Why our car is smoking hot

Our latest car repair put a $1200 dent in our budget. Adding insult to injury, when the husband picked up the car, he opened the door to smell it reeked of cigarette smoke. The console, seats and floors were littered with cigarillo butts, ashes, cracker crumbs and debris.

He asked the manager what happened, and the manager said, “I thought you brought it in like that.”

Truth is, the vehicle was in sorry shape a few weeks ago when we took three grands to visit our son’s brood in the country. They left dirt, mud, sticks, rocks, and even a few chicken feathers in the car.

But there was no smoking—unless they’re putting cigarettes in Happy Meals these days and three little girls were blowing smoke out the back windows.

We cleaned it all out the next day. In my book, happiness is a clean car – probably because our two cars have 100,000 and 200,000 miles on them, and a clean car feels like a new car. We hope to fool ourselves for another 50,000 miles.

The husband was adamant that we dropped off a clean car.

Turns out the repair shop neglected to lock the car overnight and a homeless person took shelter from the rain and the cold. I’ve often wondered where the homeless we see in the area shelter in the biting cold. Now we know. It must have seemed like incredibly good fortune to find an unlocked car.

The smell of smoke and homelessness now permeates the vehicle. Though the shop manager paid to have it detail cleaned, smoke is a stubborn smell to eliminate.

The car smells like a noxious air freshener fused with a chain smoker doused in cheap aftershave. Marlboro meets mint.

The car is sitting in our driveway, windows down, doors hanging open and the back liftgate up. We bring class to the neighborhood.

After viewing the shop’s security camera tapes, the manager found our overnight guest. Tall. Skinny. Early 60s. Female. He said she’s a regular at a nearby strip mall, comes in his shop about once a month, grabs a coffee and talks to herself.  She left a jacket and box of saltines in the car. She’s probably not even aware of that.

You can’t get mad at someone who is wet and cold, incoherent, and lives on cigarettes and crackers.

You can’t get mad at a shop owner who made good on a bad situation, although you might like a word with whoever was supposed to lock the cars left overnight in their lot.

Happiness isn’t really just a clean car. Happiness is having a safe and comfortable place to sleep, food on the table and not being in dire need of mental health care.

The smell in the car is gradually going away; tragically on every count, the problem of homelessness is not.


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No longer swept up in a cleaning frenzy

Cleaning the house once a week is part of my DNA from my mother’s side. She cleaned once a week, her mother cleaned once a week, and I have always cleaned once a week.

We’re talking thorough cleaning: toilets, tubs, showers, bathroom sinks, kitchen sink, countertops, appliance fronts, dusting, windexing (that’s a verb for my people), vacuuming, sweeping, emptying trash cans, shaking throw rugs and wet mopping floors.

Clean on Saturday and collapse on Sunday.

My husband came from a more casual line of DNA. My mother-in-law, bless her sweet, sweet heart, was of the “pile it higher and deeper” method, along with the “don’t throw that away, we might need it someday” line of genetics.

My better half’s approach is: Wait.

Wait until the sink is full. Wait until the countertop is covered. Wait until the laundry basket overflows. Wait until you can see a thick covering of dust on a flat surface—then take your finger and write, “Send help!”

Our first argument as newlyweds was about cleaning the house. He said if we cleaned once a week, we would wear out the furniture.

To which I said, “I’ll dust; you vacuum.”

To which he said, “Right after the game.”

Now I’m thinking of amending the thorough cleaning once a week. Who am I kidding? I’ve been on a slow slide for ages and have the dust bunnies to prove it.

The other day, I heard myself say, “We were out of town two nights this week, let’s just wash the pillowcases and not bother with the sheets.” My husband was ecstatic.

I find myself losing enthusiasm for sparkling clean windows. I think about cleaning them, then I think about grandkids coming over and I think, “Why bother?”

My next thought is, “The little ones like playing with spray bottles. Why not let them clean the windows?”

It’s a win win.

I’ve also questioned the frequency with which I wet mop the kitchen floor. The only real answer to that one would be to get a dog, and that’s not going to happen.

Despite visions of my mother holding a cup of coffee in one hand and swiping her index finger through dust on the console with her other hand, I have shifted from “a place for everything and everything in its place” to “casual is nice.”

You don’t slip from top tier clean to hitting the high spots without serious rationalization. I have several ready answers should someone give the place the white glove test.

“I’m busy; I’m still working.”

“We have a lot of grandkids. Don’t judge me.”

“Cleaning products can be bad for the environment. I’m saving the earth.”

“It was a great party. Sorry you couldn’t make it.”

The cleaning gene has weakened in the next generation. It skipped our son entirely, but the girls have a good measure of it. When our oldest daughter was out of college working long hours, she offered to pay her younger sister, who was still in college, to clean her apartment.

She gave her a two-page list of instructions, including specifics on how the vacuum tracks on the carpet should align. Her younger sister cleaned for her once and then quit.

There’s an easy way to permanently solve that vacuum track issue.

Get hardwoods.

Following are a couple of the many delightful emails I received in response to the column on dishes. There are a lot of dish lovers out there!

“A number of years ago, a started a thing (can you call a new habit a tradition?) that has become near & dear to many people.  For just as long, I have been buying the reusable, hard plastic plates, same kind that children’s plates are made of, whenever & wherever I find them on sale.  One day, during a “friends” dinner, I decided to have everyone choose one of my mismatched plates, handed them a Magic Marker & told them to write their name on the back of their chosen plate.  I told them this meant that from that point on, they would always have a seat at our table.  This has become a ritual for both old & new friends alike.

It’s kind of neat to hear from the friends of our kids & grandkids to ask if we still have their plates. They remember when they were little & they got to pick out their plate, & that plate was always there for them whenever they came to visit.  We’ve even had a few of the kids, now all grown up, come over just to have dinner on their plate.  As we’ve gotten older, we’ve been blessed to add so many new friends, & plates, to the tradition.”

Judy N.


“I come from a line of dish lovers.  During the pandemic for 15 weeks, two times a week, I posted a different set of dishes on Facebook telling the story of how they came to live in our house…..complete with glass and stemware tales.   Twice a week my husband and I shared a meal on the different sets during those long months.”

Deborah K.


“I have eight sets of dishes.  And I live in a 900 square foot house.”

MaryLou R.


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Serving up delicious memories

I love dishes. I realize some people do not love dishes and cannot relate.

I urge you to seek help.

Because dishes nearly always come with history and stories, it can take me 10 minutes to tell a story about one plate before putting it on the table.

The last time I used our wedding china, it took me six hours to set the table.

One of my favorite dishes is an old platter that my dad remembered his mother using when he was a boy. There was a fire in the summer kitchen one year and the platter was one of the few items that survived. Some might think a platter that old and special should sit on a shelf the rest of its life, but I keep it in the rotation with a few other platters. It is a testimony to survival that should be in the company of others, not alone on a shelf somewhere.

My fondness for dishes is magnetic. I don’t even have to look for them; they find me. I once bumped into an old bushel basket in my in-laws’ hayloft. It was stuffed with ruby red plates, cups, drinking glasses and footed pudding bowls wrapped in old newspapers. I asked my mother-in-law about the beauties and she said her mother used them when she hosted card parties. She also said I should take them.

The bushel basket was already sitting next to the car.

Years ago, credit card bills used to come by mail with inserts featuring discount deals on jewelry, watches and dishware. One day, my father-in-law, most at home with paper plates and fast-food wrappers, walks in the house, sets a box on the kitchen counter and says, ” I bought you eight long-stemmed crystal glasses because I have a lot of good meals here.”

I tried to use them whenever he came, and I think he enjoyed that.

When our youngest was in fourth grade, I set a pretty table for her birthday party, including the crystal. As her little friends seated around the table sang “Happy Birthday,” she began singing along. She sang with such gusto that her arms were soon swinging, directing others. Signaling a crescendo for the grand finish with a swoop of her arm, she knocked one of the crystal goblets to the floor.

And then there were seven.

When our twin grandbabies began walking, they were fascinated with the doors to the sideboard that held the crystal goblets. One day I heard a clinking noise, peeked into the dining room and saw one of the twins holding a crystal goblet. Just as my eyes landed on her, her eyes landed on me. She sped off, clutching a crystal goblet in her fat little hand. She glanced over her shoulder, saw me gaining on her and pitched the crystal.

Crystal does not do well when it hits a tile floor.

And then there were six. We’ve held steady at six goblets for some time now and remember the other two fondly.

Dishes were made to be used—old ones, new ones, irreplaceable ones.

I’d rather have a dish chipped and cracked, passed around a table, than have it basking in perfection sitting on a shelf.

I’d rather a dish know joy, robust singing and running from Grandma than be tucked into the shadowy corners of a cabinet.

If a dish is broken because it was in use, that means it lived a good life and died a good death.


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Worming out of piano

My grandma could play any song in any key. She was a tiny thing with rounded edges that bounced on the piano bench as she rippled keys up and down the keyboard. The entire piano bounced with her.

That music gene missed me. Yet, undaunted, utilizing a few years I spent on a piano bench, I now give music lessons to children related by blood. I may not be the best teacher, but my rates are good. Free.

The first two students were twin granddaughters, followed by a third, their little sister. A few years later, their younger cousins across town wanted to learn, so then came four and five.

Four and five were followed by protests from their baby sister, who was too young for lessons. She wore a sad puppy-dog face, batted her big eyes until tears spilled down her fat cheeks, and sobbed in her mommy’s arms. It is difficult to always be the last in line.

Her lessons are going well in that she knows her left from her right and can often find middle C. Even Mozart started somewhere.

She was late for her lesson the other day. The older two had finished and it was her turn, but she was nowhere in sight. I waited, shuffled music books, looked at their toy horses lined up in a row, inspected a recently assembled Lego truck and waited some more. As I was about to hunt her down, she appeared around the corner. Rain boots, a long sleeved play dress and pink sweatpants.

“What took you so long?” I ask.

“I had to wash my hands,” she says, climbing onto the bench. “I found a worm outside.”

Her eyes narrow and she says, “It was alive.”

She waits for a reaction, but I am nonchalant, just grateful she washed her hands.

“I picked it up,” she says. She thinks she has me now. Maybe Grandma will scream or run scared straight up a wall.

What did it feel like?” I calmly ask.

Silence. She’s thinking.

“It was soft and hard. The worm was soft, but it had dirt all around it and the dirt was hard.”

I’m the one thinking now. Where is the worm? If it’s in her pocket, how long before it is slung over b flat? I don’t ask.

“Let’s begin,” I say.

She looks at me, looks at the keyboard volume button, then looks at me.

“Don’t,” I say.

This is part of the routine. She wants to crank the volume, but her dad works from home. Lessons are always on the lowest volume setting, much to her chagrin.

“Your shirt looks funny,” I say.

She pulls at the neckline, flips out the tag and announces, “It’s Backward Day.”

Her pants are on backward, too. Her sisters weren’t wearing their clothes backward. She has declared Backward Day on her own.

No, I don’t want to turn my shirt around and wear it backward.

Ten minutes into the lesson and not a single note of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” has been played. Finally, she taps a pudgy index finger with dirt under the nail on one note at a time with a slow but ever-growing confidence.

“Wonderful,” I say. I pull out a sheet of animal stickers and tell her to choose two. She chooses a pig and a worm.

She disappears yelling, “Mom! I got a worm!”

Mom can figure it out for herself.



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