity status in their minds.

Or you could compare these stickers to the guns-for-hire in the Old West, in that parents put a sticker up for each kid like old gunslingers put notches on their gun barrels for each kill. Or like crews of WWII planes who painted an airplane silhouette on their plane for each enemy they shot down. Or like Pat Benatar’s notches on her lipstick case. These stickers are emblazoned on the back windows of cars like there’s a worldwide competition to see who can have the most kids.

So, what can I do to counteract these smiling stickers that mock me from their lofty position on their gas-guzzling SUVs? I wish there were something in response, like those bumper stickers that say “My kid beat up your honor student,” or the Darwin fish that eats the symbol for Christianity. But even if there were such a sticker, I wouldn’t post it. I don’t like to put things on my car that outwardly provoke people – I prefer a simple “Obama” sticker over one that rudely attacks Bush or the Republicans. There’s enough negative energy out there already.

So I guess I’ll just have to ignore them. Or if they’re parked nearby, George can conveniently pee on their tires. That’ll show ‘em.

Monday, November 2, 2009


I wish I had a front porch to put a jack-o-lantern on. Setting them out by our front door in the warm Vegas sun doesn’t have the same effect as the pumpkins from my childhood. Then, I remember creeping out onto the chilly porch with my mom to light the candle at dusk, the sweet smell of burnt pumpkin still hanging in the air from the previous night’s burning.

And costumes were better back then. They did have those cheap plastic costumes at the stores in town, but I snubbed my nose at them, preferring the challenge of creating my own costume from the closets in our house and at my Grandma’s. Most kids made their own costumes, probably because of financial reasons, but this made us care more about what we wore, because we spent the weeks before Halloween planning and scheming and coming up with the perfect costume. The immediate gratification of buying something at a store would have robbed us of half the fun.

I grew up in a house on a country road outside of town, so there were no nearby neighbors to walk to for trick-or-treating. Instead, we got into the car and drove to all our family members’ houses, stretching the night’s fun longer into the evening. In contrast, a few years ago I went trick-or-treating with a friend and her family, and I have to say the difference between Vegas trick-or-treating and my rural childhood’s made me a little disappointed. I had expected a leisurely stroll from house to house, but because Vegas houses are crammed so close together, the kids ran like banshees from door to door, sometimes hitting three houses within a minute.

As a kid, half the fun of Halloween was giving out candy to trick-or-treaters who came to our house. But since we lived in the country, hardly any ever came. In fact, I remember one year when I was about 10, and Mom bought special little individual treat bags that I painstakingly filled perfectly with equal amounts of several kinds of candy and then tied with a black and orange bow. I excitedly waited for the kids to come, but no one did. The pitfalls of living in the country. But all I needed was one trick-or-treater to be happy, and usually I got that.

One unusual year Mom and I had several trick-or-treaters, and we had to quickly drive into town to buy candy. While we were gone, someone soaped our windows in clever pictures of smiling jack-o-lanterns and the words “Happy Halloween!” Mom and I laughed about it afterward, happy to be living in a town with such wholesome pranksters.

Enough reminiscing about my childhood and how much better things were back then. After all, back then I didn’t have a patient dog named George who allows me to dress him as Superman. Things are good.