Tag Archives: family photos

Did You Have a Birthday Party When You Were a Kid?

From my February prep and research for my book project Scrap:

I’ve been working with a scene about my sixth birthday party, and it occurred to me that such a staple of my childhood is a segue to certain aspects of the culture of the time period.  The post feels simplistic to me, but I’ve actually fretted over each detail here more than is probably warranted ;).

When I was a really little kid, in the late 50s and early 60s, the years were divided by Christmas.   Since my birthday is in July, that event broke up the boring rest of the year known to me as not-Christmas. 

I was an only child until I was well past seven, so my parents didn’t miss an opportunity to give me a birthday party.




In Kalamazoo, Michigan, where I grew up, we didn’t have parties in public places or restaurants, but in our own homes.

My parents had our parties in the living room, the basement, and out in the backyard, depending on the weather and my mom’s mood.

1959: my birthday in our living room

1959: my birthday party in our living room


Most of my birthday party guest lists were a combination of local relatives–my maternal grandparents, my mother’s younger sister, and her brother and his family—and the neighborhood kids.

I remember the beginning of one party where I let the other kids in the front door, one or two at a time.  They were rarely with adults.  After all, we were all neighborhood kids and we roamed at will.

The girls wore pastel chiffon layered party dresses with full skirts and petticoats. My own dress was pink with darker pink cherries on the chiffon overskirt.  I had fallen in love with the dress when I’d taken it out of the tissue paper Mom had it wrapped in, but now I was the only girl in a print dress.  That felt strange, but good, too.

A lot of my dress-up dresses were swishy or crackly fancy fabric, like chiffon, and were worn over a net petticoat.  Notice the bow sash on the back of the dress in the photo above; that sash was typical of my dresses.

Front view, fancy dress

When the boys got a little older they wore ties if they were friends.  Relatives did not.  Most of the boys wore their hair in some version of a crew cut, but most had practically shaved heads with a little bang left so you could tell if they were blond or dark-haired.  I don’t remember any minority kids ever attending because my neighborhood was all white.

Birthday picnic in the yard for relatives
Note my cousins’ butch-style crewcuts
and my tennis dress rather than a fancy dress

All the rage

All the rage

Did I mention that over those crew cuts and the girls’ short to medium length hair, we wore silly party hats?  See first photo above :).

Sometimes the party hats looked like upside down ice cream cones

Sometimes the party hats looked like upside down ice cream cones


Birthday party mintsfor table and party favor bags

Birthday party mints
for table and party favor bags

Flat sugar mints for bridal and baby showers

Mom served a birthday cake, which she had made herself.  Usually it was a layer cake, standard size.  Sometimes she made a sheet cake in a tin cake pan with a sliding lid for church potlucks.

If we served a meal, it was simple fare like hot dogs or Sloppy Joes and jello molds.

Mom bought little candles from the grocery store for the top, along with pre-made candy decorations and matching candle holders.  She served punch, mints, and peanuts.  The mints she served us were the small, less expensive mints.

For fancier goings-on, like baby showers, she served the flat sugar mints, which I liked to melt on my tongue.


Although my relatives did bring me modest gifts, I don’t remember gift opening being an important activity.  If the other kids brought anything, it would have been a simple toy like jacks or marbles or a jump rope.  I had no sense of expectation for gifts or a notion that there was anything in particular that I just had to have.




We liked to play games at parties.  They were typical, well-structured party games.  We didn’t have video games or watch movies or go bowling.  We played Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Donkey, balloons relays, memory games, and went on scavenger hunts when we were a little older.

Dad nailed a big poster of the donkey, sans tail, onto a piece of cork attached to the cement block wall in our basement.  Then we took turns being blindfolded with Dad’s bandanna and stumbled a few feet with our paper donkey tail, a thumb tack stuck through it.  The person who nailed the donkey’s rear end most accurately won the prize.

Poster and tails included

Poster and tails included

For balloon relays Dad and I had to blow up a zillion balloons before the kids got to the house.  Since I didn’t have very big lungs at that point, that meant that Dad had to generate a lot of air.  He’d get giddy and start acting silly from all the puffing into balloons.  Then he and I would roll around laughing.  The object was that teams tried to beat each other at popping the most balloons.

Once us kids were old enough to write, we would play memory games. Mom would line up some small household objects on a tray and we would have to memorize them and then write them down on a piece of paper from memory.

Sometimes Mom bought little party books.  Then we would play paper and pen games.  Does anyone remember those books?  Was it one book with several pages for each game–where you tore out the pages and passed them around?  Or did each guest get a book?

What was important is that every game would net a winner, and the winner would get a prize.  The prize was never expensive, but it was something  to take home.  Each guest was given a paper party favor bag with about ten mints, ten peanuts, a sucker, and one noisemaker.  If you won a prize, you got to add that item to your party bag.

The prizes were toys like these:

Party prizes or costumes for a themed party

Party prizes or costumes for a themed party

Party prizes

Party prizes

And what was almost as much fun was getting an invitation to somebody else’s party:


WRITING PROMPT: Write about a party held in your honor or that you threw for someone else.  Start with the planning and preparation. What was most memorable?  Then move on to the party itself.  During or afterward, did you still think the same elements were important?  If there was a change in your thinking did it affect your decision to have a party in the future or what kind of party you want or even the emphasis you placed in the party planning?


Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing prompt

What Were My People Like?

I put a page on here  (see tab at the top of this page) which links to my genealogy blog.  A year ago I barely knew what a blog was, and now I have three blogs (with ideas for more–slap me, please).   The third blog was actually the first one–it’s about adoption and I write it with my daughter.  I had so much fun, I decided to keep going.

Back to the genealogy blog.  Long before I had kids (both of them were adopted), I was interested in family history and genealogy.  For a while I worked on a master’s degree in history, specializing in just that subject.  That’s before I gained/lost my senses and switched over to creative writing and English.  So while genealogy is a strange subject for someone with kids and a brother who were adopted, it’s something I’ve long been interested in.  Because of my interest, family members have told me stories and given me memorabilia.  I feel a great responsibility for this trust.

If you’re also into this subject, or if you just want to see what kind of weird family created me ;), check out my mother’s Dutch ancestors at The Family Kalamazoo.

I keep the focus on the DeKorn and Zuidweg families of southwestern Michigan. On this site, I share old photographs (100 years old), many taken by family photographer Joseph DeKorn.

Flooding at the Water Works Bridge in Kalamazoo, March 26, 1904. That spring, the water got 6″ higher than the photo shows.

I also have many other old photos and artifacts from the family.

Years ago, my grandfather Adrian Zuidweg shared a portion of the collection with Western Michigan University‘s Archives and Regional History Collections. A larger portion is not at the archives, and my goal is to share the rest of the collection on this blog.

At the lake

At the lake

The lives of my family members revolved around their families, small businesses (such as retail and construction), and the many lakes of the Kalamazoo area.


Filed under Memoir

Today’s reblog remembers my cousin Leah who I will always miss.

Luanne Castle's Writer Site

This poem features my dad’s Sunfish sailboat, which we sailed on our little lake in the 60s and early 70s.

Dad bought it used, but only gently so.  We put more miles on that boat in the first summer than it had accumulated with its previous owner.  Dad and I were calm and talked little when we sailed together.  When my best friend and I took it out our goal was to sail past the docks of the boys with the big motorboats.  It was when my cousin Leah came from Chicago to visit that the boat’s potential for capsizing was realized.


“Underwater Sisters” was published by Prairie Wolf Press Review in their Fall 2010 issue.

Underwater Sisters

You wanted to switch places with my brother.

I told you how bored you’d be in Michigan,

that we can’t bottle fireflies on July nights,

have to go to  bed during…

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Poetry

I’m sort of on a kind of partial hiatus this week, so I am re-blogging my very first Writer Site blog post. Have a mindful day and be sure to notice people’s faces :).

Luanne Castle's Writer Site

A face reflects differently under each new light.  It seems to me that faces are holograms.  To compare them with still photos or even other faces is a futile task.  One day I look like one relative and my mother like a relative from another branch of the family.  The next day someone will see my mother’s face in mine, although I look nothing like her aunt who seems to have cloned Mom.

Certain people think I am the female image of my father who, with his vaguely southern European looks, could never be confused with my mother’s Dutch relatives.

I didn’t start to think about faces and relationships until a day in 1976 when my grandparents entered the front door of my father’s store and I wandered up from the backroom to greet them.

Grandpa approached the glass case of men’s leather goods.  “Here ta get me a wallet,”…

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Memoir writing theory

New Year’s Eve with My Dad

Although I rarely go to New Year’s Eve parties any more (cue: one big whine and then a hefty sigh of relief), when I was growing up NYE always meant parties.  My parents went to one or hosted one every year.

In the sixties, my parents held their parties in the basement of our house.  Mom draped a paper tablecloth over the ping-pong table and Dad stocked the bar he’d built in the corner.  He set up table games and placed ashtrays on every available surface.  When he dragged out the box with the hats and noisemakers and boas I scrambled to help.  My favorite was the noisemaker blow out.  When I blew on the pipe end, the little roll of paper unfurled with a sputtery raspberry.  The tin drums which spun on wind-up stems sounded a raucous blare, so Dad would grab one of those and twirl it.

In the kitchen, my mother made canapés and Chex Mix.  She refrigerated 7-Up and washed the “frosted” highball glasses. Gold leaves, which I was sure were 24k gold leaf, decorated the crystal.

These plastic clips identified which drink to refill: rum and Coke, Seven and Seven, etc.

These plastic clips identified which drink to refill: Rum-and-Coke, Seven-and-seven, Gin-and-tonic, Scotch-and-soda.

I’m not saying I was a snoop, but I could hear everything.  I could even see a flash of the neighbor’s shiny bald head or Dad’s hand dealing cards through the register in the floor right near my bed.  I sat on the floor for hours with my legs cramped up underneath me.

While I didn’t hear anything of particular interest, the social interactions between the adults—their jokes, the vibrations in their voices, the sudden bursts of laughter– kept me straining my hearing.  Dad’s loud, excited voice rose above the others.  Everyone else faded into a background buzz in comparison with him.  Dad was the life of the party.

For his 80th birthday I made him a video of his life, and when Dad saw himself on video, he said, “I didn’t know I was so obnoxious!”  I had to laugh to myself at that because it isn’t as if nobody has told him that over the years.  Mostly, though, his enthusiasm for having a good time has been infectious.  At eighty-four he still likes to stir things up.  I suspect he’ll be wearing a hat and sounding his noisemaker at midnight tonight in Michigan.

Dad is ready for the party!

Dad is ready for the party!

I live in the Southwest, but I almost wish I could be there, listening through the register.


Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir

A Christmas Photo: 1959


In this photo, which was taken in my grandparents’ living room,  I am four (almost 4 1/2).  It is marked with the year 1958, but I believe it must be 1959 because a photo professionally printed with 1958 has my hair shorter.  Also, my darker-haired cousin in this photo is a sitting-up baby, and he was born in December 1958.  This goes to show that it’s important to be careful about assuming that notations on photos are correct, even if the handwriting looks old.

My pretty mother has her eyes closed from the big flash, and I am standing with an opened gift in my hands.  I look a bit overwhelmed from the excitement and the unwinding of anticipation.  My aunt is smiling at me and Grandpa looks at the photographer.  The little boys are my uncle’s two oldest children–the youngest had not yet been born and neither had my brother.  My aunt was still young and unmarried, a college student.

The photo details trigger memories.  Since Grandma watched me while my parents worked (Grandma and the Purple People Eaters), this living room was very familiar to me.  Note the television with family portraits on top.  That’s the TV I watched Grandma’s soap opera with her on week days.  A chair had been moved out to make room for the Christmas tree.  My aunt and I had helped trim it.  Tinsel strands had escaped from the tree and ground into Grandma’s hooked area rug.  I liked to pick them up individually and run my fingers together down the smooth surface.

I could smell dinner in the kitchen.  Ham and Grandma’s special roast beef.  If only I hadn’t eaten so many sugar cookie snowmen decorated with little silver ball bearings and sprinkles.  Grandma and I had made those two days before. She rolled the dough and I cut out the shapes.  When they came out of the oven, I ate all the misshapen pieces.

Without the photo I wouldn’t remember specifics.  I treasure the memories accessible through all my old photos and am grateful that I have them to look at whenever I wish.  I have deep sympathy for those who have lost their mementos in disasters like Hurricane Sandy.  My deepest sympathy and my prayers are with those who have lost their loved ones and only have the photos and memories left.


If you wish to help the survivors of Sandy Hook, Newtown, this article lists some good ideas.


Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir

Grandma and the Purple People Eaters

When I was little I stayed with my grandmother during the day while my parents were at work.  It was just Grandma and me at the house.   Grandpa worked down the block, at his Sunoco filling station.  Every day at noon, Grandma and I brought his lunch to him.  He’d climb up out of the pit where he worked under cars and smile when he saw us with his gray lunch box.

Sometimes I played with the girl up the street and other days I’d pick through the toys and books left behind in their bedrooms upstairs by my mother, Aunt Alice, and Uncle Don.  I found a giant printing set, a potholder loom and loops, and a collection of miniature furniture and animals.  In my aunt’s room, I read my first chapter book, The Bobbsey Twins.   Grandma and I fried donuts and sugared strawberries.  We sang Ethel Merman songs like “Anything You Can Do.”  I could always manage to sing louder and higher than Grandma.

Any note you can reach
I can go higher.
I can sing anything
Higher than you.
No, you can’t. (High)
Yes, I can. (Higher) No, you can’t. (Higher)
Yes, I CAN! (Highest)

Occasionally, we walked “uptown” to the bank, passing the thrift store, which fascinated me. I thought it was a combination antique store and fine dress shop.  Also en route was the home of the Purple People Eaters.  My overweight, matronly grandmother sang the song and danced right there on the sidewalk for me.  It was years before I realized the building was actually a dry cleaning establishment, painted purple.

Grandma carried the filling station’s bank deposit bag in her big pocketbook, which also held mints and pennies for me.   We stopped at the florist to say hi to some relatives and at the bakery for sugar cookies.

With all the fun Grandma orchestrated, I still got bored one time.  I was in “that mood,” the one where it seems that all is wrong with the world.  Grandma knew how to handle the situation.  She put me in an old work shirt of Grandpa’s and handed me a paint brush.

“Come outside,” she said.  On the back stoop, she’d placed an old wooden child’s chair on a spread-out newspaper. “Go to town, Luanne,” she said.  I worked hard for a long time, painting that chair, which seemed so big

When my mother picked me up after work that day, she laughed.  “Mom, you had her do the same thing you made Don do to keep him busy!”  Even today when I feel “at odds,” this example keeps me working, moving forward through the doldrums.

Grandma did her chores while I was at her house.  She cooked and baked and ran errands, which were all on foot or by bus, as she didn’t drive.  I helped her and learned at her elbow.  She ironed my parents’ clothes, too, while I played at the kitchen table and sang with her.   She didn’t waste our time cleaning too much, but everything else got done—and done well.

She devoted a half hour to herself every day, watching As the World Turns while I “napped” beside her on the couch.

Mostly, though, Grandma doted on me and made sure I could learn and use my imagination.  She sat me on her lap and told me stories “from her head.” Her attention wasn’t fragmented by a cell phone or computer.  She limited her telephone and TV usage.  She was completely there in the moment with me each day.

Can we say the same today for our children and grandchildren and the children we babysit?


Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir


When I was ten, my father planted a Purple Leaf Plum twig in our backyard on Crockett Street. The roots fit in a coffee can. This plum sprig and I were the same height.

At least once a year, for five years, he took a photo of me standing next to the tree. The tree grew much more rapidly than I did. In some photos the tree was leafless, like an upside down rake, in others, the tension in its burgundy leaves apparent, and in at least one, the tree was in full pinkish-white bloom, the only beauty in our backyard.

Next to it, I looked unkempt, my bangs far too long, my hair shiny with oil, and raggedy clothes picked out of my costume trunk. Underneath these superficialities, the face was too thin which made the eyes and nose and mouth look overlarge and vulnerable–the face of a young teen trying to decide in which direction to run.

The plum tree stood in the center of our backyard because it needed full sunlight. After a heavy rainstorm, the tree’s branches hung to the ground in despair from the beating. I lifted the branches up off the wet grass. Next day the branches were directed skyward again.

We moved away from Crockett Street the summer before I entered tenth grade. Since it was in the backyard, I never saw the tree again. It now belonged to someone else. They say plum trees only live a generation or so, but sometimes a new trunk grows up next to the original and takes over, keeps on living. I like to think that’s what happened with our plum tree.

I don’t have the photos of me standing by the tree–only the memory and this one picture of my mother sitting in a lawn chair in front of the tree.


Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir

A Ride with Memory

I have a box of old photographs my grandfather gave me before he died.  They are family portraits and snapshots dating from about 1890 to 1920.  We sat in his living room and wrote names on the ones he could identify.  Dozens of other photographs bear family resemblances, but they remain nameless and can’t assume their positions on the family tree.

My own mind houses memories in the same way.  Many of my memories bear a resemblance to my life and my relationships, and while minute details might be clear, the facts are hazy or forgotten, perhaps unrecoverable.  A memory illustrated by vivid details and accompanied by still-present emotion began on Trimble Street, in front of the next door neighbor’s house.  I was two, almost three.

Mrs. Becker babysat me for my parents that day; she let her girls watch me outside.  The day felt sun-warmed, with a slight cooling breeze rustling through my play clothes.  The oldest girl, Donna, and a teenage boy were the ringleaders of the group.  She wasn’t yet in high school and didn’t have her later characteristic beehive hairdo.

Her younger sisters, Susie and Denise were with us.  All the children ringed a brown horse standing in the street looking very out-of-place.  From my perspective down near the sidewalk, the horse looked like a city square equestrian statue—massive, gigantic, forbidding.  Perhaps the boy had ridden the horse to our street.  Donna turned to me, kneeled down to my level, and said, “How would you like to go for a ride?”

I shivered, though the sun shone down on my clover honey hair.  “No,” I said.

“Oh, come on,” said Susie.

“No!” I backed away.

“Honey, there’s no need to be afraid,” Donna said.  She scooped me up and plunked me down on the saddle positioned across the back of the horse.  From this height I looked down at the tall teenagers, feeling dizzyingly and irrevocably beyond their reach.

“Put me down,” I said.

The teens giggled and chattered.  Suddenly I heard a loud SMACK, and the horse bolted forward.  I swayed backwards for a moment and then righted myself by grabbing hold of the saddle horn sitting in front of me.  The horse trotted up Trimble Street.  We left the teens behind, just the determined horse and me.   The breeze flew through my flimsy hair.  I held onto the horn with every muscle I could harness to the aid of my hands.  Both my hands and feet tingled and turned numb.  My thoughts condensed into one little pinhole: stop stop stop!  I couldn’t tell the horse to stop because the pinhole only allowed that one thought; I was beyond the power of speech.

The horse trotted up to busy Gull Road, a main artery without sidewalks, where he turned right.  I expected to fall off his back into the path of an uncaring automobile.   I clung on.  He carried me swiftly to Henson Street where he took another right, and then onto Junction and back to Trimble Street.  My powerful hands, drained of blood, were my only compensation for the utter loss of control I felt.

When he trotted to the front of the Becker house, the horse stopped short.   I rocked again and almost tumbled.  The teens laughed, and Donna’s friend tried to lift me off the horse, but my hands would not unclamp from the saddle horn.  I realized then I had been crying; my cheeks, soaked with tears, seem to burn as if the saltwater seared the tender skin.

I couldn’t speak, not even that night when I saw my parents.  All these years later, the details vibrate within me, but I’m missing one fact: I can’t be certain if the horse existed or came to me in a dream.

With my mother and the two younger sisters from next door

The names have been changed to protect people who may or may not have participated in this act of baby abuse.

Are you sure of your memories?  Do you have any like this one, where you aren’t sure if it really happened or if you dreamed it?  How do you handle a hitch like that in writing creative nonfiction?


Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Memoir writing theory

Lake Erie

by guest blogger Wilma Kahn

When I was small, the lake was an omnipresent feature in my life. Large, too large to see it all, it curved into the horizon, so we could view but one small portion of the enormous sloshing drop. Held in the embrace of fragile fingers of land lay tons of water, gallons of waves.

I early developed the notion that I was part of the lake or it a part of me.  I have retained this feeling; and in fact, it has generalized to any large body of water—lake or sea. And I doubt that I am the only person who looks at Lake Michigan’s miraculous blue or the great grey Atlantic and says, “Mine.”

But back to my special lake, the dour, the grey-green, the shallow, the cloud-shrouded Erie.  Lake Erie’s rocks are granite, quartz, and shale; its shells, snail and clam. Its sand is taupe, soft, nonabrasive; its bottom sand or clay; its seaweed velvety green, swaying in the rhythm of the waves.

How did I spend hours and hours outside as a child, fair with reddish hair, without being burned by the sun? Was it the Lake Erie clouds? Or that most of the time I romped in the waves, a freshwater dolphin, a creature of sea? I jumped through the swells in arc after arc, or swam underwater, eyes open, blowing a fine stream of bubbles through my nose and tickling the legs of my friends. We stood on our hands, wheeled through the blue, grabbed gobs of sand, threw them, or let them melt from our hands. We crawled back onto land only after our fingertips had shriveled and our lips turned blue. But on land we shivered and felt heavy as rocks, no longer warmed and buoyed by the lake.

The shore changed each year, sometimes shallow, sometimes deep, sometimes rock, sometimes sand, sometimes clay. In years of clay, we children became potters, digging up the dark residue of prehistoric plants, rubbing it on our arms and legs, attracting snapping horseflies. We fashioned cups and bowls and ashtrays for our parents, those huge indolent creatures who sat and smoked while we made art and slapped flies.

Sometimes we built cities of sand along the shore, with houses, roads, bridges, and moats.  Any house could have a pool—dig a few inches and the lake would well up, cool and pure. Stones, reeds, driftwood, sea glass, all lay close at hand for each architect’s use. I know the feel of hand smoothing sand, from crude heap to finished city. And at night, the tide would reclaim it all, suck it—sand, stick, and stone—into the watery matrix, roll it around, and spread it along the shore.


Do you consider the place where you grew up a source–or the source–of your creativity?

Aerial view of Grand View Beach on Lake Erie

Wilma Kahn is a writer and writing teacher living in Southwest Michigan. She’s a water baby at heart.


Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir