She is a simple clay figure, an aid to fertility, fashioned in a classic folk style. She sits on a shelf in my bookcase with other treasured objects. I bought her in a crowded shop in Taiwan. She was one of many, all slightly different, all standing together. They were as simple as the desire and made only to help fulfill a wish.

I wanted to buy several, picturing them mounted in a row on a polished driftwood base, but I could afford only one. I was told it was made by an artist from an indigenous tribe that lives on Orchid Island. A trip by seaplane could be arranged? I shook my head, no.

I choose one and turn her gently around in my hands. It is easy to picture her as a lump of wet clay in the hands of the artist. She has a small head that grows wider toward her chin and merges into a thick, strong neck. Her ears are applied and her nose tweaked-out from her face between the artist’s forefinger and thumb. Her mouth is open.

She wears a full-length gown and squats on wide feet. Her two knees push out from the lower part of her encompassing garment, which spreads wide so she stands flat and secure. Her long, heavy arms are bent straight in at the elbows. Her stubby hands hold a swaddled baby tightly against her chest.

There are marks of the artist’s hands pushing and molding the soft clay, squeezing it in here and there and making little cuts into the hands to indicate fingers, little dents into the face for eyes. Her stony and rough surface is barely smoothed a bit and then fired, not painted or decorated. Fine polishing is clearly not important, all that is needed is a figure with the basic look of a human female holding a baby.

Other artifacts at my home are unlike the fertility sculpture. One is a Toby pitcher, a smooth porcelain portrait head of General Montgomery from the WWII campaign in the desert. He is carefully molded and painted in bright colors. His expression is superior and confidant. He is meant to be an individual person, even though many identical Monty heads were molded.

Another ceramic I treasure is an unpainted Chinese bearer. He is made of fine clay but only sanded smooth and bisque fired, not glazed. He stands at stiff attention. His right arm hangs straight down, the left is tightly folded up. His left hand at his shoulder holds a support for a Palanquin. His gown is formal, as befits an important and trusted servant. He was a courtier in the long-ago past, one of many molded to be exactly the same. He is still ready to serve his master in the after life.

Neither of these figures appeal to me the way the Taiwanese figure does. My Orchid Island lady is one of an endless chain of similar-but-different, quickly-fashioned figures. Still, she seems an individual presence as she delivers her powerful message—and she clearly expresses a universal human wish.

Copyright © 2015 by Mary Wallis Gutmann






My boss has a pooch she brings to the office.

A West Highland White Terrier,

an old one—rather foxed, like an old book,

brown around the edges.


She gleans, like Ruth,

under our desks all day,

sniffing for morsels we drop.

We all eat lunch at our desks.


This is no ordinary pooch, however

she is a newly emancipated female.


She had a mate, older than she.

They used to visit us together and he dominated.

She followed him around with downcast eyes,

he got all the tid-bits and the handouts and the gleanings.


He died two months ago.


Now she lifts her sweet simple face

to look at us—perks her ears,

even tries to wag her tail (rather stiff from disuse).

She’s a clearly happy woman.

Free to glean alone, after all these years.


She’s in the limelight now.


April story — Only a Woman, After All


Eloise and I are having a quiet conversation. We’ve been to visit my mother in the hospital Rehab Unit where she is recovering from a stroke. We’ve had dinner at Eloise’s house and now we are sitting in her living room finishing the meal with an evening cup of tea. The room is small, but two love seats covered in a pale flower pattern and a large, comfortable tub chair fit nicely in front of a bay window that looks far out over Lake Erie. There are lights on the fishing boats coming in to port. One wall is filled with a bookcase housing a collection of figurines as well as books. Opposite is a fireplace with flames crackling at a low ebb. A glass-covered table holds a tea tray; silver sugar and creamer flank a flower-embroidered tea cozy-covered teapot.

My mother had made friends with Eloise some years before and asked her to look after her investments. Eloise did that and more, and after her stroke, Mother became Eloise’s hobby—with weekly visits and phone calls to me in the U.S.  reporting on Mother’s progress or lack of it. Eloise insisted I stay with her when I made trips to Canada four times a year. “No sense giving it to a hotel when I have a guest bedroom,” she’d say.

After re-hashing all the pertinent facts about my mother and coming up with very few new ones, we sit silent. Wondering what we’ll talk about next, I remember that Eloise lived in Washington, D.C. during World War II. So I ask her a general question to get her talking about it.

“I wonder how you, a Canadian, wound up in the States in the late 30s and what your life was like then?”

Eloise has a sip of tea and says slowly, “Washington. I first saw her there. Eleanor Roosevelt, she was my idol…” She looks off into the distance, reflecting on memories that have been triggered by my question. I wait for this turn of conversation to focus. No hurry, we have nothing but time.

“She had great courage and she was not afraid to speak her mind. I’ll tell you about her…” Eloise says.

“But first, how did I get to Washington? Well, after I graduated from school, I got a job with a bank. I was always good at math. We lived in Montreal. My family had settled there, but we were originally from England, so the French culture didn’t rub off much. I worked my way up at the bank over several years, and then applied for an administrative job when it opened up. It would have been a logical career step, but the bank executives all but laughed. The idea, a woman applying to supervise men in 1937? Never heard of it.

“At the same time, I was married, but several years had gone by and no children came. I had some problems and had gone to the doctor’s clinic for a procedure and…” she waves her hand back and forth, clearly not wanting to go into details.

“Afterward, the doctor talked privately with my husband, Daniel. That’s the way they did it in those days.

“Daniel never told me, but the nurse did. You see, after I had no more monthly visitation. I had gone back to the office to see what was going on—or, as it turned out, what wasn’t. She explained that instead of the simple procedure the doctor was supposed to do, he had expanded on it. He had said to the nurse, ‘She didn’t need all that stuff, anyway…’ The doctor had also told Daniel, but my husband’s a man of few words, you know. He’s a Scotchman, after all; silent and easily embarrassed. The doctor would never have asked me, of course, he had made the decision for me because I was only a woman.”

There was a silence between us for a moment, and then I was aghast when I understood what Eloise was talking about. “You’re saying the doctor never asked your permission to do drastic, permanent surgery? He gave you no choice, nor any information?”

“Just a woman.” Eloise shakes her head gently and looks down the hall, listening to the rise and fall of soccer match sounds from Daniel’s television in the study. “So, there could be no children and I could expect little from a career in banking, either.” Eloise’s voice is even, but her feelings come through.

“England was in that undeclared time, that false war with Germany. There were soldiers from every country in the British Empire, and especially, Canada, who were serving in the British war effort. Then, in 1939, when Britain declared war formally, I knew what would happen. I had been expecting it. Daniel was in a Canadian reserve unit but he was too old to be called up. The day of the announcement, when I came home from work, I went into Daniel’s bedroom and he was packing. ‘Are you off?’ I asked?”

“Yup. Volunteer.”

“He didn’t look at me, just asked for a pair of extra-warm socks to cram into the last empty corner of his bag. He left early the next morning and went to England with his reserve company on a ship. Except for short, cryptic cables and the rare note, that was the last I heard from him for a while.”

Eloise refills her cup, adds cream and sugar and signals by holding up the pot, do I want a refill too? I shake my head, no, and think, her tea is too strong for me. She smiles, reading my mind, and repeats her perennial joke, “Tea should be strong, you know—you Americans like it so weak it hardly pours out the spout.” I smile and wait for her to go on.

“Remember, the bank didn’t say it, that I was just a woman, but that’s what they meant. It really rankled. I could do the work and I deserved the job. I kept looking; trying to find something to turn my hand to. Then I came into a bit of luck.

The newspaper said the government of the United States was advertising for people to work in Washington on a special assignment. It was some cooperative deal between U.S. and the United Kingdom. No details about the work beyond good English and financial skills required. I applied.”

She chuckles and chooses a biscuit to dip in her tea. “Mother was upset. She was more than upset. She could not imagine me, the oldest child, her daughter, leaving the family and going far away. She put her foot down, she thought, but I was a married woman and I applied. Soon after, I got my answer and went south on the sleeper train.

“Our offices were right in the White House, and we were assigned to work on the Lend-Lease program. It was top secret and we were sworn not to talk—not to breathe a word. Public feeling in Washington was negative toward getting into the war at that time and negative towards England and anyone English because that friendship might get us in.

Harry Hopkins, President Roosevelt’s aide, was our contact and clearly in charge. We were eight Canadians who were recruited and we were quite a group, quite a group.” She looks up, smiling, her eyes on this distant image—on a place and a time and on people whose memory makes her smile.

“Harry Hopkins, the President’s assistant, was serving his president well. They saw that England and Europe and probably Russia, could not withstand Hitler’s power without U.S. help. With German U-boats sinking ships at sea and England having no money left, they knew America had to do something. Winston Churchill was the main instigator, of course. The U.S. couldn’t get into the war right then, and the Germans had spent huge sums in gold in the U.S. to float propaganda to keep the American people convinced to stay out. Advertising and lobbying weren’t invented today, you know.

“Sending material aid—everything from food and clothing to warships—was popular, though, and the idea of the U.S. being paid back after the war was popular, too. It helped raise the country further out of the Depression, since the goods were made in America. Manufacturing was already onto a war-time footing and was pumping a lot of money into the economy and Lend Lease would push it farther. At least, that’s what the White House staff said would happen, and it did.”

I wondered aloud if Canadians might have been recruited to work on the plan since British accents were unpopular around Washington?

“Could be, but that all changed on December 7, 1941, didn’t it?” Eloise said. “From one minute to the next, Americans were ready to help anyone fight the Axis—even to side with the Russians—and our program was suddenly seen as vital to the success of the war effort and we had the Lend Lease bill ready to sign.”

“But Washington began shaping the program long before it was announced?”

“Yes, of course, it was an entirely new idea, you see. And there were many details to be worked out, and the American people had to be convinced that Germany was a danger to us; even an ocean away.”

Eloise looked into her teacup. No leaves to be seen; maybe she saw pictures in the swirl of cream. I nibbled a scone and waited, trying to picture her in Washington, D.C. in the 1940s. America was still shaking off the Depression, and I suspected not much was available in the shops in the way of fashion.

What did Eloise look like then? Thirty-nine years old, Canadian. Was she plain and British-looking as now, in the 80s? Did she wear her usual heavy stockings, serious small-heeled shoes, a gray Harris Tweed suit with a white blouse? Or was her clothing more current: a skirt cut in gores, a jacket with a peplum, perhaps? I picture her hair, now naturally softly salt and pepper; then, beauty-parlor curled. It would have been a light chestnut, the color was still reflected in her eyebrows, and maybe in a more stylish cut. Was she slim and still youthfully pretty? She has blue eyes, a clear, pale complexion—fair with pink cheeks, regular features, and a warm, generous smile, she was probably lovely, I thought.

“Harry Hopkins was the spark,” she says, “Harry was the one who seemed to start everything. But we didn’t just spend our time working, we went out. And did we go out. Washington was alive with excitement in those days. I remember plays and shows, and films, and of course, the Opera. The Opera, my favorite.

“We went to see the Opera and hear symphony orchestras and then a wonderful chance came along to hear Marian Anderson. Marian Anderson, the voice of the century. She was going to sing at a War Bond show, a fund-raising, to be held in Constitution Hall. We were excited, we ran over and bought tickets right away. But then the Daughters of the American Revolution, the DAR, who owned the Hall, wouldn’t permit an integrated audience and so she refused to sing. There was a furor, everyone got into it, including the First Lady. She became my heroine when she resigned from the DAR, along with a thousand others who agreed with her.

“Eleanor Roosevelt. A great lady. A lady who knew what was right and what was important—and that everyone was equally important. She was my inspiration.

“The organizers finally worked out plans for a concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Our group went, you can be sure of that, along with seventy five thousand others. That was an Easter Sunday to remember, a Sunday when I saw her people dressed in beautiful clothes for the first time. Huge hats, colorful and stylish. I had only seen these same people either working as house and office cleaners and wearing their employer’s castoff clothing, or in maid or butler’s uniforms, or working on the trains, where Waiters or Porters wore immaculate, crisp, pressed outfits; but never one person in business or concert-going clothes, not ever.

“Here everyone at the concert was beautifully dressed and I was glad to see it. You know, in Canada, we hadn’t the silly rules that kept people behind a line—we didn’t have the prejudice that slavery had engendered, in fact, Ontario was a part of the Underground Railway. I’ll take you to see some of the graves over in Niagra-on-the-Lake.

“Following that huge concert success, Marian Anderson gave several other performances and we saw every one.” She pauses to savor the memories. Then she sighs. “There was one young man in my group who spent time with me—or, I should say, we spent time together. We were inseparable for those six years, but then he left before our time was up. He became ill and had to go home and it was difficult. I heard later that he died.”

I could see this was a story she had not told before. I decide we should move from that memory, she is obviously close to tears. “What happened to Daniel during the war?” I ask. She has made no further mention of her husband. “I know he was overseas from the first, but did he ever get home for some R&R?”

“Yes, Daniel.” She draws a deep breath. “Well, I always knew where he was stationed, we knew everything at the White House. He was in a supply unit, and when I found he was going from England down to the desert campaign in Egypt, I sent him the proper uniforms for that climate. He couldn’t get over it, sent me a note after to say, “Thank you and, how did you know?” It was a month before time when he received the parcel, but I knew everything before he did. I sent the outfit in a diplomatic pouch.

“And, R&R? When he had some time off, he went to visit relatives in Scotland. He could hop a flight up there from the front, so he never came home during his six years in service.

“And we were working long hours on the Lend-Lease act. I typed the rough drafts, and the later versions, over and over, hundreds  of times. No computer corrections in those days. There could be no errors, no erasures, even in the preliminary stages when it was shown for changes or crits as a working document. When it was perfect, absolutely perfect, checked and re-checked and triple-checked, and approved by Congress, it went to the President to sign. And he did, in March of 1941. At last, the American people responded to help Britain with war materiel of all kinds. Of course, the President had found ways, by Executive Order and such, to send ships and other equipment before that. By Pearl Harbor, the U.S. and Canada were in full wartime production.

“Those years, until the end of the War, were the most exciting of my life. But I had to go home to Canada when Daniel was released. We took up our old ways, and then we moved from Montreal because there was big talk of secession by French Canada in the early 60s. We settled in Ontario and I began working in another bank—no promotions there, either. But then a co-worker was starting a brokerage. We left our jobs and began the agency together. I had the opportunity with him to do the work I deserved and soon I became the top bond salesperson in the area. It wasn’t as exciting as war work, but I met all the well-put-together people in town and my partner and I ran a successful business. Who says a woman can’t be an executive now? I did very well, thank you. In fact, Daniel and I could afford to take a trip around the world when we retired.

She has a last sip of tea, then sits back and smiles, “When I think of it, I was not able to be a mother, but I love all my nieces and nephews. I might not have had a job at all if I had a family, and I really enjoy working. And what if the original bank had given me a chance? I would never have wound up in Washington being an observer and even a participant in a small way in world events. Moving to Ontario when our family had been firmly rooted in Montreal gave me a different life and a chance at the work they said I’d never get, being female. So, there you are, you never know what life will bring, you just have to be ready to grab it when it comes—and have no regrets.

By Mary Wallis Gutmann copyright © 2014

Story for March — Concentration


Some people love to tell stories. Joe, the Chief Pressman at a large printing company, was a large, genial man who always had a story. I met him for the first time when I worked for a small college. As director of publications, I oversaw design and production of posters, books, and catalogs. Joe’s company had been low bidder on a six-color book and we were working on it.

Printing setup takes time. Finally the big Heidelberg offset press was running in slow mode, turning out printed covers one by one. Joe, his assistant, and I were inspecting the “make-readies,” the first printed pieces, to see if they were up to the quality we demanded.

“See the guy over there?” Joe said, pointing with his unlit cigar at a man working carefully on a much smaller press across the floor of the huge printing room. “He has an interesting story, I’ll take you over to meet him if he’s free when your job is running good.

“Hey, Mike, remember the other rollers,” Joe shouted at him. The man grinned and nodded and did a thumbs-up in silent response. I took another look at him. He was a short, stocky man with a square face and a short neck that rounded into narrow shoulders. His small mouth and slanted eyes gave him the appearance of someone I’d seen or met. Then I realized I didn’t know him as a person, he just had a look I’d seen before. Mike’s appearance identified him immediately as having Down’s Syndrome.

Joe had been genially shouting at Mike ever since I had come in, at least an hour before. I took Joe’s manner for granted since he was in charge and aware of everything that was going on. He was always yelling at someone and, indeed, yelling was the only way anyone could be heard when four or five presses and other machines were in operation.

Sounds were magnified in the bare concrete factory building: whirr-whirr; click-clack, click-clack; stamp, bang, stamp; ching, ching, ching. They followed one another, all rapid fire, all weaving and layering over and under one another and bouncing off the hard walls. The metallic din rose up toward the several stories-high ceiling, echoing and dissipating as it went.

Joe looked at one more make-ready of my printing job, approved it for my viewing, and when I smiled, nodded a go-ahead to his assistant and said to me, “Come on in my office, I’ll give you a cup of coffee and tell you about Mike.”

Joe’s office was clean and bare, with glass window walls along two sides looking out onto the factory floor. Dusty bands of sunlight from the clearstory windows high above crisscrossed at angles to the floor. It was quiet enough inside the office to talk.

“His Mom’s a neighbor of mine,” Joe said. “She’s got only him and when he was a baby she was that upset about him, let me tell you.” I looked again at the man. His machine was not running. He was polishing every inch of one of the rollers and it was shining.

“He looks fine to me,” I said, “what’s the story?”

“Well, Mike ain’t fine, really.” Mike’s Mom was real upset when the docs told her he had Down’s sickness or something like that. He was a cute little baby even if he had a puggy nose and a funny face, and when he got older he just smiled all the time. Good natured, you know? Not like my kids, he never cried that I can remember unless he fell down and really got hurt. But he didn’t talk, and he didn’t talk, and pretty soon his Mom started to think what could she do for him? How would he grow up? What would he do when she was gone?

“So she took him in for tests and they said, ‘Put him in a special school,’ and so she did. But she kept him at home to live and drove him over every day even though it was a long way. Then she sat and waited for him while he was in the classes, she was that devoted to him. He was her only one, remember? ‘No live-away home for Mike, she said.’

“They did help him at that school. He learned to talk and they found he was a bit deaf, but with a hearing aid he started to do better. Then, after a few years he was gettin’ to be a teenager and she wasn’t any younger and then her husband had a heart attack. Lucky the husband was a Union guy, the disability pension helped a lot and with Social Security, they got by. Mike was too old for school by then and he was just around the house. Nuthin’ for him to do.

“Mike’s Mom said to me, did I have simple work for him? Maybe sweep the floor? So I started to take him with me every day and I trained him to clean up. I can tell you we never had the floor so clean. I had to tell him to quit. Then I saw him watchin’ one of the guys runnin’ one of our small two-color presses. I says to myself, let’s see if he can learn to help on that and, guess what, he could.”

Joe paused to refill his coffee maker. As he worked on it, I remembered a years-old story about another, quite different, printing company. My partners and I owned a tabloid-sized community newspaper and two of us were watching the press run. It was being printed on a small web press in a sweatshop in a dark deep sub-basement city print shop. The dingy, freezing cold space was so filled with huge rolls of newsprint paper there was barely room to walk around. The web press was going at full speed. The paper threaded around, up, and over the rollers in a complex pattern, catching the inked impressions, and being folded and trimmed into a finished newspaper every second. The pressman, who was also the boss, was watching intently and his assistant was walking around. I was fishing out printed papers from the mounting stack to check their quality.

Suddenly there was a shout, the Pressman hit the panic button and the press stopped instantly. The assistant lay on his back on the stone floor under the press. It had happened so quickly that it took me a second to realize the man had been stripped naked from the waist up—he had nothing on at all above his blue jeans. He was white and still. My newspaper partner drew in a deep breath and ran up the steep stairs yelling, “Ambulance.” I knelt over the man, who was now aware and moaning, “Can you hear me?” I said, “Wiggle your fingers, open your eyes, talk to me…” he obediently did all I asked and then flexed his arms and legs. Soon it was clear we could safely put pads of newspaper under and over him to keep him warm until help arrived. I was worried about him lying on the freezing concrete floor. I took off my coat and put it over him. When the ambulance arrived, I drove my little car after them to the hospital. I was trembling uncontrollably—and it was not just from the cold.

The man had been wearing heavy, long-sleeved BVD underwear, an outdoor plaid wool work shirt on top, and a thick denim printer’s apron over all. He had ventured too close and brushed a roller with his sleeve—a tiny slip, just a split second. The press had ripped every bit of his layers of clothing off so quickly I doubt a camera could have captured the motion. I don’t want to imagine what would have happened if buttons and ties had not released when he pulled away in panic. He had been freed to fall back, away from the press. As it was, he had three broken ribs, dislocated his shoulder, and had many bruises and much pain.

Sitting in the hospital, waiting for his family to arrive, I remembered that the shop had an old, hot-metal linotype press. They used it to make fancy wedding invitations. The type was made of lead, melted down and re-cast when the letters would wear down. I suspected that breathing the fumes for twenty years when the lead was melted was the reason for his loss of focus.

In buying printing, I have seen many different types of presses in operation and have always been impressed with the respect the pressmen have shown for their machines. They are always wary—they know the damage the press can do.


Joe handed me a fresh cup of his steaming hot brew. “Hard to believe, but it’s been twenty years and Mike runs that little press nearly all by himself. I get him started on work, of course, and I watch him. If there’s a new kind of job, I or one of my guys shows him the steps. They know how to understand him, even though he don’t talk too clear—his tongue’s kinda’ thick, you know? But he gets everything, even jokes. For instance, we have a little gag. I told him one time that he was so much work for me, he was giving me gray hair—just kiddin’ around—and, after a while, he understood why that’s a funny thing to say. Now he says it to me if I’ve kept after him a lot. He says it in that way he talks, kind of jumpy and down in his throat, ‘I’m getting gray hair,’ and we all get it and we all laugh. He loves that. It means a lot to him when people understand him. Like he’s one of the boys, you know? Of course, When he first started, I had to be tougher on him than any of my other men—kept after him all the time. But he was okay with it, he knew it was for his own protection. Now once the job is goin,’ he’s great. He never wavers, he’s at one hundred percent attention.

All the time Joe was talking to me, Mike was working with another printer to set his press up. Soon it was ready and running. Mike gave an okay signal to his partner and looked over at the office window and gave Joe a thumbs-up. Joe nodded—a big, slow, dramatic nod—and gave a thumbs-up to him in return. Mike turned back to the press and increased the speed, watching with complete attention. “Mike never gets distracted when he’s on a job,” Joe said. “When I yell, he gives me the old thumbs-up sign or the okay with his thumb and finger round to let me know he’s got it.

“A few years ago his Dad died and now he supports his Mom. How about that, isn’t that somethin’? She never would have thought, and neither would I, when she came to me that day years ago to have him learn to sweep the floor. No, sir, she never would have had any idea that he would be a regular employed guy and supporting both of them someday. Like they say, ‘he’s the sole support of his family.’ Come on over, I’ll introduce ya.”

We walked across the floor and Joe said to Mike, “This lady was admiring how you cleaned up your machine.”

Mike looked at me and smiled, “Maybe I’m better than Joe thinks, even if I give him gray hair?” He spoke slowly and, since I was prepared for his guttural style and knew the joke, I understood every word.

We all laughed and Joe handed him a cup of coffee. Then we stood and watched as Mike looked after the job—now and then lifting a finished sheet to see if it was consistent with the rest and making small adjustments to the machine. “Pretty good?” he asked, turning to look at us.

Joe and I nodded. “Pretty good, Mike,” Joe replied, “Everything you do is pretty good,” and he gave a dramatic thumbs up.

Mike beamed.

By Mary Wallis Gutmann copyright © 2014


Alvin was a nephew of the boss. He worked down the hall from me. About ten times a day, he would set out from his office, walking in my direction. His walk was a slow and firm stamp, stamp, stamp, his big feet spread wide, toes turned out; knees apart. If my door was open, as it usually was, I could hear him coming. He would continue for about twenty paces, stop, hesitate in place, mumble to himself something about, “What was it I wanted?” turn around and go back. He was in his thirties, too young for such memory lapses.

Alvin had charge of the sample library. We designed fashion accessories—handbags, belts, scarves, etc. Product samples were kept in storage rooms in the warehouse below the offices where we worked. Alvin’s office was full of fabric swatches. He was supposed to catalog and keep track of them. It was the wrong job for Alvin.

“I have asked you for swatches of taupe canvas for summer bags for two days, Alvin.” This was the boss shouting over the PA system. The boss loved the PA system. He switched it on countless times a day to communicate, harass, give orders, and (one of his favorite terms) to “needle” his employees.

There would be a click and then the sound of breathing when he turned the PA on. This was when he was deciding what to say. Then the message began. The message varied from, “I want you all to know…” that someone had failed in some attempt to do something and he was convening a small meeting about it. Or he was on the edge of firing someone, and he was hinting at their identity. Or he was just bored and wanted us all to know he was there.

On this day, the day of the Taupe Swatch, the problem was Alvin. The boss could not fire Alvin. Alvin was a relative and needed the job. So he yelled at him.

Alvin sat in my office after the PA announcement about taupe. This was after being yelled at countless times over the past few days. “They always yell,” he said. “I worked for my father and my cousin and now my uncle and they all yell.” He didn’t seem particularly unhappy, just resigned. It was a fact of life to him—“They’re all yellers,” he said.

Usually I could ignore the fussing between Alvin and the boss but today was different. I was involved. I was responsible for designing the handbag line and the boss needed to see swatches to envision the finished project. It was afternoon and the battle over taupe had gone on since the opening bell.

I went to Alvin’s office to look around myself for taupe canvas swatches. His office was small and square, rather like Alvin. It was looked as if there had been colorful explosions and myriad bits of fabric attached to little cards had flown up, wafted down, and landed all over. More fabric swatches were tacked haphazardly on his corkboard walls. There was no obvious sequence, they mounded on his desk and spilled out of three file cabinets onto the floor. Wading was what you did when you entered Alan’s office.

The boss went to lunch and called from the golf course restaurant. They patched his voice in to the PA. “Someone get me swatches of taupe canvas by tomorrow morning,” he roared, “I am going to play golf all afternoon, I am too annoyed to stay in that disorganized place and work. Tomorrow morning, first thing, the word is, taupe.”

I’d had enough. “This is it, Alvin, I said, I am going to bear the brunt of this mess so I might as well be responsible all the way.” I grabbed an empty rolling file, marched up to his office, piled in the swatches, and marched back with them. There weren’t as many as there had seemed to be, but it took me all afternoon to sort and put some up on my cork walls and the rest in files.

The next morning the boss stopped in my office as he came in. He was not happy to see the swatches ranged in orderly rows on my walls. He’d been looking forward to his morning yell at Alvin. “Who appointed you to be swatch librarian?” he said as he glared at me. His cheeks pinked in anger and his mouth compressed into a line. I said nothing, the best course of action with this particular boss. I noticed he had on his spiffy two-toned golf shoes. He was ready to sail out of there on the wings of anger for a second day if he could pick a good enough fight.

“Humph,” he said, “Okay, Miss Smart Swatch-Keeper, find me some good taupe canvas samples and do it fast.” He stamped off to his office.

I chose six fabric swatches I liked, put in a couple more for him to reject, and three with printed patterns I knew would make him yell. Then I got my sketches together and walked the long hallway to his office. He was talking to a supplier and waved me away. I hid out of his view, I knew better than to go all the way back, and in a minute he was on the PA bellowing for me and for taupe. I waited three minutes by the clock and went in. He already had two secretaries, a bookkeeper, and Alvin in uncomfortable attendance.

“Okay, Miss Swatch Queen, what’ve you got?” He was smiling. He liked me, as much as he liked anyone. As it happened, I had on a taupe sweater over a striped taupe and black shirt. I wondered if he would comment on this and suggest we cut swatches, but he didn’t. He just looked at my offerings. I spread them out in a fan on his large dark wood desktop. He didn’t really look, he barely glanced. Now I could see he was up to something and he was ready for me.

He began immediately to yell, “What do you call all this? Not one of these is taupe.” He stood up (a bad sign) and howled, his voice rising higher with each word, picking up swatches as he ranted, “Taupe is not light brown, it is not tan, it is not dark off-white, it is not warm gray, it is not beige, it is not buff, it is TAUPE! Now, pack up this stuff and find me a duplicate of this swatch.”

With that, he pulled a card from his pocket. It had a frayed piece of fabric less than an inch across stapled onto it. “By the way, this is one I found all by myself, and I don’t have a fancy library of thousands of swatches.” He grinned, all calmed down and pleased with himself. “It’s too small to cut up and send to factories, so you need to get me more.”

Well, I sure got set up, I thought, picked up my collection and left quickly. Alvin ran after me and said, breathlessly, “He made me look for two days, you know…” Usually the boss’s manner didn’t bother me, mainly because it wasn’t directed at me, but this time, it was. I glared at Alvin. I should have let him suffer and stayed out of it, I thought. Stupid me. By the time I got back to my office I was sniffling into a tissue with anger and frustration. I looked over all the taupe canvas samples I had taken from Alvin, trying to find a match for swatch the boss had magically produced. Not one was exact, but there was a close one in color and texture. I was sitting at my desk when Barry walked in. He had heard some of the commotion and, as usual, he found it funny.

“So, you’re now the Taupe Maven?” he said, smiling. He sat down, leaned his chair back, and put his feet on my work table. Barry was a product manager, like me, except he had been in the business all his life. He knew the game. His family owned one of the original twelve or thirteen New York handbag companies. He was a comfortable, good-natured guy. He had on his usual tan outfit—tan chinos, rather baggy, tan canvas work shirt and soft tan suede shoes. Too bad that shirt’s not taupe, I thought.

“It’s not the time to joke, Barry, I can’t deal with this,” I said, dumping the swatches in front of him. “Look at these fabrics I’ve found, not one is an exact match and there’s no time to go to the fabric store and I doubt I’d find what he wants if I could,” I was beginning to babble. “Look here, this one is a very nice taupe,” (waving a swatch under his nose), “but it doesn’t match the one the boss found.” I had never felt so frustrated and angry. I was close to a real cry.

Barry grinned, “Relax, we’ll fix it,” he said. “Hand me the scissors and a blank sample card and the stapler.” Barry looked carefully at the boss’s little swatch, ripped it off the card, and threw it in the wastebasket. I was horrified. “Barry…”

“Just watch,” he said. I’ll bet you can guess what he did. He cut a tiny piece from my close-to-it fabric sample, frayed the edges a bit, and carefully stapled it in place of the boss’s original. Then he cut a bigger piece, attached it to the blank card, and filled in some information. “What are you writing?” I asked. “Bogus stuff, nonsense,” he said, looking up with a grin. “Who cares where it came from? Or the thread count? Just makes it look authentic, like a fake provenance on an antique.”

Alvin was still in the office with the boss when I walked in with my bogus swatch. The boss was suspicious. “How did you find this so fast?” he asked after twisting and turning the tiny stand-in and comparing it in daylight with the larger swatch and reading the baloney on the card that Barry had conjured up. He finally said, “Well, it’s not as good as I thought it was, but it’ll have to do,” pushing it back to me across his desk. “Hope you learned today what taupe looks like?” I nodded.

Alvin was amazed. He said at lunch, “I didn’t know I had that big swatch in all those swatches you took from my office, where was it?” I smiled and said it was misfiled. I heard a laugh badly disguised as a cough from the next table. I knew who it was, I didn’t look at Barry.


Copyright © 2015 Mary Wallis Gutmann



After a setback with a broken wrist, my next story is ready to go––and here it is. With any luck, I’ll put in a new one at least every month and maybe every couple of weeks. These stories are unrelated except that they are all mine. They come from my life and I hope they will send echoes cascading into readers’ lives as well. Different people are featured, from different corners of my experience, and from many different years.

Your thoughts and stories are welcome. Please send me an email; the address is listed on the homepage. I will include those that seem to me to be of interest generally, together with an attribution. So make sure to include your real name and other pertinent information. This is a free story blog, but the choice is mine.


Mary Wallis Gutmann


SOME TIME IN THE EARLY 1980s I went into a notions shop in the Garment District in Manhattan. I was looking for a bright stripe to add to a handbag design I was working on. It seemed there were only three people in the long, narrow space. Two glass display cases, crammed with buttons and tapes and embroidered patches and lace stood opposite one another, stretching half-way down the store. The walls were also filled, from counter-height to ceiling, with decorative and glittery items to sew onto or decorate with.

The three people were having a conference about embroidered patches. The man behind the counter was obviously the owner and he was saying, “This one’s just in,” and holding it up. His customers, a woman and a man, were listening.

I looked around and saw that there were several people in the back of the store. They were not looking at the merchandise, they were looking at the customers in the front and whispering. Since they had no coats, I decided they were employees and turned back to look again at the customers.

Their backs were to me as they listened to the man behind the counter. The man was unusually tall. He looked down and listened to his companion, who was leading the conversation. She had grey medium-length hair that stood out all over her head in frantic curls. She was slim and something about her was familiar. I listened to what she was saying; she was holding up a piece of decorative braid.

“Do you remember? I had nothing to wear for the Oscars last year and so I got out an old navy blazer and sewed this kind of embroidered tape along the lapels and down the front and then covered the blazer all over—I mean, just covered it—with all kinds and sizes of patches; the shinier the better. See there? It was like that one…”

With that, she pointed at a large embroidered emblem on the pegboard display wall. Now she didn’t point the way an ordinary person points—holding up the hand, elbow bent, finger out. She raised her whole arm in a graceful arc and stretched it to full length. She kept her fingers together until the last moment and then unleashed a long index finger with a bright red nail in the direction of the patch. She said, “See, there.” It was a real stage point and, even from the back, with grey hair, I immediately recognized the gesture and then the voice of Carol Channing.

Oh my, I thought, isn’t she wonderful. Even in this little store she is her dramatic self and what fun she is.

I debated going up to her and saying, “Miss Channing, I have loved you all my life.” But I decided quickly that wouldn’t do for me to say. After all, I am a woman who could be the same age as she or even older. While I was thinking, hoping for inspiration, she and her companion made a purchase and began to walk out and it was the moment for me to speak. Now or… but I still couldn’t think what to say, and so I never got the chance.

But I’ve been thinking about it now, all these years later. Perhaps I could have said, “Miss Channing, I believe I saw you in a summer “One Woman” show out of town (I think, in Albany). At least, to me you were the only one on stage, if there was someone else in the show, they were eclipsed by your glamour.” No, too effusive, leave off that last sentence even if true.

Or could I have said, “You were great in ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,’ you stole the show.” But she was the show from the start, wasn’t she? At least as I remember it, it could have been written for her. She was the blonde, and center stage, and I can’t remember anyone but her. She glowed. And that voice, that amazing raspy style and slightly whiny sound. Unforgettable.

Or, perhaps I could just have extended my hand (or better yet, made a little bow in recognition), and said, “How do you do, Miss Channing, my name is…” No, my name would have been of no interest to her unless I had a program for her to sign and probably not even then. How about, “Miss Channing, I hope you’re going to do another show soon. I’d love to see you on stage again.” That might have opened a conversation, but then would I have been able to hold a conversation with Carol Channing? Somehow I can’t picture it.

So I guess it may have been better and more polite and just plain kinder to simply admire her silently as I did, and hope she had some idea she was recognized by a fan even if her hair was gray and she had no makeup on. Perhaps famous people, even effusive actors like Carol Channing, enjoy being ordinary shoppers once in a while. I’m sure she didn’t intend to reveal her special verve with that great gesture, that long arm, that wonderful finger pointing. It was second nature to her—she couldn’t be ordinary if a part in a show demanded it.

September 2014 — BROWN SOAP

In 1941, my mother had a machine to wash the clothes. Before I went to Primary School, when I was a small person of about six years, I remember how both impressed and wary I was when the machine was in operation. Since it was too tall for me to peer into its mysterious insides, I could only imagine the helpless clothes in the soapy water. It was blue with gleaming silver stripes on the outside and (I was told) pure white porcelain on the inside.

The washer was barrel-shaped and squat. It stood on four wide legs made of flat metal that curled around at the bottom for feet. It lived in the laundry room. When it was washing clothes, the hard rhythmic sloshing back and forth made a commotion and it moved slightly across the linoleum floor. It seemed to me there was some essence of life inside; this added to its mystery.

My Mother hated it. I knew she did by the way she looked at it, but she never said so. I didn’t know, then, why she felt that way, but I could imagine she was wishing it would go stumping out the door, down the road, and gone. The dog did, too. She drooped her tail and left the room quickly when it was working. I would peek into the room from the doorway. Mother always rejected my help. She said I would get wet, or the hot water was dangerous, or the soap would be too rough for my skin.

On laundry day, always Monday for some reason, my Mother would get out the dirty clothes and the box of pebbly white detergent and a cake of brown soap. Then she would fill the washer with hot water and add some boiling water from her kettle. I could see the steam rise and Mother would say, “There, now it’s really hot.” She’d wet the stains and dirt on the clothes and rub them with brown soap before plunging them into the swirling white bubbles in the machine.

After the clothes were washed and had been rinsed until the water was clear, my Mother would start the mangle, which was attached to the top of the washer. It was simply a pair of rollers set closely together that squished out the water when you fed the clothes between them. But it was as scary as the washer, since you could get your hand caught in the rollers and painfully squeezed (at least, that’s what Mother said to warn me off). The dog and I left that scene rather quickly.

She would put the flatly mangled clothes in an oblong wicker basket and carry it balanced on her shoulder to the back porch door. We had a clothesline, a double rope that stretched from the house to a tree next to the garage. It was wound over a pulley at each end, so it was in two layers. Mother would stand and clip a sock to the line with a wooden clothespin, push the line away from her a bit and add the next sock, until the whole line was filled. Sometimes if she had a lot of clothes, she’d put the small ones on the top part of the line and then walk out along it, into the yard, clipping the sheets and towels to the bottom line as she went.

If it was cold, my mother’s hands would be red when she came in. If it was windy, the clothes flapped on the line, making sharp slapping noises. When it was freezing outside, they froze; sometimes into stiff, contorted shapes. Washing was a chore, not fun. I checked every so often from the back porch or a window to see if she was finished. When she was, she would come inside and, if it was winter, rub cream on her red and roughened hands and stand by the stove for a few minutes to get warm. Then she would lie down and put a cold, damp washcloth on her forehead to get rid of what she called her “wash-day headache,” and take a nap.

I would sit in the parlor and try not to disturb her. The dog would sleep next to me on the couch. The house was very quiet, with only the fire in the fireplace softly crackling. I was warm in my sweater and my little girls’ denim overalls, working on a jig-saw puzzle.

Later on, revived, Mother would get up and cook. She spent time in the kitchen making tasty stews from vegetables she had preserved from our Victory garden and scraps of meat. Wartime rationing was in force, you were limited in the amount of meat you could buy; it was for the soldiers. Everyone had a Victory garden, it was supposed to help with the War.

Mother would sometimes hum off-key when she cooked. Cooking was Mother’s solitary pleasure. I could sometimes help by fetching new-laid eggs from the hen house or helping to stir the batter, but she really liked to do it all herself. She was happy when she was warm and making a lemon meringue pie or a chocolate cake with cherries from the sweet cherry tree in the yard—our favorites. When her lemon pie was cut and a piece lifted onto a plate, the end of the piece would fall gently over—the mark of a perfectly textured filling, she said. The dog waited for scraps, sitting quietly at attention, her tail moving ever so slightly; smiling as dogs do, in anticipation.

All these years later, remembering the scenes as I look at pictures in an old album, I try to imagine her thoughts. Mother had been an RN before she married. Her uniform was formal and perfect: she wore a little cap on the back of her head folded crisply into a crown. It set off her thick and curly black hair, which was cut a medium length. Everything she wore—cap, shoes, and dress were entirely white. Her dress had a wide, heavily starched pinafore on top, a stiff collar, and deep cuffs on her long sleeves. She looked like a model 1920s head nurse. She clearly did not empty bedpans.

She used to say to me, “I could have been a doctor. When I did my post-graduate work in Manhattan I had many classes with the residents. I could take out a tonsil today, I’m sure, just like that,” and she’d snap her fingers. “But women didn’t often study medicine in those days. You can, however, and I think you should plan to be a doctor—you’re good in Science.”

At the peak of her career, before she married, she was the Head Nurse of the Ninth floor at the Manhattan Eye and Ear Infirmary and you could see she was in command. She used to say, “When you are in charge, and you are responsible for the lives of your patients, you must insist that everyone who works under you feels responsible for them, as well.”

The sepia-toned pictures show her, lovely but wistful, with a somewhat uneasy smile—a hint of what was to come, perhaps? “The Ninth was the private floor,” she would say, “the patients gave me gold pieces for tips in 1928. I wish I had kept the gold, but I went right out and spent it.”

She made it sound funny, but I was puzzled by the joke. When she was a nurse, the laundry was done for her, not by her. Once she married, in 1929, she was no longer a nurse, but a wife, and then in 1934, a mother. Her life changed from one of ease to one of worry as the economy changed in a year from the Great Boom into the Great Depression. Everyone saved wherever they could. She baked, sewed, cleaned, took care of everything in the house and the yard, but she didn’t work as a nurse again until twenty years later.

And so today I think of brown soap and I picture my mother scrubbing heavy work clothes and dirty socks as a reminder of the difficulties of the era when I was growing up. Brown soap means, to me, don’t count on your way of life, always be ready to do whatever you need to if you have to—nobody is too important to wash clothes or bake bread or save money when money is hard to earn.

I value brown soap and use it as a pre-wash for stains and, while I don’t bake bread, I know I can Brown Soap is useful, too, as a preventive scrub after someone gets into poison ivy.

But that’s another story.


By Mary Wallis Gutmann copyright © 2014