Archive for the ‘Friends and Family’ Category

I was stunned a month or so ago, when the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences of Webster University, David Wilson, called to say I had been selected as this year’s recipient of the Outstanding Alumna Award. I certainly didn’t feel worthy to accept it but how do you say “no” to such a generous offer? So I said “yes.” Then Dean Wilson said I would be delivering the commencement address – not to the whole university, but to the College of Arts and Sciences graduates in a separate ceremony where they receive their diplomas. Not only would I be receiving this great recognition …. but the ceremony is held at the Muny in Forest Park! Some of the happiest moments of my childhood were spent at the 11,000 seat open-air amphitheater where musicals have been staged for the last 96 summers. I saw so many stars sing and dance across the mammoth stage and even remember lying with my head on my mother’s lap and looking up at the stars when I was very young. My mother remembered her favorite stars from childhood performing there: Irene Dunne and Archie Leach (later to become Cary Grant). Sitting onstage at the Muny with the faculty of Webster University? YES-YES-YES!



It was Webster College when I was there, transitioning from a girls’ college to co-ed and immediately transitioning from a Catholic college run by the Sisters of Loretto to a lay school – that all happened when I was there. At the time, Webster was well known locally for its theatre arts program and generally for its fine arts. I started out in theatre but switched to a straight English major. I was editor of the paper, worked on the yearbook and was a happy Webster student. I even loved my student job, working for the new Master of Arts in Teaching degree. Then, Webster was a standout for its personal attention to students. Amazingly, that hasn’t changed with growth. I’m now on the Advisory Board of the College of Arts and Sciences and am thrilled to discover that the same attributes that made Webster special when I was there haven’t changed.


Webster Alumna Award


There was a great party the night before – a dinner at the Khorassan Room of the Chase Park-Plaza where we stayed. Hey, I had my proms at the Khorassan Room – deja vu! A group of us had drinks afterwards and then my son arrived. That was truly the best part of all – my son, Walshe, who lives in New York (so far from our home in Los Angeles that we don’t get to see him often) flew in for the event, which also happened to coincide with Mother’s Day! And we got to celebrate his recent engagement. Here he is with husband Frank and me. Walshe hadn’t been to St. Louis in many years, so we all visited with cousins, aunts, my sister Janet, brother-in-law Steve, niece, Jen and her husband Jeff, her daughters, Samantha and Carter and nephew Todd. What fun!Frank, Betty, Walshe in St. Louis 2015


Speaking in the Rain


My speech was delivered on the rehearsal stage in the pouring rain. Luckily, it didn’t rain until the very end of the larger ceremony, but it poured for the second part. The speech, my clothes, my hair were soaked. My shoes were ruined. The Dean’s introductory notes were in ink and they ran into a blur. My pages got stuck together and I had to stop to pry them apart. Everyone was more than  polite, I talked fast and every graduate got a signed copy of The World According to Humphrey! Left, I’m delivering the speech and a kind gentleman is holding an  umbrella over my head. You know what? I enjoyed it all!


Onstage at Muny 2    My soggy speech.Sodden speech Webster 2015

Above … yes I’m on stage at the Muny – can’t you see me? Actually, I was on the end of the inner aisle, row 2, so pretty much right behind the podium. Some of my cousins watched the live feed and they could actually see me!

Luckily, it wasn’t raining as the ceremony began. Pomp and Circumstance played as the students processed in while the faculty – and I – lined up. Then came the parade of flags representing every country with students graduating – carrying the colorful banners down the aisles of the Muny. Next, the bagpipers arrived, led with panache by Dean of the College of Fine Arts, Peter Sargent, who was there when I was in school. Finally, the faculty (and I) processed down the center of the Muny from the very top down to the stage. It’s very steep – don’t wear heels! (I didn’t). At this point, I relaxed and decided to enjoy every minute of the day, soak it all in (pun intended) because it was a once in a lifetime experience. I walked down to the stage with a big smile on my face, despite the threat of an oncoming storm.


Here’s a clip of how it looked from the stage.

It was the best graduation I’ve ever attended – formal yet personal, reflective and exuberant. The rain held off and honorary doctorate recipient, actress Jenifer Lewis, delivered the best commencement speech ever. Funny, sad, hopeful, musical,  honest and most of all inspiring. She rocked it. If you want a few minutes of inspiration, skip through the intros and watch her speech.


Because the weather forecasts were so dire, the College of Arts and Sciences videotaped me delivering my speech the day before graduation. It’s much tamer than the version I delivered in the rain and it was kind of odd to speak without an audience, but here it is, including the introduction by Dean David Carl Wilson. At least you can see me in cap and gown – though they thankfully reshot and edited the part where the tassel swung into my mouth. If only I had the out-takes!

… but she’ll always come back!

A few weeks ago, I was back in my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. (My GPS says “St. Louey,” which makes me laugh every time.)

It’s a place in the news a lot lately.  In a perfect world, this would be an opportunity for everyone to come together and find a new path to improve life for everyone. I’m hoping for a perfect world. On the other hand, go Cards!

I was in town for several reasons: to reconnect with family first and foremost. Also, to attend my first meeting of the Webster University College of Arts and Sciences Advisory Committee in beautiful Webster Groves. And since I couldn’t go on a Humphrey tour because I’m still recovering from neck surgery and can’t lift anything over ten pounds, I did a little Humphrey business as well, because my husband, Frank, was with me and he CAN lift more than 10 pounds.

The best part of the visit was spending lots of time with my sister, Janet, and her husband, Steve, niece Jen and nephew Todd, nephew-in-law Jeff, gorgeous great-nieces Samantha and Carter! Oh, don’t forget dog-nephew Elmo. I brought along copies of Humphrey’s Tiny Tales and discovered – amazingly – that Elmo can read! Really- I didn’t stage this shot. I found Elmo with the books on the couch as pictured.

I also visited schools. I spent a day in the Affton School District, where I attended school grades K-12 Unfortunately, my elementary school, Reavis, was torn down long ago … and it was practically brand new when I attended! But when I spoke at Gotsch Elementary, I think the kids were pretty surprised to learn that Mr. Gotsch was our principal and a really outstanding one!

Then I went on to Mesnier Elementary. Mr. Mesnier was the Superintendent of Schools when I lived in Affton and lots of my junior high and high school friends went there. The most notable thing about Mesnier – at least from the outside – is the giant ice cream cone in front! I know that ice cream cone well. It stood in front of Velvet Freeze – a stellar ice cream place within easy walking distance of my house, in the days when milk shakes had real milk in them and they served actual malted milks. When Velvet Freeze was being torn down, they donated the ice cream cone to Mesnier, which makes it the yummiest school on earth! Great to connect with Affton students today, still going strong. Here I am with an authentic Affton School bus. There’s something funny about it if you look closely -my friend, Nancy, is standing behind me, peeking out. Maybe she was camera-shy?


Frank and I had another mission while in town: to get a picture of me with the street sign for Humphrey Street. Yep, there’s a place behind the name of that familiar classroom hamster! My parents grew up as neighbors on Humphrey Street in South St. Louis and were best friends – inseparable, people say – from the age of nine. So all my aunts and my uncle and grandparents were neighbors on Humphrey Street. Later, I spent a lot of time visiting my mom’s parents on Humphrey Street. The house looks quite a bit different now, but oh, the happy times my sister and I had there. And the wonderful stories my grandmother told about growing up in the country – some of which are in my book, The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs. Finding the Humphrey Street sign proved to be a bit of a challenge. It’s now a one-way street, so the sign closest to my grandparents’ house isn’t there. (Near Humphrey and Morganford for those in the know.) So we had to go further down to find a sign – and when we did – there was a huge construction truck next to it! Not good for a photo-op.  So we drove around the neighborhood awhile, down the street where my dad’s parents eventually lived, and the street where my great-aunt lived. And down Grand Avenue, which was the big shopping district, and Tower Grove Park with its amazing Victorian pavilions.

When we got back to the Humphrey Street sign, the truck was gone! Success!

On the weekend, my sister and brother-in-law threw a party for us, with all my local relatives – as well as the Braun “boys” – who might as well be relatives because we grew up not just as neighbors but as one family – and I’m not exaggerating. Great to see them, great to see that my aunts and my dad’s cousins are all in excellent shape! My son curated the cheese and charcuterie from Murray’s Cheese in NYC, where he is a buyer. Niece Jennifer and her caterer friend Heidi did the rest and – well – you can see it was quite breathtaking.

Back to “work” again meant traveling to the historic and picturesque river town of St. Charles (on the Missouri River – you DO know that St. Louis has both the Mississippi and the Missouri Rivers) to Main Street Books. They handled all the books sales for Affton and for Hazelwood, where I spoke as well. All I have to say is this: Main Street Books is not only the most charming but the most jam-packed-with-goodness- indy bookstore ever. Indies rule! Thanks to co-owner/proprietress Emily Hall who journeyed all the way to Affton to sell books and to Mary who drove me to the schools in Hazelwood. Here’s Emily in front of her store, and don’t you love the old typewriter? I want it!

We see things on the news about St. Louis and there are problems to be resolved. But for those of you who see St. Louis as a fly-over city or a sound byte – it’s a physically and historically beautiful place, with great people of all ethnicities – and my fervent hope is for a bright future and progress for all!

Oh, and everybody should go to St. Charles. Charming place. And from there, we went to another charming place: New York City and the Hudson River Valley. Cheese caves! Rip Van Winkle! Coming soon to a blog near you!




In my last post, I described conquering my fear of the laughing clown at the Forest Park Highlands in St. Louis, where our school picnic was held each year. Of course, I had a little help from a friend.











But there was a much bigger milestone looming on the horizon – and I do mean looming: the Highlands’ famous and beloved wooden roller coaster, the Comet. It was a fine roller coaster – fast, rattle-y, with huge drops and even a tunnel, which was unusual for the time.  It was also pretty scary for a little kid. I can’t remember if the criteria for riding was age or height (oddly enough, I think it was age). I wanted to be a big kid and ride it. But I was also pretty darned scared of it. The screams coming from the riders in action didn’t help. But all the cool teenagers rode it (over and over again, because you could re-ride without standing in line again – all you had to do was have another ticket in your pocket).   I was also motivated by the fact that my sister could already ride it because she was one of those cool older kids. Just as I had with the laughing clown at the Funhouse, I vacillated between longing to ride the Comet and fearing it.

My Dad knew just what to do. He said that he would ride it with me. I can remember our walk to the Comet and my Dad chatting away about how much fun it would be.

I had a great Dad. He was the Dad who always drove my friends and me to parties and school events. He taught me to drive – taking me to cemeteries where there were roads, but no traffic. He was sympathetic.  He liked to tell jokes and use wordplay, but truthfully, he never acted the way he acted that day. For one thing, I don’t ever remember him riding any of the rides. Parents usually held court in the covered pavilion, protecting the picnic lunches, while the kids roamed freely.

But that day, he wanted to ride the Comet. As we approached the wooden behemoth. Dad’s attitude was very casual.  My legs felt like wooden sticks. But still, I wanted to ride.

When we got to the platform, we had to wait a long time, because all the cool teenagers would hold up their tickets to re-ride. You had to wait a long time on the platform before you got a seat.  Too long for a little girl who was torn between proving she was a grownup (well, not reallly) and fleeing. But Dad just chatted away and was breezy and relaxed.  Finally, we got a car. Thank goodness it wasn’t a front car. Before long, I’d fight to get the front car, but it’s not a great idea for the first time.

I can still hear that rattle-rattle-rattle as the car lurched forward. Dad just looked at me and smiled. The rollercoaster climbed – and oh, that first drop was a doozy. “Scream,” Dad told me.

And my father, for the first time I’d ever heard, he screamed. I screamed, too.

Every drop, every turn, he’d scream.

This was my father, whom I never saw shed a tear until many years later. My father, who had fought in the worst of WWII: the Battle of the Bulge in Patton’s army. My father, a business man who also  built things with his own hands on DIY projects ranging from laying bricks and stones to building a whole family room on the house and roofing it. He transported tons of rocks by hand one summer.

He screamed and I screamed right along with him.

Through sharp turns and unpredictable drops, we screamed and then, he took his hands off the rail and waved them in the air. “No hands,” he said.

I released my white-knuckled grip and raised my hands. Because that’s what you did on the Comet.

I was a grown-up.

I was a cool kid.

And I owed it all to my father.

As far as I knew, he never rode the Comet again. But during the following years, you couldn’t keep me off that glorious ride.

I don’t know if I really was a cool kid, but by the time I got to Junior High, pretty much all I rode was the Comet. And like those teenagers before me, I re-rode.

Unfortunately, the Forest Park Highlands burned down in 1963. I was in high school at the time, but I think the school picnics had already ended.  I had other mountains to conquer. I don’t remember mourning.


Interestingly, two rides didn’t burn down that day: the Comet and the equally-iconic and very beautiful Carousel, which still exists in Faust Park in Chesterfield, MO. I haven’t paid the carousel a visit, but I can still hear the ringing of the bells, the music, the bright lights. Those two rides represent my entire childhood: from the point when the Carousel was exciting to the unbelievable thrill of the Comet.  Those rides took me from childhood to – well, maybe not adulthood, but that next place between childhood and adulthood.

A very sweet spot.

P.S. Our next door neighbor, Mr. Haemmerle, was the chief electrician at the Highlands. He assured us that every single day an inspector checked out the Comet and took a ride, which was very comforting. (The Haemmerles had one of those bowling machines in their basement Rathskeller – something the Highlands had phased out.)

Also, one of my favorite school bus drivers, Carl, was a French-Canadian roustabout – compact, muscular, handsome – who worked the Ferris Wheel at the Highlands during the summer. A rather heroic figure to us riders – someone I should definitely write about!

And now, if you’re feeling very grown-up, take a ride on the Comet.













June 21 may be the official first day of summer, but everybody knows summer starts the day after the last day of school. Most schools are out by now- so let the fun begin! Today, summer for most families may mean a patchwork of day camps, classes, lessons, sleepaway camps – what’s a working parent to do? It doesn’t matter, because summer is still fun. But when I was growing up, while there might have been a week of day camp or vacation Bible school, summer was wide open for all-day play. And we took full advantage of the time.

In the St. Louis suburb where I grew up, we started off summer with a full-out joyous celebration of the season. The day after the last day of school, a Saturday, we had a school parade in the morning. Each class marched through the streets with students carrying hand-made banners, the high school marching band played, parents cheered, and I imagine the superintendent of schools rode in an open car and waved. I’m not sure about the last part because I was always too concerned with holding up my banner.

But the parade was just the prelude to an amazing day! After that, everyone in the school district was off to the local, much revered amusement park, the Forest Park Highlands, for the whole day. Families packed huge hampers of food and the parents and grandparents sat at picnic tables in a shady pavilion. BUT if you didn’t have a ride, or if you were too old for that nonsense – say Junior High or High School age – there were buses to take you there and pick you up.

The picnic area was  home base for us kids. We pretty much roamed freely with our friends (after a certain age) but regularly reported back to the family for more tickets, more cash, something to eat, something to drink, Sno-Cone money. The parents came along on some rides or for a trip to the Penny Arcade to play Ski-Ball (I loved that game – especially with my grandfather) or watch old Nickelodeons.

I don’t think it cost much and if you ran into a member of the school board or some other exalted person, he or she might just present you with a bounty of free ride tickets.

There were rides for really little kids at the front near the ticket booths. I don’t recall ever riding those.










I usually hit the Bobsleds first since it was near the front of the park. Fun but short – it left you wanting more. Next to that were the bumper cars . I waited until later to ride that. I remember “driving” my grandmother on that ride. She was completely unruffled throughout the ordeal. Grandma didn’t drive, so other people’s bad driving didn’t bother her.

A little farther in was the Ferris Wheel – oh the joy of getting stopped at the top, especially if there were cute boys or even non-cute boys involved – and the Tilt-A-Whirl was always a favorite. I think my mom liked that because I remember riding with her. And there were the airplanes – always an exciting choice.

There were also two “fun houses” – one riding and one walking. I don’t remember much about the riding one – it was on water, a traditional Tunnel of Love.

But I’ll never forget the walking one. Outside, there was a mechanical laughing clown straight out of a horror film. Just as you were about to go in – there he was, laughing hysterically at your foolishness at thinking you could possibly endure the horrors awaiting you. For several years running, I actually got to the door with my ticket, and changed my mind, turning back. I was a coward, but at least I was alive.

Eventually, however, I made it – thanks to my neighbor, Joel. Just mentioning Joel and his two brothers, Dave and Jim, brings up a world of memories. They lived two houses up the street from us and our families were the very best of friends. I wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that they are like brothers to my sister, Janet, and me.

Joel is the oldest. Dave is close to my sister’s age and Jim is a tiny bit younger than I was. He was  my best friend as a child. They didn’t even go to our school – they went to Lutheran school. But they came along (just as we were included in many of their family and school events) – thank goodness.

I vividly recall what  was probably my third year of chickening out. Once again,  I reached the laughing clown. My stomach churns just thinking about him.

I really wanted to go inside but once again, I froze. What to do? Walk past the clown and face unimaginable terrors? Or admit to being a coward once again?

“Here, just hold on to my belt and follow me,” Joel said.

I don’t think I’ve ever been given a more generous gift, because I REALLY wanted to walk through the fun house. I closed my eyes to shut out the clown, grabbed onto Joel’s belt and started walking.

The walking funhouse was classically cheesy. The 1950s effects were definitely less than special. Some mildly threatening neon faces and ghosts lit up along the walls. At the end was one of those rooms where you’re all off-balance and gravity-challenged. The whole fun house was a total piece of cake… but I was still tightly clutching Joel’s belt at the end.

I survived! It was a rite of passage! The laughing clown never bothered me again and soon I moved on to a much bigger challenge: the iconic Highlands roller coaster called The Comet.

—– to be continued!



Carving Out Characters

February 22nd, 2013

Time after time, when I talk to aspiring young writers – or even aspiring not-so-young writers, I hear their frustrations about how they have good ideas but the stories just don’t turn out well when they put the words on paper. It’s possible that they’re not good writers. But it’s more probable that they simply stopped too soon.

I certainly had that problem when I was a kid. I loved writing stories and I had tons of ideas. But I had trouble finishing my stories. Usually, I just abandoned a story and started a new one. That’s why I was happy to find a childhood story that I actually finished. It’s not a good story but I’m extremely pleased with it because it has a great structure. After all my failed attempts, I was unlocking at least one of the “secrets” of writing. A story needs a beginning, a middle and and end. Also, unlike some of my great failures based on subjects I knew nothing about (the Southern plantation girl, the Hawaiian girl) the story that worked was simple, age appropriate and relatable.

I think a lot of writers who give up in frustration have forgotten the most important thing about writing: revision. Getting the first draft down on paper is the hard, sweaty labor. But then you have something to work with – something you can hone and craft and play with and make better and better with each draft. That’s the stage I’m currently in.

I just completed a manuscript and I’m guessing I did about 20 revisions – which isn’t a lot for me.  That doesn’t count the mid-writing revisions. For instance, I was well into the revisions when I realized that I needed to add a lot of detail to create a complete, believable and appealing world. So I stopped there and revised what I’d already written, building in that world before continuing. As usual, when I reached the end, things had changed along the way and I had to do several revisions to focus the story more sharply toward that ending. And then, I had to take out some of the detail I had added and make some changes in the lead character. Now I find I need to dive in again and re-define two of the characters.

I thought about revisions when I pulled out some of my father’s carvings. My dad was a great amateur artist and he did a lot of wonderful, whimsical wood carvings.  Late in life, he had eye problems and although he didn’t abandon art, he put down his carving knife. After he died, I found some unfinished carvings and as soon as I looked at them, they reminded me of a writer’s rough drafts. The shape is there but the sharp cuts aren’t. The little details aren’t there either and none of the color. And yet, in each one, I can already see the personality emerging! Dad always put a lot of character – and movement – into his carvings.

Dog in progress

This dog is just a beginning – the shape is very rough. But already I know that he’s an inquisitive hound.

Cranky gnome This gnome-like creature looks like a cranky Hobbit to me. He’s definitely not a happy one.

Lady Skater This lady skater didn’t fare well in my suitcase. She’s rough as well – no defined skates yet, the hands are very rough. Still, I see the breeze picking up the ends of her scarf and the way he was going to catch her in an off-balance pose. Dad did a lot of skaters and they always could stand on their tiny carved skates, except for the one on his rear end.

(By the way, Uncle Alf’s magical Christmas village and the woodcarver who makes the angel – both in The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs – were inspired by Dad’s incredible Christmas village.)