Twinkling lights

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It’s the season for twinkling lights to celebrate the holidays. They are strung around Christmas trees, windows and doors, throughout the ceilings in restaurants and around store windows. They welcome you, they thrill you, they make your heart lighter. Of course, they are used at other times of the year, but never to the extent as during the holiday season.

The twinkle lights I remember most are the ones strung up and down and throughout the Magnificant Mile on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Another place where they add magic is up and down and around the River Canal in San Antonio. Many times you will find them mingling among grape leaves in Italian restaurants.

So where did they come from, these twinkling little stars? I discovered the idea for such a creation really dates back centuries to when the Europeans dressed their Christmas trees with candles. Fast forward to 1880 when Thomas Edison discovered or developed or invented electricity. He strung electric light bulbs around a tree, it is said, at his labratory. But the bulbs proved to be heavy, and at that time no one really had electricity in their homes.

Fast forward again to 1917. Back in Chicago there lived the four Sadacca brothers who owned a novelty manufacturing business. Every year they (Albert, Henri, Leon) designed a variety of Christmas ornaments, one was a decoration of a bird in a gilded gage. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it could be lighted? And so, they began tinkering around trying to light up the bird cage by using a small battery.

It worked. But the battery was too heavy. Nonetheless, they created and sold about 200 strings of lighted bird cages. The idea caught on. Soon other novelty companies were experimenting with lighting their designs. Eventually twinkling lights were the outcome. And so the Sadacca Brothers story became a chapter in my book Mr. Umbrella Man, Stories about Inventions, available on Amazon.

Have a twinkling season!

Harvest Memory Harvest time in Cedar County, was a community affair. Neighbors helped each other cut oats and wheat, and also helped with bailing hay, which involved using a machine that feeds in cut grass and compresses it. Generally, it was a week to ten days during the harvesting times. Now it was the middle of hay season. Two kinds of hay were grown in the area and cut in either huge rolls or baled. Lespedeza was one type of hay and the small town nearby claimed it was the Lespedeza Capitol of the world. But we grew alfalfa because it was the most popular type sold for feed. At fourteen my mother directed me in cooking lunch for all the hay bailing crew. She was expecting a baby and had to avoid heavy work. We put our heads together and decided what foods, like pies, could be made early; the corn husked, and potatoes pealed, both standing in water. We began baking and preparing the night before. The menu was simple. We began cooking at seven. But so quickly noon came. I thought we worked well together. I have often thought that trait came from the fact that she had five sisters. On the old wood-burning stove two large cast iron skillets held the sizzling fried chicken. Whiffs of greasy smoke rose to the ceiling. It smelled of Crisco crispy crusts. Nearby bubbling sounds rose from a huge copper kettle where chunks of corn-on-the-cob boiled. Mashed potato mounds already filled the large bowls setting on the table along with gravy boat pitchers. Spears of Russian dill pickles lay in glass dishes between them. The scent of cinnamon, or maybe it was nutmeg, drew your eyes to a side table where pre-cut apple pie slices sat in saucers along with a large platter of chocolate chip cookies. Men jostled each other as they were seated shoulder to shoulder. The aroma of cut alfalfa hay clung to their shirts. It was a sweet odor but also dusty. Soon the bowls and platters where being passed along. I walked behind them and offered warm biscuits or zucchini bread slices. Small pots of apple butter were offered. My mother asked who wanted tall glasses filled with cold lemonade, tea or water. Ice cubes crackled in the glasses. The men talked softly to each other. They all knew one another. “Where is your son in the Army?” “How was the fishing at the Lake?” It was a simple hearty meal for the occasion. It seemed that an hour passed quickly, and they began to file out nodding their thanks to my mother and me. Outside they looked up at the sky. The clear warm weather was holding. It had been just the right filling to carry men on through the hot afternoon. It was a scene they would repeat many noons for a few weeks into fall.

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Frances Altman writes for a hobby and as a career tool, beginning as a stay-at-home mother in children’s stories and newspapers with Field Enterprises, Chicago. Later she joined public relations with The National Hot Dog & Sausage Council, Allied Signal and Virginia Commonwealth University where she also taught. Her tenth book, Destiny’s Daughter, will be published in Spring 23 by Apprentice House Press.
The Sweet Spot
Gail Abey Froeb
An hour to go before dinner and Dad was coming through the door. He was up before 4:00 a.m. every day so he could drive to Sealtest Dairy and load up his truck. If it was a good day, he’d be home twelve hours later. That was the routine. When he entered the house, he only made it as far as the living room where he sat down heavily on the sofa, pulled off his work shoes and left them where they dropped.
“Gail,” he said, when I entered the room to greet him, “how about getting your old man a beer?”
“Sure, Dad.” He didn’t need to ask. A before-dinner beer was part of his daily routine. He was training me to be his personal barmaid and had watched me pour his beer into a glass since I was twelve years old. Four years later and he was still reminding me, “Now, pour slowly. I hate a big foam on top. Takes too long to get to the beer.”
“Got it, Dad,” I said over my shoulder on the way to the kitchen.
By the time I got back, Dad’s long, lean body was stretched out with his head resting on the arm of the sofa. His bright blue eyes were closed. Asleep or resting? It was hard to say. My younger siblings and I would tease him constantly about his ability to nap so easily. But he would wake up and claim, “Just resting my eyes.” We heard that a lot.
I sat on the floor and nestled my back into the front of the sofa. “Dad, your beer is ready,” I said softly. He didn’t respond. Asleep then. I shoved his shoes under the sofa, watched his rhythmic breathing, inhaled the cigarette smoke and the sour milk
smells imbedded in the fabric of his stiff gray uniform, waited for him to open his eyes and deny that he had been dozing.
From my position on the floor, I could turn towards Dad when he was awake and rested, and we would have a conversation. We chose lofty topics. We were sure there were aliens, but what would they look like, act like? Was there a heaven or a hell? What happened to us when we died? We didn’t much care about definitive answers. We just liked kicking around the possibilities. There were so many possibilities!
We would explore the side of life we weren’t able to live. He was steady and hardworking, the family breadwinner, physically tired at the end of his workday. I was grounded in my studies, trying to navigate high school. Homework took up so much of my time. Even I needed an occasional nap. But some days, for a few brief moments, in the sweet spot between the end of a day’s work and joining the family for dinner, we could set our imaginations free. It was a great place to be.



Sea Shells

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Have you walked along the beach lately? Where have all the sea shells gone? Through the years I have picked up many treasures. Angle wings–those tiny delicate coupled shells. And then once I actually found a sizeable counch shell that you can put up to your ear and imagine hearinig the wind. For a few years I visited a pile of crumbling rocks from an old fort (they said) on Hilton Head Island. There I picked up many olives (spiral shaped shells). I even filled a glass table lamp with small shells.

A tongue twister I remember goes like this:

She sells seashells by the seashore, The shells she sells are seashells, I’m sure. So if she sells seashells on the seashore, Then I’m sure she sells seashore shells.

Supposedly this is an 1870s poem by fossil collector, Terry Sullivan. Then in later years someone sang “Sally sells seashells” etc.

Today so many beaches have replacement sand trucked in as beaches erode. Or, bulldozers push sand in when the tide goes out. Recently I went shopping for seashells at several tourist shops near the beach. Yes, they had shells, but not from this beach. And, yes, even the price of shells has gone up from three for a dollar to a dollar each. When I was eight I used to string macaroni shells and pretend they were from the beach. Even the price of macaroni has increased.

Last week in my Journaling class I wrote about my company trip to Marco Island, FL in the ’80s. I walked on a beach there littered with star fish. I wanted to take a shell home. So I packed away a couple in my suitcase. In a day my room was smelling. I learned that you have to boil and clean your specimen. I went out and bought a couple.

I will end today with a poem I wrote:

Sea Shells — Neptune’s Gift

The waves gently ripple and disclose

Spiny, spirals freckled with sand.

Neptune’s gift!

An ancient token of time held softly in one’s hand.

by Frances Altman

It’s coincidence

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               Last fall I met a woman whose birthday was the same day as mine.  When I went to the hospital four years ago, I learned in the recovery room, that the hospital had given my specially reserved room to a lady named Frances Altman—my name.  Two years ago I tried to contact a historian in New York to confirm a book I was writing. Pandemic came along. This year as I sent my book off to be published, I heard from him. 

               All of these events are called “coincidences.”  I call them eerie! If you have the time you can Google up a vast array of physiological explanations and theories as to how this all happens.  Some people just call it fate.  Others destiny.  Even more call it a big accident.  I like serendipity better. 

               It would seem that coincidences have been happening since about 1595 or when scientists and doctors first began examining this concurrence.  

                              Sometimes it may not really happen to you, but to someone you are with.  One year my assistant and I went to a hotel in San Jose, CA and were talking to the convention planner.  Suddenly he stopped talking and asked her “Don’t I know you?”  We were both from Chicago.  He repeated her last name again.  “Do you have a sister who went to St. Joseph’s High School?“  Yes.  And so had the meeting planner. It was eerie then.  And, it still is.  But, as I said earlier,  I’m not going to get carried away with research. I’m just going to enjoy it.

               However, I am going to say that I do not consider it coincidence when you order the same sandwich or dessert your friend orders when you are together at a restaurant.  That means you  may be thinking along the same lines as she. Or, could be you’re being economical if you are her guest.  Or it may mean that you like the same style of foods.   Enjoy!     

What is Time?

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If I took the time to look up the word “time” it would probably be a word used many,  many times. You hear the word every day: Any time, sometime, over time, short time, back-in-time, time line, show time, a waste-of-time,  or time bomb!           

A friend recently won an essay contest by writing how much time fishing could take up. At the funeral of Senator Robert Dole (I met him once during a July Hot Dog Month celebration in Washington D.C.) a speaker pointed out that on a tombstone there is a date of birth, then a dash, then the date of death.  He said that the dash represented the “length of time or all the accomplishments” one achieves.  

Another quote by someone else was that “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

My recent heart valve replacement has made me more conscious of time.  I even realized that perhaps during this Pandemic time I had been wasting time.  Many of my friends were house cleaning, or painting or writing.  Should I have been planning my time better? 

My journaling friends suggested we could be using time to:

“watch the sun go down,” …..or “take the time to help someone do a chore” or

“ take the time  to plan how to use your time better.”….or to take a few minutes to write  a memory of a specific time.”

Or should we just enjoy time as it comes to us?  That’s a good question.

However, I have decided to become a better planner of my time—to think ahead at least a month and  mark  activities on my calendar.  Now only time will tell.

Tick, tock!               


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Covid has reduced many of us to watching shoot-em-up Western Classics.

Except, many of them  keep being repeated on one channel and then another and another. So, now I know all the dialogue as well as knowing what’s coming in the plots. Or do I? Some westerns are so cut you do miss what’s coming next.  For example, I have come to love Rio Grande  c. 1935 (John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara).

About one-third into the film a group of soldiers gather to sing to John and Maureen the song, “Kathleen.”  I love that song! So you may catch this flick on another night on another channel and it’s gone. But that channel has commercials.  You had to cut somewhere to squeeze in that soap sale. 

Then there are the scripts.  In those days they must have been passed around. In one movie the script has  actor James Brown’s brother returning from prison to frame and  lure him into bank robbing again.  Then in a remake, I caught actor George Montgomery’s brother luring him into the same scheme.  The latter was the newer as actor Tab Hunter made an appearance. In that movie the brothers  surname was “Ringo.”  But the dialogue was barely changed.

Yes, you’ll also find that “Ringo” is often a first name such as in “Stage Coach” where John Wayne plays “Ringo.”And then you’ll find there is a “Ringo”in just about every Tombstone movie version made.  Another popular western name is Wyatt.  I think they put those names in westerns just to keep your attention.   

Does anyone name their sons (or daughters) those names any more? I wonder.

Masks Off

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Cautiously I have taken off my mask! So have most of my friends and acquaintances. I’m beginning to feel more comfortable with it off–but carrying one or two with me.

Now I miss being greeted by a Betty Boop or some piece of information I didn’t know about someone, such as their mask with a college emblem in the corner, a profession, favorite color or flower or that they liked butterflies, song birds or crabs. Or how patriotic they are wearing stripes and stars, the state flag or family crest. Then there were masks for all seasons. I liked the Christmas ones best. Tie-dyes, words and mottos, company IDs. Innovative, creative, I’ll say no more.

Hopefully this is the end and we can stop reading eyes.

Now, however, I can appreciate what some people in other countries have had to put up with where there has been or is fog, contaminated air from fumes or heavy smoke, some coal miners. Television sometimes has brought us scenes of people such as the Japanese, Chinese or other Far Eastern countries where masks are worn often. Or a volcano has erupted and masks are urged. And, I might say that in some countries women are required to wear veils that could be compared in a sense to masks. So although this may be the end for one phase, I hope it has not been a practice session for a time we too might have to wear a mask for other reasons. I think that is called “thinking proactive.”

Mister Umbrella Man Quiz

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Mister Umbrella Man, Stories About Inventions by Frances Altman

ISBN 13:978-0692400227           10:0692400222

“Mister Umbrella Man” is a collection of thirteen stories about inventions we all know! Some were invented by an individual. Others were the collaboration of several inventors or companies.  “Chef Potato Chip, “Doctor Peanut Butter” and “Balloons, Balloons” are among the true stories. Each is  given a fiction-like treatment  to allow the reader  to be beside the inventor as he brings his idea to a reality.   You may have already used or eaten one of these inventions.  But sadly the inventor’s name may long ago have been forgotten. 

            Teachers Discussion Guidelines

Grades  3-5

After reading  “Mister Umbrella Man,  Stories About Inventions”  use these questions to start a discussion with your students about the book .  (“Mister Umbrella Man, ” is available in paperback or Kindle,

Have you ever tried to invent something?  Was it a food item?  A toy or game? What kind of success did you have? 

In the Forward to “Mister Umbrella Man” the word “evolve” is explained.  What inventions in the book  “evolved” from similar inventions?  Think about products today that may have evolved from other products?

Have you ever played with a paperclip and twisted it into another similar product for holding paper together?  Could a piece of wire be twisted into a small key?

What kind of an attitude do you think an inventor should have?  Should he or she be curious?  Should the inventor be rich or poor?  How long should a person persevere before they give up?

Name several other characteristics that an inventor might need?

Was wearing their boots a good way for B.F. Goodrich Company  to test their boots?  What might be another way to test a new product or  invention?

“Mister Umbrella Man” describes inventions of earlier years.  Look around your home or school room and describe an invention that you may be using now, or recently obtained, or heard about.

Some of the inventions mentioned in the book appeared to be made for fun activities.  Name one or two.  Were they invented for fun or for other purposes?  

Whenever an inventor invents a new product, he/she applies to the government  for a “patent.”  What does a patent do for the inventor? 

Sometimes you may hear a person  call a product a “gadget” or a “gizmo?”  Do you think that is an appropriate name for  an invention? 

Inventors names are generally forgotten.  Why do you think that is?

Standing in Line

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The  first time I remember standing in line was back in the mid-1940s at the butcher shop in San Gabriel , CA  There was a postwar shortage then of some items.  So I stood in line to buy a pound of  bacon from our butcher and my Mom stood in the cigarette line for my Dad.  Of course, there was a milk line in elementary school and lots of cafeteria style food lines throughout my entire life or at  some educational event. I remember standing in line to pick up my cap and gown for graduation from Roosevelt University  two times.  And  on through the years I’ve stood in different kinds of lines and never thought much about it.  A couple of times even I sat in my car waiting in line for gasoline. I thank God that I have missed standing in line for bottled water or food.

Standing in line seems to be a part of the American culture, you might say.  Generally it is orderly. And next Thursday I’ll be going to the hospital to stand in line and get my second Covid shot.  When getting to the voting poles early in the morning—that generally means there’s a line.  Same with the grocery store but there you may have a choice to choose which line might turn out to be  the shorter.  Now, you probably have to stand on the floor signs a few feet apart and maybe speak loudly to your neighbor a few feet away.  I did choose not to stand in line for the Cabbage Patch Doll because I didn’t like its looks and I knew my daughter could live without it.   

I can think of two times in past years when standing in line became significant in my memory.  One was in Las Vegas at a National Food Writers Workshop.  I was standing in line with a colleague, Olga Carlisle, to pick up a ticket for a drawing.  We were sort of standing side by side talking, and when we came to the box to draw from, I motioned her ahead. She drew—yes, the winning ticket to a week at a Paris cooking school sponsored by the Mars Candy Company.  Another moment in time was at the International Food Exhibition in Chicago  to have  my photo taken with the late  country music singer, Kenny Rogers,  sponsored by Tropicana’s orange juice division.   He quickly put his arm around my shoulders,  and  said “Hi, how are you, darling” and the photographer handed me  a Polaroid picture.   The image of Kenny and me was still coming into focus as I stepped away.

I’ve never stood in line to shake hands with a politician. I do like book signings where an author usually expresses a sentence or two of appreciation for buying their book.  And, waiting a dozen or more times to buy a lottery ticket when millions of dollars lured me in.

Right now, Covid has taught me two things about standing in line.  I can get more satisfactlon from ordering on line.  And, how to practice patience.   But yes, standing in line will probably continue as part of our culture even as other things may change in our lives.        

Norm Swept Away

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“New Normal” is a new fast fading phrase that has joined our vocabulary. But when I look back over my own past personal forty years, I spot other times of “turning the page, ” as they now say, each time a new normal has begun,

“Downsizing” was a new word used for several years. And, I was in the middle of it. For fifteen years and more I had traveled the country as manager of the National Hot Dog and Sausae Council or for short was called “the Hot Dog Lady.” My public relations/marketing position was cut. Another comfortabale normal was as a adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond for seven years. A normal retirement followed.

Nor it’s time to change my attiude. I know turning the pages, and pages and pages is bringing me up to today. “Shelter in place.” Where did I hear that before–way back when I was in kindergarten in Los Aneles and we would do drills and hide under our desks in case bombs would fall. For a little while that was normal then. My best advice is don’t look back hunting for normal. Make your own. And, as they say in the Mindfulness Zoom class I visit, breath in and out and whisper: May I be safe, may I be happy, may I be healthy, may I be at peace. And, keep looking ahead! Normal seems to be a word that evolves into New Normal and then morphs into Normal again when we get used to the situation.