Here's to You, Mrs. Openheimer
Without a doubt, I owe much about my character and how I act today to Mrs. Openheimer, who lived in my home town of Beaverdale, PA. Please don’t bother trying to do a genealogy hunt for her because I’m sure you won’t find anything about her in any search engine other than in mine and my siblings’ minds. You see, Mrs. Openheimer (no first name ever given) was a made-up lady in town that my poor mom used as a clever tactic to try to force the four of us kids to behave.
I have no idea how she came up with the lady’s name or the lady’s reputation, but until I reached the age of eight or nine, I assure you that this lady did exist. And my three siblings all feared her, too, even though none of us ever met her or even glanced at a photo of her. She supposedly lived just down the road in a section of town called Beaver Run. She was mean, wore a hat, had a humongous nose, and was as ugly as anyone in the world. We envisioned her looking similar to Elmira Gulch from The Wizard of Oz.
As soon as we did something to warrant admonishment, an inquiry from Mom like “Do you want me to call Mrs. Openheimer?” suddenly stopped us in our tracks and halted any further misbehaving.
On the rare occasion when the threat needed further reinforcement, Mom would reach for the phone and say, “I’m going to call her right now.”
That’s pretty much all the warning that we needed. We straightened up like privates saluting a general in the army.
Dad played along, too. “Mrs. Openheimer will come and steal all bad kids and take them away with her,” he cautioned. We never knew what she did with these kids, or what happened to them. Frankly, we were afraid to ask.
It didn’t take my older sister long to imitate the tale-telling we heard and learned while growing up. She was four years older than I and she came up with a whopper of a tale, so intriguing, it was impossible for me to dismiss as fiction. Common to most coal mining areas, a light, ash-like rock was present in the boney piles around our home. She informed me with a straight face that if I placed the rock under my bed, it will turn into a chicken by morning!
Of course, I forgot about the rock until Mom found it under my bed while cleaning. I still remember how disappointed I was that it hadn’t yet turned into a chicken.
You might think that this method of telling tall tales is not only odd, but possibly capable of scarring a kid for life -- and you would be right. So, what did I do when I became a parent later on? I used Mrs. Openheimer and other yarns and anecdotes, too, although not to the same degree that my parents did.
And my father-in-law, my kids’ pappy, added his own twist to this Openheimer travesty. “She’s so old, she has leaves growing out of her cane,” he would tell his grandchildren. They would look at me with wide eyes and ask if she was for real. Of course, I nodded in agreement.
A psychologist would have a field day with my family regarding the yarns spun by my relatives. Today, I laugh because I’m just like the rest of them, spinning similar tales. At times I still use these powers of persuasion with my grandkids, but never to the extent that it will cause them anxiety or worry in any way ….. at least, I hope not.
Several years ago, two of my grandchildren (twin girls) were told by their mom to eat their broccoli because it was good for them. Fortunately, they found the greens to be palatable and the kids amazingly enjoyed the taste. A day or so later, my old beagle hunting dog, Muffin, got a little too close to the kids and they couldn’t help but notice the dog’s bad breath. I immediately reinforced the notion of eating broccoli with the fact that Muffin’s breath smelled horrible because she never ate broccoli. I told them that their breath would never be as bad as Muffin’s as long as they ate their vegetables.
Imagine the look on the face of their other pappy, my daughter’s father-in-law, when the kids told him (a pediatrician) that they intend to always eat their vegetables so they will have fresh breath. They emphatically proved their point when they explained that Muffin’s breath and stained teeth were directly related to the fact that she refused to eat vegetables. I’m not sure what Doc thought of the methodology, but he agreed that my strategy was okay in that it did produce desirable results.
I wanted to conclude by proving to you that the tales I’ve heard and used throughout my life have had no negative effects on my emotional or mental well-being. That is, I wanted to show you that I’m a normal adult husband, parent and grandparent, but I can’t do that just now. I hear my wife calling me to the bedroom where she apparently found a chicken under the bed with a severe halitosis problem. I’m going in to take care of it immediately before she calls Mrs. Openheimer and I’m never seen again.