What Happened to That Girl?

It was Tuesday.  At 11:00am. In my kitchen.  I was standing over the sink, lamenting the countless water spots that littered my stainless steel sink.  With absolutely no hesitation, I reached under that sink, pulled out my Weiman’s Stainless Steel Cleaner and Polish plus two fresh reusable, recyclable dishrags and began to earnestly polish that puppy.  In no time, the sink was more shiny than glitter in the sun.  Job finished . . .But then my eyes caught something else . . .  those pesky streaks stretched across an otherwise clean and uncluttered countertop. I began to pull out the homemade vinegar/water spray bottle solution and more dishrags, when I just stopped.  I just froze.  I stood.  I stared.

And at that moment . . . the light went on and time seemed to be moving backwards.  It was as if the bulb not only was turned on, but had somehow maxed out its ability to shed one more ounce of  light.  There I was, in the kitchen, holding my Weiman’s, at age 61 and 1/2, looking at a glistening kitchen, recognizing that I had successfully and honestly turned into my mother.  I was Izzy.  It finally happened.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I love my mother, God rest her soul.  She was everything to me.  A great, great mother.  A great mother.  And I miss her dearly. And Isabelle Washford Greiner spent a large chunk of her life . . . in the kitchen.

The kitchen happened to be in the center of my childhood house, and was on the small side.  In that crazy tiny kitchen, she cooked up a storm in there, clinking and clambering those pots and pans until she produced a meal.  And as the family finished eating, Isabelle would be cleaning that kitchen with the gusto of a race horse in first place headed for the finish line. Tidy in and tidy out, morning, noon, and night, each and every day.   And now, I was doing the very same thing, in much the same way, as my mom had long ago done.  Holy transformation, Batman!

Really – as a youngster, no one accused me of being neat and tidy.  In fact, I was just the opposite.  My clothes never saw a closet they liked.  My bedroom floor was too littered with junk, trash, and other assorted sundries to ever be seen.  Pencils, pens, paper, books, dishes, laundry, etc. were piled high. I am sure that even bugs detested the quality of life in my room and scampered away. But, I was one happy camper there.

My mother’s kitchen was perfection.  My room was beyond a catastrophic failure.

And all I could think was . . .What happened to that girl?

I looked at my kitchen at that moment and began to think way more deeply than I expected.

What happened to that girl who was so sure that she could solve poverty . . . eliminate hunger . . . end war?  What happened to that girl who protested for change . . .participated in every sit-in in the near metro vicinity . . . fought for social justice.  What happened to that girl who listened to hard rock music full blast, wore clothes that represented the meaning of the 70s, jumped off cliffs, slid down mountains, and in general approached life by taking risks without ever thinking about potential consequences?

What happened to that girl?

Never in my wildest dreams in my youth did I ever think I would own a kitchen, let alone have one with granite, stainless steel, hardwood, and recycled crown moulding. I had no idea that I would be married for forty years, have four children, and spend a lifetime working in education. I had no idea that  there would be so many twists and turns to my life and that there would be so many choices to make in so such a short amount of time.

What happened to this girl was the same thing that happened to my mom.

We grew up.

And in growing up, we both learned similar lessons in very different generations.

I have learned that world change comes slow.  I may want it to be faster than the speed of lightening and more powerful than a locomotive, but it still comes slow.  I have learned that fights worth fighting won’t fall off my radar.  I’m still out there doing my part for poverty, hunger, and war.  I’m just not as dramatic or over-the-top about it.

I have learned that there are ways to protest beyond carrying a handprinted sign and marching through the streets, that sometimes what we don’t say or do is much more powerful than too many words and too much action.  I have learned to love more than one category of music and one type of apparel.  Luke Bryan and flannel shirts are my friends.

And finally, I have learned that it is very important for all of us to continue to take risks, every day . . . in every way. Growing up doesn’t mean settling. Not at all. Today, I may be unable to jump off roofs or ride a bike with no hands or backflip off the trampoline into the swimming pool, but I can still be a risk-taker.

We can step forward even when it is uncomfortable.  We can work for those who can’t work for themselves.  We can walk on the edge of life and feel that wind on our backs.  And we can spend everyday anxiously anticipating the next adventure that lurks around the corner.

My phrase can’t be “What happened to that girl?”  It must be “The ride of her life is going to happen to that girl.”  Let the crazy fun continue.

deb hutti

Waving on the ride of my life



Why is the ocean salty?

A couple of evenings ago, my younger brother sent me a question via a text and I immediately knew the answer to what he was asking. “Why”, he asked, “is the ocean salty?” I didn’t know his whereabouts, nor did I know why he had picked this moment to ask me that question, but I knew what he wanted. I was positive that he didn’t want me to head to Google to find a true and correct scientific reason why the ocean is salty.

I was curious, however. I wanted to know whether he was in the middle of a family discussion about poverty versus wealth or in a discussion about what should be the wishes in our lives. I wanted to know if he was looking for a way to convey a message about empathy, about selflessness or maybe hunger. Still, I didn’t ask the circumstance of his request. It really wasn’t important to know his reason for asking. It was more important for me to respond.

He and I, along with three other brothers and one sister, grew up with an array of folks moving in and out of our family home. Grandparents, cousins, aunts, friends came and went. And these individuals brought with them all types of fascinating personalities, interesting behaviors, and memorable moments. Oddly enough, one strength they all had – (as if it were an unwritten requirement of my parents to move into the house) – was the ability to tell a story. And in particular, it was my Grandma Polly who did so with regularity, precision, and looking back on it, perfection.

She told her stories at very unusual moments – while helping us dry the dishes, while playing card games with us, while walking to church, while waiting in line by the sink to brush our teeth – mainly while we were a captive audience. And she told the same stories over and over and over – so much so that most of us know them by the funky names we assigned to them. So when my brother asked me if I knew why the ocean was salty, I did. It was one of my grandmother’s most famous and most favorite stories.

What I did learn from his question and my later answer, however, was that storytelling isn’t a lost art, a thing of the past. In fact, with all the technology the world offers us today, storytelling is most likely in its golden era. People can tell stories using blogs, through email, by telephone or video, in print, via the U.S. mail, and, of course, in person. Storytelling can convey those unwritten and complicated rules of life in a simple, unassuming, and understandable fashion. It’s easy. It’s simple. And for some reason, storytelling has the uncanny ability to leave an indelible impression on the listeners. I know it did for me.

So, without hesitation, I began to text the story back to my brother – in fifty character segments:

A long time ago, before the world was known, there was an old woman who was hungry and poor.

She came upon a family who had everything they needed and wanted. She asked them for food and drink to save her life.

They looked at her, sneered and said, “Old woman, why should we help you? What can you do for us?”

She said, “I am old and poor, but I still have a favor, a wish, remaining that I received many years ago from the wise king and queen of my village. I have saved this last wish and I can give it to you.”

They laughed at her and said, “If you have a wish remaining, then why don’t you wish for food and drink for yourself?”

She lowered her head and whispered, “Wishes are never meant to be used to save yourself. They are meant to be used to help others. So I would never wish for something for me.”

“Well”, the family who had everything said in unison, “Then use your wish for us. We would be happy to take your wish for something we want. In return, here is just enough food and drink for you to live.”

So the tired and starving old woman traded her last wish for food and drink; and, she lived a long and productive life for she had learned to share what she had and to be generous and selfless in her actions.

While eating their own supper, the wealthy family talked about the many ways they could use their wish. They could wish for more gold, for more land, and for more possessions. The choices were many.

As the eldest took a bite of the meal of many meats and vegetables their servants had prepared, he pushed back his chair and bellowed a most unhappy sound.

“Bah!” he exclaimed. “This meat may be plenty, but it has poor taste. It has no seasoning, no salt. We need to punish those who prepared it.” And without thinking, he added, “I wish for more salt.”

At that instant, there appeared a salt mill on the banquet table in front of him. Though tiny, it was mighty and it kept grinding and grinding and grinding salt, never ever stopping.

Suddenly, the wealthy family realized that they had used their wish; and, all they were receiving was an endless supply of salt. No gold. No land. No possessions.

They beckoned for the old woman and said, “We order you to make it stop. Make it stop now. And return our wish to us immediately!”

The old woman shook her head as she gazed at the wealthy family. “I am sorry,” she said, “but your wish has been granted. There is nothing I can do. The salt will be a reminder to you that when you wish for something, make sure it is used for the benefit of others and not just for yourself.”

The wealthy family was so angry that they took the salt mill and threw it into the ocean, where it has kept grinding for centuries. To this day, it reminds us to always think of others before ourselves.

That is why the ocean is salty.Salty Ocean (1 of 1)


In the Days of the Giants

I can close my eyes, right now, and see her – a petite woman, no more than five feet  – (and that is giving her a couple inches) –  wearing a long handmade mini-print belted dress followed by those crazy-heavy black front tie granny shoes, her round rimmed glasses tipped on her nose, a Kleenex stuffed slightly up her sleeve, and a wrinkled white apron tied promptly around her waist at all times. In her side pocket, she carried hard candy, the key to her house, and at all times a worn silver rosary.  She spoke English, most of the time, but would fall to German when necessary.   She wasn’t quick to smile, but definitely was hard to anger.  Her grey hair was always cropped neatly, and the only piece of jewelry she sported was a simple gold wedding band.  She was a woman of great faith, hard work, humble means, and sensible actions.

Like all grandmothers, she had habits and quirks that fascinated me.  She owned a parakeet named Perky; and, if she travelled, Perky travelled with her.   She hid money – cash – throughout her modest home . . . ten-dollar bills in the hems of the curtains, a handful of coins in her button jar, enough money for a house payment behind the round picture of the Blessed Mary,  frozen money in the not-so-hidden ice-cube trays in the back of the freezer, a jar of dollars in the tree stump.  Plus, she only and always wore dresses.  Pants were just a no-no.  And every night she drank a short glass of whiskey, followed by praying the rosary, in Latin.

She loved me and I knew it, but not because she told me.

I stayed summers with her and she made me a pie a day . . . any kind, all I had to do was ask – chocolate, peanut butter, rhubarb, marshmallow, peach, raisin, ice cream, potato – everyday a new pie. She taught me how to make bread.  I always failed, but she always ate it.  We played euchre together each and every evening, keeping a running tab on who was winning and who was losing – for years.  She cried with me when I was sad, and laughed with me when I was happy.  Coddling wasn’t exactly in her vocabulary, but raking a yard, hanging laundry, or burning the trash pile with her didn’t seem like work.  It was purposeful fun . . . time well spent.

Her name was Pauline, but her family called her Polly.  She, herself, had countless sisters and several brothers, all living in a little town in Illinois.  Her own three children, two girls and one boy, were spread across the United States with my family being the closest in proximity to her at all times.  To me, she was the grandmother of all grandmothers – the perfect multi-generational companion for me and my brothers and sister.

She has been gone from this earth for many years now, and I used to wonder why I thought about her as often as I do.  It took me awhile, but it finally came to me.  In fact, I realize now that it really isn’t that hard to understand.  It really isn’t.    Simply put, Polly was a giant, living in the days of the giants.  And even though I wasn’t a quick learner, she was great at modeling.  Eventually she knew that I knew what she wanted me to know.  It just took awhile.

From her, I know that it isn’t money that makes people happy.  She didn’t have much if any, and was happy just to be fishing on a Friday night with me and half of her family at the local riverside – sometimes catching nothing, but always having fun.

From her, I know that faith can bring comfort.  I wouldn’t describe her as a god-fearing woman, but I would say that she was deeply religious.  She pondered through all of her challenges with prayer, (usually in another language), and somehow she seemed to navigate of all her troubles.

From her, I know that quiet is just as good as noisy.  One thousand words was a life time of conversation for her. I can still hear her say, “Too much talk, too little work.”  She, herself, didn’t have to communicate via speech, a talent that still impresses me. I knew what she wanted to tell me without her ever having to speak a word.

From her, I know the definition of giving.  I watched a woman whose belongings could literally fit into two suitcases, give anything she owned to anyone who asked.  That’s why her belongings fit into two suitcases.

From her, I know how to manage money.  It is simply a matter of saving it – in cans, jars, boxes, purses, curtains, trays, trees, sleeves, and banks.  She never bought something she didn’t need, and never really seemed to need anything.  But if she did, she dug up the can and paid for it in cash.  Her joy came not from buying whatever she needed, but from the journey that it took her to get to the point of purchase.

From her, I know how to be thrifty.  Can it if you can.  Freeze the rest.  Holes can be darned.  Dresses and shoes can be remade and salvaged with a little thread, leather and ingenuity.  Water comes out of a tap, walking is cheaper than driving, and one hundred found pennies can buy a dollar’s worth of anything.  There was never a glass jar that saw the bottom of the trash can in her house.  Who needs Tupperware when a used Vlasic pickle jar was available?

And from her, I know about joy.  She characterized her life, as hard as it might have been – as a young teen from a dirt-poor immigrant farm family, living through World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II –   as joyful.  All stories that I heard ended with some type of quote that was meant to direct me to always see the best in the world because she did.

Well, Polly, all I can say is lessons learned.

Pauline Washford

Grandma Polly 1957