The Saga of Cement Sue

my christmas gift

This is the special wonderful gift that my Linda gave me

I’ve often waxed poetic (or at least posted prose) about my love, Linda Herman.  I’ve worn out my list of adjectives trying to describe how wonderful she is, and how good she is for me.  This Christmas, she demonstrated her love with the best material gift I have ever received.

What could this gift be?  It is a two-foot high concrete statue of an Irish Setter.  Yes, you all know that I love Irish Setters, but that wouldn’t make this the best gift ever.  So what would?  I hope you have a few minutes as this is a convoluted answer.

The story starts with my great-grandfather Hall.  I don’t know much about the man, I don’t even know his name.  The generation before me simply referred to him as “Grandpa Hall.”  By the time I was aware enough to ask his name, my father no longer remembered it.

My great-grandfather's property in Spring Lake

My great-grandfather’s property in Spring Lake

Here is what I do know about the man.  He owned a farm in Spring Lake, MI bordered on the south by modern-day M-104, on the west by Fruitport Road, on the north by the railroad tracks, and on the east by the swamp.  On this farm he raised pigs, which he smoked and sold as bacon & ham in the surrounding communities.

The other, more interesting thing, that he did on his property was breed and train what he called “Irish Bird Dogs.”  We would know them today as Irish Setters & Irish Red & White Setters.  Even then they were trying to breed the white out so that they could develop into the red dogs that we know today.

Great-grandfather Hall always kept three dogs for breeding – a male named Patrick and two bitches named Molly & Sue.  When one passed on, or retired from breeding, he would replace it with another dog with the same name.  So he always had Patrick, Sue, & Molly.  This allowed him to sell to returning satisfied clients another dog with the same parents as their previous dog.  And disgruntled customers could be offered a dog from the other mother.

John & I with Jojo

My brother John & I with our dog Jojo.

grampa and dog

My grandfather with a Sue or a Molly

This practice of Patrick, Sue, & Molly was carried on by my grandfather, Melvin Bristol Hall.  He didn’t do the dogs as a full time profession like his father did, but he kept the Patrick, Sue, & Molly tradition alive.

Now my father, Melvin Edward Hall, didn’t breed dogs.  We always had at least one dog in the house, most of them Irish Setters.  But in my little atomic family, my mother claimed naming rights for all pets.  So we had Duke, Jojo, Koof, Kerry, & Scarlet.

Then in 1992, Dad retired from teaching.  It turns out that there was an Irish Setter breeder near Coldwater, MI who had a bitch that was descended from one of my great-grandfather’s lines.  And he presented the dog to my father as a retirement gift.

This was one of the rare occasions where my father stood up to my mother.  He explained to her that the dog was a gift to him, the dog was part of his family history, and he would be naming her Molly!  My mother didn’t speak to him for weeks afterword.

grandma and a dog

My Grandmother Irene Vos Hall with a Sue or a Molly

My uncle Ken Hall (Mel’s younger brother) had a much more entertaining response.  Uncle Ken located a concrete, life-sized, concrete statue of an Irish Setter.  Since Mel had a Molly, Ken brought him a Sue – Cement Sue (you have to say it like Jed Clampett – See-Ment Sue).  And from that point on, we had Cement Sue stationed in our back yard.

The years were not kind to Cement Sue, as she stood sentry day and night in all kinds of weather.  She may have lost pieces of concrete, leaving just bits of rebar hanging out.  But she was always there, and Dad & I made a habit of saying hello to Cement Sue every time we came or went through the back door.  As time went by Dad did indeed add a Sue to go along with his Molly.  After many good years with Mel, Molly final had to go to the Rainbow Bridge.  Fortunately, he still had his Sue, who stayed by his side until his death – and Cement Sue was still on station in the backyard.

ken hall & family

My Uncle Ken and his family

Mel & Molly

Dad with a Molly from his grandfather’s line

When the bittersweet time came for me to leave 712 Winter St., Spring Lake, MI to join my lovely Linda in Durham, NC I discovered a sad, sorry truth.  Cement Sue was so damaged, and so sunken into the very ground of the backyard that it would be impossible to move her.  So with a very heavy heart, I left her behind at 712 Winter St.

In my heart, Cement Sue not only meant Molly & Dad but also 712 Winter St., Spring Lake, Uncle Ken & a grandfather & great-grandfather that I never met.  Of course, being so sensitive, loving, caring, and attuned to me – Linda knew all of that.  So she gave me not only a brand new Cement Sue – but also all of those important things left behind when I left Michigan.  I have never received a finer gift with more love behind it.  Thank you Linda – I love you.

The Original Cement Sue (back) with Paladin

The Original Cement Sue (back) with Paladin

Every Day Is Like Christmas

Our Charlie Brown Christmas TreeThis is our Charlie Brown Christmas Tree. I bought this just before Christmas last year.  It just seemed to fit our lives, our Christmas decorations, our living room, and our lives.

A Charlie Brown Christmas first aired in 1965 – I was four years old.  I can’t swear to it, but I’m pretty sure that I’ve watched it every year since.

A Charlie Brown Christmas blu-rayWatching Dad’s reaction to the tree, I bought him a copy on blu-ray for Christmas last year.  We’ve probably watched it a dozen times since then.  There is just something about this classic that makes you feel good – even if it isn’t Christmas time.

When it came time to take down the Christmas decorations last season, Dad and I decided that the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree should stay up year-round.  So it became the centerpiece decoration in our living room.

Sue wearing a Christmas Wreath

Sweet Sue

With every thing that is going on with our lives and Dad’s health – we decided that we should stop for a moment each day and remember the great gifts that we have.  We have each other.  We have a roof over our heads and enough food to eat.  Dad has a tremendous insurance plan that covers whatever medical care he needs.  We have Sue – the love of Dad’s life and a tremendous blessing all by herself.

At the time, we were also fostering dogs for a rescue group – so we were sharing our gifts every day with those less fortunate.  We’ve since adopted Paladin, which put us at the limit for animals in the Village of Spring Lake and removed us from the fostering business – but we are overjoyed to be able to share our blessings every day with the most recent addition to our family.

At our house, everyday is Christmas Day – and we have the Christmas Tree to prove it!

Last June the doctor sat Dad & I down.  With a look of deep seriousness on his face he gazed deeply into Dad’s eyes and said “I very much doubt that you will live to see Christmas.”  I tried my best not to look at Dad, but I couldn’t help myself.  I looked over at him and we both started giggling like school girls.  The moment could not be contained, and soon we were both roaring with laughter!  The poor confused doctor said “That certainly is not the reaction I expected.”

As Dad & I wiped the tears of laughter away, Dad stated simply, between chuckles, “EVERY day is Christmas at our house!”

So, if you come to visit us – or even if you only visit through reading this blog – remember that EVERY day can be Christmas if you want it to be.  And please take a moment to appreciate the gifts that you have, and share them with others.

Christmas Update

I received my Christmas present from Dad today!  It is awesome.  He (with help from my amazing sister-in-law Karla) had a photographer come to the house and take his portrait.  At the last instant, our current S.O.S. foster dog Shemp stuck his head in Dad’s lap.  The way it lit up Dad’s face really captures the essence of Dad.

This may be the best Christmas gift ever.  Take a look…

Mel and Shemp

My Christmas Present

I Got Tagged With A Christmas Meme

Hot Chocolate

Hot Chocolate

1. Hot Chocolate or Egg Nog?
Either one is fine – but one or the other must be consumed both while decorating the tree and again on Christmas Eve.  If snow shoveling is required on Christmas Day, then Hot Chocolate is required after the shoveling is done.

Sue inspects her presents

Sue inspects her presents

2. Does Santa wrap presents or just sit them under the tree?
Wrapping – in different paper than what is used for all other gifts.

3. Colored lights on tree/house or white?
Colored lights on the tree are a must.  We also use colored lights outside, but that is not a requirement.  White lights are allowed inside specific light-up ornaments and decorations.

4. Do you hang mistletoe?
Nope.  I don’t want to share Christmas kisses with Dad and Sue doesn’t need any incentive to give sloppy wet kisses to everybody all the time.

Not before December First!

Not before December First!

5. When do you put your decorations up?
After the first of December.

6. What is your favorite holiday dish?
Chex Mix.  I always make huge batches of it for the Holidays.  We give lots of it away and eat even more of it.

My brother John (left) and I with our dog JoJo

My brother John (left) and I with our dog JoJo

7. Favorite Holiday memory?
Christmas 2003 – the last time I saw my younger brother conscious.  Dad and I had a great two days at John’s house for Christmas Eve/Day.  Cash was tight for me that year, so I made a lot of gifts, including a video that I gave to both Dad and John with a photo montage of us Hall boys through the years.

8. When and how did you learn the truth about Santa?
I’ve always known the truth about Santa Claus.  And the truth is that yes, Virginia there is a Santa Claus.  He exists as surely as love and generosity and devotion exist.  Period.  Amen.

9. Do you open a gift on Christmas Eve?
NO!  The anticipation of the gift opening ceremony must be built to a fever pitch.  No gift opening until after breakfast and chores on Christmas Day – at the earliest.  Best if it can be drawn out until after lunch.

10. How do you decorate your Christmas Tree?
With minimal stress, maximum joy and love, and much supervision from both Dad and Sue.  Lot’s of lights, a few key ornaments, and enough tinsel to hide how little actual decoration took place.

When John & I were kids my mother always insured that the tree decorating process was as stressful as possible.  Dad & I have eliminated all of the stress.  We just have fun with it.

11. Snow! Love it or Dread it?
It isn’t Christmas without snow.

12. Can you ice skate?
Forwards and backwards.  But you’d better let me carry a hockey stick for assistance these days.

The Classic Hot Wheels Garage

The Classic Hot Wheels Garage

13. Do you remember your favorite gift?
When I was a little guy my Uncle Ken gave John & I a marvelous Hot Wheels garage with a working (hand cranked) elevator AND EVERYTHING!  We loved that immensely.  I think it was also the same year that Dad made G.I. Joe tents for us out of his old Army dress slacks.  They were the coolest tents ever – and they were hand made for us by Dad.  Nobody else in the world had them.

As an adult, my favorite gift is each Christmas morning that Dad & I get to share together.

14. What’s the most important thing?
Being with family and friends.  As I get older the size of both groups continues to shrink, but the significance of spending that time together, enjoying each other’s company grows each year.

A Hay Stack Cookie - YUM!

A Hay Stack Cookie - YUM!

15. What is your favorite Holiday Dessert?
Surprisingly, to me, it was the Haystack cookies that my mother used to make.  They consisted of clumps of chow mein noodles held together in a rough haystack shape by big globs of melted butterscotch chips.  I haven’t had them since she stopped cooking in ’82 or ’83, but they will always remain my favorite.

16. What is your favorite holiday tradition?
As a child, it was Dad baking bread.  We would be chased outside to play in the snow so as to avoid disturbing the critical dough raising process.  Eventually we would be called inside and treated to warm slices of fresh bread dripping with butter.  And the smell would fill the house for days.

As an adult it has been the requisite viewing of “A Christmas Story” with Dad.  This year Dad and I are going to resurrect the bread making process on Christmas Eve Day – so that may return as the favorite tradition.

17. What tops your tree?
This year it is a big gold star with a dozen colored lights on its face.

That's the look!  Dad at Christmas last year.

That's the look! Dad at Christmas last year.

18. Which do you prefer giving or receiving?
Giving, hands down, giving that specially selected gift that the recipient didn’t even know that they wanted.  The look on their face as the figure out that while they didn’t know they wanted it they now can’t imagine life without it is priceless beyond belief.  It is difficult to pull off, but SO worth it.

19. What is your favorite Christmas Song?
It is hard to beat “Silent Night” – although “You’re A Mean One Mr. Grinch” comes awfully close.

20. Candy canes, Yuck or Yum?
O.K. I guess.  It wouldn’t be Christmas without them, but I’m tired of them before I finish the first one.  Although now that they come in a bunch of different flavors my opinion of them is rising – Chocolate Mint and Cherry Cream are moving up on the list.

O.K. Dod – consider yourself tagged!

What I Want For Christmas

Sue tells Santa her Christmas Wish

Sue tells Santa her Christmas Wish

Another year is coming to a close, and it actually finds me in a pretty good situation.  Dad & I are together – taking care of each other and our Irish Setter, Sweet Sue.  And I don’t dare forget the cat, who is doing well but would punish me in the middle of the night if I forgot to mention her.

For those very few of you out there who are wondering what to get me for Christmas this year, I have only one suggestion or request.  Since I have pretty much everything I need or want; I’m asking you instead of buying me a gift to make a donation to Save Our Setters.

We have been fostering dogs for them since the fall.  We are on our third one.

Foster Girl Danni

Foster Girl Danni

Danni, the little girl who had been used as bait in a dog fighting ring came out of her shell and found a perfect forever home in Wisconsin.

Foster Boy Hunter

Foster Boy Hunter

Hunter, the very handsome Irish Red and White Setter who was a stray in the U.P. found a perfect home (and a new name – Conner) on the eastern side of Michigan.  And little Codie Joe, who’s family had to surrender him when they lost their home in the mortgage crisis is still here with us.  Hopefully once the holiday activities settle down somebody will turn up who wants this

Foster Boy Codie Joe

Foster Boy Codie Joe

beautiful boy to brighten their lives.

Save Our Setters is an amazing all volunteer organization that absolutely performs miracles for the dogs.  If you haven’t checked out the story

Cloud learns to use a cart

Cloud learns to use a cart

of Cloud – the Dog that Could you really should.  It will warm your heart.

Save Our Setters has placed nearly 150 Setters into their forever homes in 2008.  That in itself is an amazing and heartwarming fact.  But the sad part is that they have received in excess of 500 intake requests from Setters in need.

That

Cloud stands on his own

Cloud stands on his own

boggles my little mind.  Somewhere out there in the past year 500 families decided that they either couldn’t, or worse – wouldn’t, continue to care for one of these beautiful animals.  Thank goodness that organizations like Save Our Setters exist to help.  Sue and I would both appreciate it if you could do something to help them help the animals.  Financial contributions are tax deductible and will make you feel good about yourself.  The link to make a donation via PayPal as well as the address to mail a check (and a list of other ways you can help) are all available here.

Even if you don’t know me or like me enough to want to give me a gift, you can of course still contribute to Save Our Setters.  And if for some unfathomable reason you don’t like Irish Setters – please Google up the name of a breed that you do like along with

Sue wishes you a Merry Christmas

Sue wishes you a Merry Christmas

the word “rescue” and you will find a number of other breed specific rescues that also need your help.  Or you could just donate money, time, or other resources to your local Humane Society or animal shelter.

That would make my Christmas very merry indeed.  Thank you.

The “Aunt Ruth Shirt” Holiday Tradition

I probably should have saved this entry for somewhere closer to the holiday season, but Dad & I were talking about this tonight, and I wanted to put it down in writing while it was reasonably fresh in my little mind.

All families have holiday traditions, many of them unique. And I’m guessing that this one is fairly unique to the Hall clan. My father’s Aunt Ruth was a special lady. She was a bit eccentric, but that kind of goes with the territory. My brother John and I always thought that she was a bit batty, but then again, we were just kids.

Dad says that she was a very bright lady. She worked as a comptometer programmer at Campbell, Wyatt, & Cannon in Muskegon during the war years. The comptometer was a type of early computer that worked off of a hand crank. It was a highly skilled profession, perhaps even more so than today’s computer programmers or systems analysts jobs – if for no other reason than they were so rare.

 

The Comptometer, an early hand cranked computer.

The Comptometer, an early hand cranked computer.

 

 

She lived very frugally, so as far as family lore had it, she was “quite well off.” I don’t know about that, but I do know that she was always very kind to my brother and I. Dad says that she was also quite kind to he and his brother Ken as well. The only early photos of Dad and his brother that we have are studio portraits of them with their grandmother. According to Dad, Aunt Ruth paid to have those portraits done.

While her generosity was to be taken for granted within the family, it was her ability to never select a suitable gift that always brought howls of laughter to my brother and I – as well as all of our cousins. You could take it to the bank that her present each and every Christmas, as well as every birthday, would be the traditional “Aunt Ruth Shirt.” And while most kids, especially boys, find a shirt to be a particularly useless gift, the “Aunt Ruth Shirt” was in a class entirely by itself. For not only would the shirt be of the most unwearable color and design, the size selection process that she employed must have required all of her skill with the comptometer. Not only would the “Aunt Ruth Shirt” not fit, it would amazingly not fit any boy in the family. With six of us to chose from (cousins Bill, Charlie, Don, and Alan as well as John and I), covering a nearly 20 year range, it would seem that the basic laws of probability would require the shirt to fit one of us. But no, with unerring skill Aunt Ruth would be able each and every year to select six utterly hideous shirts that would not fit any of us.

 

Not really hideous enough, but you get the idea.

Not really hideous enough, but you get the idea.

 

 

Now this never stopped my mother, or my Aunt Donna, from applying all of their motherly powers in a futile attempt to fit a shirt to a boy. They just never understood, as we all did, that the power of the “Aunt Ruth Shirt” selection algorithm was absolute and protected us from ever having to wear one of the hideous things.

This is where the wonderful family holiday tradition part comes in. Aunt Ruth always shopped at Hardy-Herpolsheimers, which was the top-notch department store in Muskegon. It is gone now, but it was the high point of the holiday season for many. For as fans of the Polar Express book or movie can tell you, the Herpolsheimers Christmas display was holiday nirvana of the highest order. Ralphie’s fascination with Higbee’s windows in A Christmas Story could barely match the wonder that was the Hardy-Herposheimers display. I searched high and low on the old interweb for a picture of Hardy-Herpolsheimers, but the closest I could find was a hat box from the store. At least that gives some small indication of what a high-falutin’ store it was.

 

A Hardy-Herpolshiemers Boxed hat.

A Hardy-Herpolshiemers Boxed hat.

 

 

The holiday season was a period of high stress trauma for my mother which precluded our little band from enjoying any of the public trappings of the holiday season, so we never got to go see the display before Christmas. But thanks to the wondrous holiday powers of the “Aunt Ruth Shirt” we did get to see the displays every year.

When the great day had come and gone, and before Dad had to return to school, Mom would send us guys off to Hardy-Herpolsheimers to return the “Aunt Ruth Shirt.” This was of course Dad’s responsibility, since he was to blame for being related to Aunt Ruth. It also allowed my mother to stay home and gorge herself on whatever holiday candy remained in the house.

So off we would go, with the monstrosity of the “Aunt Ruth Shirt” in tow. Hardy-Herpolsheimers wasn’t the type of store that were typically allowed anywhere near. My mother wouldn’t be caught dead there, since they didn’t sell muumuus in the two man tent size. And Dad, while he truly enjoyed the high class merchandise, just couldn’t justify the prices there. But between Aunt Ruth’s spectacular generosity in purchasing the most expensive hideous shirts in stock and the magic of after-Christmas retail pricing, we were treated to a virtual wonderland of consumer excess. We would not only be able to purchase the shirt that mother required (“She bought you a shirt, so don’t go exchange it for something silly, get a nice shirt – just like the one she picked out, but in the right size.”), but we would have enough money left over for some good junk too.

Once we picked out the obligatory shirt, usually the cheapest t-shirt that we could find – Dad understood being a boy after all, we would begin the quest. Dad would point out to us which of the magnificent toys that we could afford with the remainder of our return money. And we always had to stop at the unbelievable display of hot roasted nuts. The smell of those nuts permeated the entire facility. We knew that Dad was a sucker for the hot roasted pistachios and that if we “treated” him to a bag he would not only share it back with us, but he would be happy enough to tolerate our hours long quest.

Now I can’t actually recall any of the treasures that we were able to purchase with the proceeds of our “Aunt Ruth Shirts.” I’m sure that if John were still with us his magnificent brain could catalog the entire haul, year by year. But alas, that’s no longer available to us. The real treasure, which remains as a pleasant memory for both Dad and I, is the hours that we got to spend together. Eating hot roasted pistachios and wandering the cavernous floors of Hardy-Herpolsheimers – bonding in the enjoyment of each other’s company and sharing the wonders of a Hardy-Herpolsheimers Christmas.

I wonder if Aunt Ruth actually planned that?