Sunday, September 22, 2013

Mirror, Mirror . . .

“Mirror, mirror on the wall who’s the fairest of them all?” Well apparently it’s not me. I realized this one morning as I sat across the kitchen table from my Dad. He looked up at me and said, “You need to get your hair cut today.” Wow! I thought, my Dad never says anything about someone’s outer appearance that is not complimentary; my hair must be REALLY bad.

 And so began the saga of my three-haircut week . . .

 I had just gotten my hair cut two days earlier and I thought it was looking pretty good.  The feud between me and my naturally curly hair has been a long-standing one. I can recall vividly being called “Brillo Pad” in sixth grade which set off the lifelong battle of the curls, well frizz really, in my hair. But truth be told, with the wisdom of my years I have pretty much stopped worrying or caring – that and the wonders of keratin have evened the battle field. So imagine my surprise when suddenly I cared very much what my hair looked like because my dad thought I needed a cut.

Since I was a thousand miles away from my stylist,  Deanna whom I adore, I went to my mom’s salon. Now here’s a tip – unless you are, yourself 80 years old, don’t get your hair cut by an 80 year old who only cuts the hair of his 80 year old clients. Seriously! I left the salon thinking that it wasn’t quite right but that when I got home and washed out the crazy amount of hair spray he’d put on my head, it would be better. It wasn’t.

Thank God my sister was home, and she promptly escorted me upstairs to the bathroom to see if she could fix it. It was like we were teenagers again locked in the bathroom with a variety of hair products in an epic battle against “The FRIZZ!” But even with the modern flat iron and smoothing/straightening products available to us today, it couldn’t be fixed. I could tell by the look on her face reflected in the mirror that hair spray overdose wasn’t the only problem.

Thankfully my sister is pretty smart and immediately looked at me and said, “Who do we know around here with good hair?” It only took a second for us both to shout, “Regina!” Now, Regina is my sister-in-law, and her hair is always perfect!  Within 10 minutes my brother had called Regina’s stylist and begged for an emergency appointment.

This is how it came to be that within 24 hours of my second hair cut in one week, I was on my way to a third appointment.  This was ridiculous, and I was having serious doubts - I mean really, who gets three haircuts in one week?! ?

As I walked into the salon, Regina’s stylist, Dean looked up and said, “You must be Martha.” Really? Was it that obvious? Perhaps I wasn’t being so vain after all. Beth and I laughed and sat down to wait for my turn. A woman waiting in the salon lobby looked at me and bluntly asked, “So did you cut your own hair?” WOW! This was, indeed, an emergency requiring serious crisis intervention.  I was not simply being vain.

I wish I could describe, or had asked Beth to video record the hair cut that rescued me. Dean wielded a holster full of tools with incredible speed and accuracy in a manner that simply looked like a dance. My sister and I sat stunned as he rescued my hair without having to shave my head and loan me a wig. It was truly amazing to be in the presence of a master craftsman in every sense of the term.

My dad, who was, himself, a master craftsman in life, passed away during the week of my three haircuts. I must say that if my dad had been alive to see the results of the third haircut, he probably wouldn’t have noticed or cared. Because really, in Dad’s world view, how important is hair? But I’m quite certain he would have loved to meet Dean. He would have admired his tool belt, and the mastery with which he used the tools of his trade. Dad had a great appreciation for a fellow artist.

I appreciated the fact that when I stood up to honor Dad at his memorial service the day after my third haircut, I didn’t give my hair a second thought. And now when I look at the family pictures taken that day, I’m thankful for a family honest enough to tell me that I needed an “extreme hair makeover”, and for a master craftsman named Dean.


 (c) 09.22.2013 Martha Reed Johnson


Sunday, September 8, 2013

Slow Learner

In today’s “micro-wave”, instant gratification, drive-thru culture it is very out of fashion to learn slowly. But truth be told, I am a slow learner. Thankfully, I had a slow teacher.

My dad had a rule in our family that said, “If you want to play a game, ask me and I will stop what I’m doing and play.” He stuck to that rule, even with five children who liked to play games. It is a small wonder that Dad accomplished anything other than playing games. He also had another rule: “I will never LET you win – you must LEARN to win.”  And believe me; Dad was hard to beat at any game. We have long thought that he had a close connection with the “game-gods”.

Learning to play chess, and play it well, has proven to be a life long journey. I started when I was six and Dad never let me win. The first time we played he had four pieces on the board while I had all of my pieces. He taught me how the pieces moved and a little bit about strategy. He beat me over and over again with his four pieces. Sometimes he would have his king, a bishop and two pawns other times he’d switch the bishop for a knight or a rook. But he always had only four pieces on the board until I could beat him with the four pieces. Then he would add two more, and then two more . . . you get the picture. This went on for hours, weeks and years of my childhood.

He also played with my brother Chris. I would watch them play for hours too. Chris was seven years older than me and had been playing much longer, so I got to watch “real” games. We never played with a timer. We just sat staring at the board contemplating our next move for as long as it would take. Dad always stuck with us.

Sometimes after I made a move Dad would say, “Are you sure about that one?” I’d stare at the board some more to determine whether or not I was sure. His asking didn’t necessarily mean that my move was wrong; he just wanted me to be decisive in my thinking and not second guess myself. So he’d challenge my thinking until I was certain I’d made the right move. Sometimes I was right and other times I was wrong, but either way I learned to stick to my answer and learn from my success or my mistake.

By the time I graduated from high school and went off to college I was finally playing Dad with all of his pieces on the board. I just couldn’t beat him. I found this incredibly frustrating! But in college I found Margie. She played chess, and we were more equally matched. We played a lot, and we each continued to get better. Sometimes she’d make a move and I’d ask, “Are you sure about that?” You see, I’d learned something from my dad along the way, and even my friends gained the benefit of his patient teaching, through me.

Christmas break of my sophomore year in college I arrived home and called out to my Dad, “Let’s play chess!”  He quickly picked up the board and asked, “How many pieces do I get?” I answered, “All of them.” He looked quite surprised as I set up the board.

I don’t remember how long the game took but I remember asking him a time or two, “Are you sure about that?” He laughed and said, “Yes. I am sure.” I then promptly beat him. I was 19 years old. It had only taken me 13 years to beat him with all of his pieces.

I wish I could say that I continued to beat him, but that would not be the truth. We continued to play for years until his Parkinson’s disease made it too difficult to manage the pieces. He beat me far more times than I beat him. I was a slow learner and he was a patient teacher.

So here is what I know from learning to play chess with Dad:

Being a slow learner is not a bad thing.
Think things through.
Plan your strategy.
Be decisive.
And if you’re wrong, learn from your mistake and try again.

Perhaps Dad’s rule to always play a game with his kids taught us more than just how to play a game.


© 09.08.2013 Martha Reed Johnson



Sunday, September 1, 2013

Loons & Lumber

A small one room cabin sits in the woods overlooking a small lake. It’s been there nearly 40 years. It’s two thousand miles away from me and yet if I simply close my eyes and take a deep breath I am there sitting on the dock watching the sky go from pink to purple listening to the songs of the loons signaling the end of another day. I am at peace.

There are few things in life that last. Life and people are always changing so when you have something that lasts it is a precious gift. Our cabin is a gift that came from the dream and vision of my father, the fortitude of my mother and the “child labor” efforts of my brothers, sister and me. 

We built our Nova Scotia cabin in 1974 and enjoyed it as a family each summer until we were all grown and gone from the nest of our nuclear family. Mom and Dad continued to spend summers there until 1994 when my father’s Parkinson’s disease made traveling to the remote cabin an impossibility.

Last week my sister visited the cabin and sent me a picture of the floor with a patch in it. She and I had put that floor down in 1975. I was eleven and she was nine. Tears streamed down my face as I looked at that picture and remembered sitting next to her banging away with our hammers as Dad brought us board after board to finish the floor. Dad is gone now, but the cabin, our floor and amazing memories remain.

The floor boards for the cabin were the only significant purchase made during the building of our cabin; all other materials for the cabin came from our land or were scavenged from a nearby dump.  In order to get the floor boards we had to sail across the lake and drive 20 miles to visit the lumber yard. Dad took his time selecting the kiln dried lumber for our floor and we loaded it into the back and on top of the station wagon. When we arrived back at the lake we loaded the lumber into the sailboat and our canoe and began the trip across the lake. Strangely enough, my father who was an avid and skilled sailor tipped the boat over and all the kiln dried lumber began to float away.

As a family we kicked into high gear and began swimming in all directions to gather the lumber and swim it across the lake. It was close to sunset as we dragged the last board ashore. The sounds of the loons that night sounded more like laughter than songs. Perhaps they watched us as much as we watched and listened to them. The next day we dragged the soaked boards up the hill to the cabin and began laying the boards in sunny spots outside the cabin. It took awhile but eventually we succeeded in gathering all the boards and setting them out to dry. I’m sure if there had been anyone else, other than the loons, watching us we would have been a sight to see. It’s a memory that still makes me laugh.

But today I wipe the tears from my face as I re-read my sister’s text message, “Our cabin still looks good, just a few holes in the floor that someone patched.” We don’t know who patched the holes, but we have always known that when we’re not there, the local people enjoy our cabin. They take good care of it and know that it is a cabin built with love, laughter and more than a few mishaps along the way. 

Love is like that – filled with mishaps, sometimes in need of patching but it lasts, leaves a legacy and spreads out farther than we can ever really know.
(c) 9.1.2013 Martha Reed Johnson   
Additional Nova Scotia Cabin Stories:
lake and floor photos by Ted Johnson (dad) 1975
cabin photo by Beth Adams (sis) 2013