Mary To The Contrary

Three Little Girls

“To Thine Own Self Be True,” says Polonius to Hamlet.  Those words have been spoken millions of times to many.


My mother-in-law Lisa was not my favorite person but she was a wonderful grandmother to my daughter Paula.  She was known to her grandchildren as “GM” because when my daughter, who was the first grandchild, was a baby, Lisa wanted her to say “Grandmother Dear.”  Paula tried but as a two-year-old, it came out garbled, something like “gwrm”, which became affectionately “GM” and caught on with all of the grandchildren.  Lisa became “GM” and my father-in-law, her grandfather Paul, simply “GF” – you get the picture.

Lisa was from an upscale English family. She was more formal and parochial in her ways than my parents.  She spent a great deal of time with her three granddaughters, my daughter Paula the first, followed in two years by the twins, Cheryl and Lynn.

Lisa was especially known for being a very good cook, something she learned to do after she married my father-in-law Paul.  As it was told to me she didn’t know how to cook but rather learned to after marriage in order to feed “Paul Z.”, he was a priest and she was his wife, which meant she had a very distinct role and cooking was paramount.  He was also a very large and handsome man with a big appetite.

Lisa spent hours in the kitchen cooking for Paul Z, and when she was not cooking for Paul Z specifically, she was cooking for the family,  Whenever the three granddaughters were with her, she would prepare meals while the three little girls sat in their high chairs at the kitchen table.  Lisa would be preparing something, the whole time talking to the three girls, teaching them about life, love, and family. Whatever the lessons, they always had a great time. As I said she was a wonderful grandmother.

On this particular afternoon, Lisa was baking a cake, a four-tiered cake, “perhaps it was someone’s birthday.”  It was big and fluffy and the three toe-headed blondes were excited to be dipping their little fingers into the bowls of cake dough and frosting.

Carrying on an appropriate conversation with the three little girls – the twins aged 2 and Paula at age 4 – Lisa decided to talk about love and then asked each of them who they loved.  She started by example “GM loves Paula and GM loves Cheryl, and GM loves Lynn, and GM loves GF” and so forth.

Lisa then prompted Cheryl who was always a very bubbly, happy child.  Cheryl went down her list “Cheryl loves mommy and daddy, and Cheryl loves GM and GF, and Cheryl loves Hennessy” (Hennessy was GM and GF’s dog).  “Cheryl loves Lynn and Cheryl loves Paula.”

Lisa then went on to Lynn, who was like Cheryl an easy-going child, and Lynn went down her list.  “Lynn loves GM and GF. Lynn loves mommy and daddy. Lynn loves Cheryl and Lynn loves Paula.” Lisa was so encouraging “Wonderful Lynn!” she said, and turned to my daughter and her first born, Paula Jonelle.

Paula, more intense, pensive and introspective than the other two, gave the question real thought, and then very decidedly gave her answer:  “Paula loves Paula!”

And there it was.  

Laughing out loud, Lisa said, “Oh, of course, and who else does Paula love?”  Paula answered. “Paula loves Paula.”

Lisa relayed this to the family and forever at family holidays and dinners it was known as the “Paula loves Paula” story, told over and over again, always garnering laughs and giggles.  And to this day, as Paula’s mother, I can say unequivocally that nothing has changed. My daughter takes care of herself first. It is for this reason that she is so well equipped to take care of me.

What We Can Learn From Our Mother’s About Thanksgiving

From My Rehab Facility, Thanksgiving Lessons For My Daughter

By Mary Wenger, registered nurse, and creator of

basting the turkey

I am in my late 70’s and it is during this time year that I think about my parents the most. My mother was generally speaking an unhappy woman, but at Thanksgiving time she was always happy and this is when I think about her and my father the most.   

My mother started preparing for Thanksgiving in early November, and her preparations were all about the details.  The event started when she started pulling out the cookie books. She started to decide which cookies she would be making, and there would be hundreds of them.  One unforgettable year she made 90 dozen cookies, and she always gave most of them away. Thanksgiving through Christmas was the only time of year when, for my mother, it was really about everyone else.

After the cookie planning started, she turned her attention to the turkey.  My father was a welder, so we did not have a lot of money, but we were a family of six so we needed a large turkey, very large, and it was always expensive but this was one item she would splurge on at the local farm. Mom would proudly make a call to this local farm to order the fat bird, and hang up with a smile as fat as the bird itself.  

Before Thanksgiving dinner we piled into the family car and head to Cumberland Street in our small town of Lebanon, PA to see the Thanksgiving parade and stood in the cold, waiting for what seemed like hours, our hands and toes were frozen and teeth clicking as steam puffed through our noses in anticipation.  Our Thanksgiving Day parade was not big, but to us, it was so exciting, and to me, it was all so big. People would dress up and toss candy and gum, which to us kids was a big deal – we would scramble to catch as much as we could in that freezing cold air. The parade marked the start of Christmas because at the end was the Santa Clause who would climb up on the fire truck, and then up the fire ladder to the second floor of the big department store in town, Bon Ton, and wave to the crowd, throwing candy out to all of us.  

We had a lot of food at our Pennsylvania Dutch dinner table: an enormous turkey, peas, creamed corn, jellied cranberry, thick slices of white bread, stuffing, salad, boiled and thick cut potatoes and sweet potatoes with huge chunks of butter, and heaps of mashed potatoes made with real cream.  We drank tall glasses of chocolate milk and for dessert, we could choose from ice cream, jello, cakes, and pies.

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Thanksgiving was about my mother’s vision of how things could be when at her best with the family.  She taught me that it’s what you do by example, taking the time to create something for someone else. The details are what people remember.  I remember how much she worried about where she got the turkey, the size and plumpness of the turkey, the cookies she would bake, the flour she would use, where she bought the butter, the table setting, and what time we would leave for the parade.  Preparing the family for all of the details mattered to her. My mother made sure everyone was ready and together, and she started to ready us early for what was to come next, from food shopping to where we would stand on the parade route for the best experience in our humble town.  Family matters, if even for a moment. Eventually, we would all split up in our lives and go our own ways, and many of us would stop speaking to each other all together, but on this one day, we were one, a whole unit in a temporary glory she could revel in. Time is ominous. Thanksgiving actually meant that Christmas was on the way.  The day wasn’t about the settlers, but that something else was on the horizon, it was a prelude.

My mother felt that Thanksgiving, more than any other time of year, was important, and so to this day, I do too.  

I am in a rehabilitation facility, temporarily, recovering from brain surgery, and may not be able to come home for Thanksgiving. My daughter is spending the days here with me and we are going over the list of food I’d like to have on Thanksgiving day, as she and my son-in-law will have to cook and bring the meal to me.  As these memories surface at this time in my life, I am thankful that I am alive today and able to pass these memories lessons to her.


A Wound That Never Closed

My high school years are filled with memories, some good and some not so good. This is one of those memories that was not so good.

I was 15 years old and working for the family that owned the bowling alley in our small town of Lebanon, PA.  I babysat their children and my brothers, Michael and Patrick, worked as pin boys in the bowling alley, which was next door to their home so we three would go to work together after school from 5 – 10 PM.  In those days we didn’t have automated bowling alleys, pin boys like my brothers gathered the fallen bowling pins and re-stacked them. It was hard worked but my brothers enjoyed it.

One of the other pin boys was a handsome young man named Ammon Peffley.  I found out later that the word Ammon meant Greek God, which made sense because he was so good-looking. Ammon was also 15 and in my class in high school and we met at the bowling alley.  I had a mad crush on Ammon and my brothers somehow sensed this. They were typical brothers, always pestering me about Ammon.

Pin boys

The man who owned the bowling alley would take each of us home in his big old Chevy at the end of the day.  The boys would sit in the back and I would sit in front. One night we were all in the car waiting for the owner, my brothers in the back seat (no sign of Ammon) and they asked me what I thought of Ammon Peffley.  I didn’t want them to know how I really felt, so I replied something like “I can’t stand him!” and other descriptive words to make sure no one knew the truth. What they never told me was that they had silently put Ammon in the back seat and he was listening to everything I was saying.

For the rest of my high school years Ammon Peffley ignored me and never spoke to me.  I was the President of one class and he was the President of another. He would speak to everyone at lunch except me.  He never asked me to dance at the sock up, and when I was a Junior and tasked with putting the sock hop together I eagerly waited for him to ask me to dance – I was very popular then – but he wouldn’t ask me.  He was a quiet boy, stoic in fact, but likable nonetheless. He was Captain of the football team with my good friend Pat Anderson. Pat asked me once why Ammon didn’t like me and I said “I have no idea”.

Still, I would still be faced with Ammon Peffley.  I knew that I wanted to be a nurse, and heard about this elderly couple that needed some help on the weekends so I volunteered to care for them.  As it turned out, it was Ammon Peffley’s grandparents. Every Saturday that I would be working with them at their home Ammon would visit them. He would see me and mumble something inaudible.

When the senior dance came around I was still holding out hope that Ammon would ask me, and everyone was waiting and wondering who Ammon would be taking to the dance.  All the pretty girls were spoken for and I was one of the few left – it should to be me.  I had set things up so that I could bring someone in my neighborhood, you know, just in case, but never really asked him because I wanted Ammon to ask me.  He didn’t. After class one day we (the “in” crowd) were all at the malt shop, and Ammon walks in and everyone asks him who he is taking to the prom and he replied “Susan Hill” – a person I was not fond of.  He later told the boys that the nuns sat him down and told him that he had to ask Susan Hill to the prom. Out of spite, I did not go to my senior prom.


Several years after high school when I was in nursing college, my brothers and I were home sharing stories from our days in high school.  We spoke about the fun we had at the bowling alley and they told me what happened that day in the car, how they questioned me about Ammon and that he was hidden in the back seat.  I have cried many times since learning this.

Michael is now dead and Patrick is too old to care, but I never got over it.  I understand that Ammon married and had children and died in his 50’s.

This is one of those wounds that just never closed.


Vegetables, Fruit Trees and Hobos

My parents inherited a parcel of land in the suburb of Lebanon, Pennsylvania.  To a Texan, this ⅓ of an acre was a smidgen of earth, but in this part of the world, a parcel of land this size would house eight double homes with eight backyards and eight outhouses.

In the summer, Dad decided to increase our food income by planting all sorts of vegetables: beans, tomatoes, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and corn. He did the planting, convincing my mother that he needed a full sized tractor to assist this modern day farmer. My brother said it was more like a planter of yesteryear without the horse.

Of course, there were four of us kids to do the hard work-planting potatoes, sowing seeds, keeping the rows free from weeds, and harvesting the veggies.   

There was always something to harvest throughout the season.   Early on it was stripping the snap bean plants, then after the beans, tomatoes were pulled from their plants to ripen from the vines to line up on our backyard fence.  Later is the summer, our father, after a hard days work, would come home and with a giant metal tub, go out to our ”farm” and snap off dozens of corn cobs, and bring them into the house. Mom would boil them up and with a pound of butter on the table, always a steak or prime rib, several other veggies, and often an apple pie for dessert.  We would sit down to, a royal feast you could say.

Also around our land he planted fruit trees, including apples, pears and peaches.  Each year the fruit trees grew taller and more abundant as my father would nurse them with his green thumb, and each year people in the neighborhood would help themselves to the fruit, which was fine by him.  My father so enjoyed sharing our bounty with the neighborhood that he never minded cleaning up the spoils on the ground.


I also remember that, in summer, hobos would come to the house. The word was out that Mom was a soft touch. My mother always gave them a sandwich and a soda, and in those days the sandwich slides were big, thick slices of freshly baked bread, stuffed with either thick slices of ham, a sirloin steak, or maybe miles of Lebanon bologna and cheese with lots of mustard.  The hobos would sit on our porch and chat with us kids, and in those days no one ever thought of anyone stealing from us – what was there to steal?

These are the things I remember.


Gordon Getty and My Red Skirt

To this very day I have no idea who the first Getty was, how many male Gettys there are in the world, how much money they have, etc… and I really don’t care.  But once, a Getty wanted to meet me, all because of a red linen skirt with pretty musical notes.

Several summers ago, my husband and I lived in Newport, Rhode Island, the site of the annual Newport Music Festival.  This particular festival was, at that time, held in several of the Newport mansions every summer, which attracted famous persons who enjoyed classical music.

Most of these visiting celebrities stayed for the duration of the festival at the homes of the more illustrious Newporters who occupied the many large mansions that dotted the Newport landscape.

We happened to have a friend, Carolyn Skelly, the mysteriously disfigured, often-robbed Skelly oil heiress who was wildly social and owned one of the smaller mansions.  

One of very few images of Carolyn Skelly that you can find on the Internet. This one is of her and Mr. McMahon.

Carolyn invited Don and me to a dinner following a night of classical music where Carolyn was entertaining many of her society friends, one who was a man called Gordon Getty.  

Since we were not rich or famous (except my husband was more talented than anybody) to me, meeting a Getty sounded so exciting.  The problem was, I had nothing to wear! Plus, it was a last minute invitation, which was normal for summertime dinners back then.

After searching the few fashion stores in Newport, I hightailed it to Boston and to my favorite department store, Saks.

It was an exhaustive search, and I could not find a thing. On my way out I spotted some summer long skirts in the lingerie dept.  One was a ruby red linen, with white music notes all over it-beautiful..Next to the skirts were these filmy white peasant blouses-a perfect combination for a summer evening.

My red skirt with musical notes looked almost exactly like this, except for the fact that it had musical notes on it.

Don and I joined the musical lovers at Carolyn’s house.  We are talking immense-including a gorgeous ballroom, complete with a vintage Wurlitzer jukebox and a diaz where all the important people sat.


Our seats were right after the receiving line, far, far away from the VIPs.

When we were introduced to Carolyn’s guest, Mr. Getty, the gentleman made it a point to comment favorably on my ensemble, especially my skirt.  

We went to our seats in the nosebleed section.  After dinner, the jukebox was charged up, and everybody started to dance.  I noticed how intently Mr. Getty kept staring at our table. Slowly, Carolyn’s special friend inched his way toward us, moving slowly upward to the top of the ballroom.  He ended up at our table and sat across from us in one of the empty seats vacated by dancers. Then, little by little he started walking around the table toward me, until he was there, on my left asking me to dance.

My husband did not dance.  He liked to play jazz piano-he did not dance.  However, for the first time and almost last time, Don stood up on my right and announced that we would be dancing. Getty leaning over my left, Don pulling me up on the right, and I was shocked. My husband gave Getty such an impressive dismissal that Getty slunk back to his diaz seat, and I never saw him again.    


Gordon Getty

A Waltz In The Park

It was a sunny summer afternoon as a group of us walked through this gorgeous tree-lined park in the middle of a busy city.

We encountered a group of adults dancing, so we stopped to watch them as they gracefully glided to the Vienna Waltz. The music was coming from a boombox. As I was standing there tapping my feet, the lady who was in charge of this dancing group approached me. She asked if I would  like to join them and I eagerly accepted the invitation. A tall slender gentleman over 6 ft tall, approached and he offered to be my partner, and I accepted. Before I knew it, I was twirling round and round in the arms of a man who danced divinely to the Blue Danube, a Strauss waltz, one of my favorite.  It was a dance I would forever remember for many reasons.  

Although I never knew my partner’s name nor the name of the group, I did find out that the leader of the group was the only one of the dancers who spoke English. They spoke their language, Chinese, as were in Shanghai, China.       



Training A New Husband

My new husband and I had been married for 72 hrs. With no chance of a honeymoon for several weeks, Don and I were about to meet his new law partner.

We were in the elevator on the way up to his partner’s office, when a tall buxom blonde entered.

Don, my new husband who enjoyed several years of bachelorhood prior to our tying the knot, promptly glued his eyes to the lady’s bosoms, right in front of me, ogling her backside as she stepped off at the next floor.  I could not believe my eyes.

Man staring at woman 2

We found our floor, and met the new partner, then I asked Don for the keys to our car without explaining why.  Assuming I would be going to the nearby shopping mall, he handed me the keys and I took off.

Several hours later, like four, Don began to worry. His new law partner told me later that he had noticed the look I gave my husband when I took the car keys, but he said nothing. When Don questioned my whereabouts he turned to him and said “What did you do? You did something wrong.”

The law firm was in Virginia we lived in Maryland, more than an hour’s drive, and I was now home.  The new partner brought Don home several hours later. I calmly sat him down, and let’s just say there was a very clear meeting of the minds and it never happened again.

The U.S.S. Enterprise


In 1962 I was a First Lieutenant nurse in the United States Air Force, stationed at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines — ninety percent of all Vietnam casualties came through Clark.

One day, a Second Lieutenant and I were ordered to transport four naval patients to Subic Naval Base.  Despite losing a motor on our twin-engine plane during flight, we accomplished our mission, then hailed a cab to the Officer’s Club.  On our way, it started to rain heavily and I noticed a soaking wet man in khakis sitting on the curb.  Feeling badly for this soggy man, I instructed the cabbie to give him a lift.  Filled with higher-rank-arrogance, I completely ignored the drenched passenger in the front seat, directing the driver to drop him off at the Enlisted Men’s Club.  Thinking back, I can remember sly looks exchanged between the cabbie and the wet passenger.

Clark Air Force Base2

Later, now stripped from our whites, we exited the ladies room bedecked in civilian clothes and heels.  Waiting for us was a naval officer with a big grin who called me by name and asked me to follow him to the banquet hall.  There, I was greeted with applause and wolf whistles by a room full of Officers yelling “Hey, Mary!”  At the very front of this crowd was the “enlisted man” I had “saved.”  Now fully dry, he was wearing a Captain’s uniform!  He introduced himself as the commanding pilot of this rowdy group.  He and his crew of chopper pilots had just finished a heavy assignment in Vietnam and had landed on the USS Enterprise.  As he was the commander, he got off first, which is why he was sitting on the curb.

I was mortified.  He had told everyone about me — the smart-ass Air Force lieutenant.

The commander and I became good friends, but it was the last time I ever pulled rank on anybody.

A Brush With Time

It was January of 1962 and I was working at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Hollywood, having arrived just a few months earlier.  I was a nurse in the operating room assisting open heart and chest surgeons.


The gift shop in the hospital was extraordinary.  We nurses who worked there received our paychecks weekly and spent them almost entirely in the hospital gift shop on souvenirs, clothes and jewelry.  I would get my paycheck in one hour and by the end of the day most of it was put right back into that gift shop. It was on one particular payday in January when I was busy looking for my next treasure that I bumped into a gentleman buying a get well card.  He was very tall and smoking a cigar, and I knew who he was. He started to chat with me and told me that his name was Ernie Kovacs and that his mother was a patient, and that she had run over herself with her car. This is Ernie Kovacs, the most celebrated comedian of the day, telling what comes out as a very funny story about his crazy Hungarian mother who had survived this terrible accident, and that he was here to visit her.  Her doctor was one of the two heart surgeons whom I assisted at the time. Even though I was awestruck, Ernie had me laughing about his mother’s antics as he animated the story, “She thinks she’s putting it in park,” he said “but she didn’t and she gets out and goes to the front of the car, and who knows why…” his arms up in the air as if searching for the answer, “and it rolls over her chest!”


Ernie was a true comedian of the 60s, loved by everyone with his signature cigar and good looks.  He chatted me up for a while, and in a most friendly and gentlemanly manner, he then invited me to a party that evening.  I think he just wanted to show me around Hollywood, there was nothing uncomfortable about his invitation. However, I was new to the hospital and the area, and coming from a small town in Pennsylvania just a few months earlier, I was very naive.  His offer was a little overwhelming, thus I declined.

I returned to my apartment in Hollywood, and relayed my hard-to-believe story to my 2 roomates, about Ernie Kovacs inviting me for a night on the town.  The girls were all a giggle, the room filled with OOOHs and AAHHs – everyone was impressed. We had a such a fun time over this; imagine Ernie Kovacs asking me to a party!

I had purchased a green Ford for $150 in downtown LA when I first arrived to town.  I was using it to get around, but also to teach my two roomies how to drive. It had bald tires, and a rusty exterior, but it ran.  So after supper on my Ernie Kovacs story day, I took them up to Griffith Park for some driving lessons, and when it was dark, and when the park lights came on, we drove up through “the hills” to see the beautiful Hollywood lights.  


On our way back we took Santa Monica Blvd. to our apartment and it had just started to rain, a typical California rainstorm.  As I approached the Santa Monica Blvd when it split into Santa Monica and Beverly Glen, the bald tires spun on the rainy pavement and my car screeched and slipped.  Fortunately, the old rusty Ford stayed on the road and we got home safely.

Early the next morning, I picked up the newspaper outside the apartment door and the headline read “CRASH KILLS ERNIE KOVACS.”  He was driving alone on Santa Monica Blvd. the night before, and at the intersection of Santa Monica Blvd. and Beverly Glen he slid and hit a telephone pole where the streets split.  He died instantly. He had come to this intersection just a few hours after we did and had been driving in a brand new Chevrolet Corvair. I had been in a $150 Ford with bald tires in the same rainstorm, at the same intersection, and also slipped, and  yet not a scratch on me or my roomies.

I have had many skirts with death, but none compared to this brush with time.  I wanted very much to say “yes” to Ernie Kovacs’s invitation for a night on the town, but I was so young, starstruck and unsure of myself that I declined.  And thank God I did.


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