Blog – Strings Too Short for Use


Fresh Air

There's No Place Like Home

There’s No Place Like Home

I love the sights and sounds of Austin, and in particular, enjoy seeing the airstreams popping up as store fronts in Austin.

I love to paint vintage scenes and furnishings, and airstreams fit that nostalgic feeling. Being able to create, inspire and make a difference with students I taught was my goal for 18 years. Now that I am retired I enjoy writing and painting and spending time with my family.

Growing up with Gaga – Strings Too Short for Use

Gaga was one who wanted to make sure she could still remember her social security number by heart by repeating it to herself several times a day. It was a test of her mind and a daily routine that lasted until she was close to 94 years old. It wasn’t until this repetitive pattern stopped that I began to write about my maternal grandmother and only grandparent I ever really knew.

Neatly folded and hung in her farmhouse kitchen near the old cook stove was a daily journal my gaga kept. The cloth calendar that hung on a wooden rack was engraved with a 1904 date. “Providing Leadership in the Fillmore County Area” read the advertising logo for the Fillmore Bank and boldly imprinted on the calendar were notes that gave me a glimpse into gaga’s daily life on Spring Street in Preston, Minnesota.

I noticed degree markings showing winter was over—and her remarks about the day lilies that were beginning to bloom along her front walk. She recorded her observations when the temperature soared to 90 degrees during a heat wave in July 1990, and scribbled in between the temperature notes—were names of friends and relatives who stopped by for Rice Krispy treats and day old coffee.

Her memories of an Indian summer were recorded as well describing the bluff country and details of the burnt umber tones and her favorite fall colors when the seasons changed. You knew when the first snow fell on the hill where mama went to high school, all mentioned, but maybe not in words that just anyone could understand.

You knew what gaga had eaten the day before, how she monitored her weight and blood pressure, and how she accurately recorded her monthly utility and phone bills on the daily calendar.

The cards and notes she left for me and my three sisters are a constant reminder of her compassion for education and hard work. She wanted all four of us to grow into our own right and be proud of our accomplishments. She would ridicule the very idea of just existing in a world of opportunity. She wanted us to explore and make a difference and let the whole world know that the Hoffman girls did indeed exist as Bob and Gwen’s gals.

Gaga arrived by train in Austin in the early 70s to care for Amy during the winter after mama passed away in 1973. Gaga taught her to jump on the bed, play Barbie and make cookies without a recipe or measuring cups.

In the 60s during the winter months in San Antonio, and before Amy was born, mama, Wendy, Paula, and I would arrive at the train station to pick up our gaga. Her visits sometimes lasted three to four months or until she was certain the final frost was over in Preston. She would cook, clean and take care of us while mama taught second grade at St. Luke’s Episcopal School in Alamo Heights. Gaga would pack our handmade gifts in her suitcase and later, when we were grown, we discovered these gifts in an upstairs closet along with hundreds of rolls of toilet paper—all bought with coupons from the IGA. From Brownie to Girl Scout crafts, prose and cards for every occasion from Amy, well written letters by the twins at an early age of 6 or 7, to the plastic grapes and paperweights I made in Girl Scout troop #22—these treasures ended back on Spring Street, her home for over 60 years.

I now wonder what happened to her paintings. She started a series of “Pancake Men” which hung in the twin’s room. The pancake men were decorated as she did for us on our breakfast plates with raisin eyes and red hots for a nose. The “men” were always on the run for fear of being gobbled up. One year gaga saved the Mrs. Butterworth’s syrup bottles and with some ingenuity created the THE THREE WISE MEN! This Christmas decor included glued on gold crowns and the robes of the kings were covered with old costume jewelry—held securly with Elmers. I now see similar vintage ornaments like her KINGS for sale in high end store fronts—all clothing and hair styles seem to come back just as history repeats itself.

We are thankful she saved everything or memories would have been lost in the moves we all made. While cleaning out the root cellar after gaga walked herself to the care center in 1992, my husband found used baggies with scribbled notes attached. Inside the baggies you never knew what you might find—a bag of rusty nails, expired coupons, phone numbers in case of an emergency. Her writing was always in pencil and usually commented something like—Save for Wendy.

The one baggie we laugh about often is the one Mike found attached to the root cellar door hook—the tag read, Strings Too Short for Use. I am certain gaga must have picked this term up from Advice from Heloise. And, yes, the baggie was filled with old, rotted strings that were absolutely useless.

I only wish I could find the yellow dotted swiss gown my gaga made for my first Barbie doll. The other Barbie clothes have been lost or swapped with girl friends while we played Barbie Dream House. I loved the mink stole she made for Barbie and remember that Ken always had clothes too. She joked when Ken was tossed into the black vinyl Barbie case—with no attire.

Gaga considered herself a “product of the depression.” I guess that is why when the “For Sale” sign went up at 104 Spring Street, I felt sad that the coral coat that hung in her entry hall for over 30 years and the framed portraits of Martha and George, the fainting couch that Wendy wanted, the spool beds we slept on when we visited in 1962, 1964, 1970, 1977, and 1979, the confetti flooring, the lime green bell bottom pants and matching tunic I made in Home Economics class in 1969, would now find a new home.

I longed for the house to become a haven for someone who appreciated the same things—cardinals, bridge, scrabble, educated people, a warm home heated with a cook stove, and the simmering smell of a chicken and rice dinner.

While the questions and remarks were repeated via her phone calls to me every Saturday for over 30 years, I miss those calls that always arrived promptly at 10 am. How warm is it there? When is your birthday? How much do you weigh? I wish you were here—I would bake a cake for you. How are Mike and IBM? She never complained or asked us to visit. She insisted we not spend the money to fly into Rochester and that she enjoyed the meals at the care center. Only on occasion did she comment about loneliness or high blood pressure. One thing was clear—she wanted to stay at home in Fillmore County, forever!

My gaga is the one who made sure Mike and I got a piano so our children would learn to play “Home on the Range.” And she was the one who kept her diary intact so that later all of us sisters could replay the memories and translate the stories and dates of our Norwegian and Welsh ancestors. She also wanted to accurately make sure that we knew who Bob Parry was, and that he really was the love of her life despite prohibition. My gaga was a phenomenal woman. I love and miss her every day.

And someone did buy her home and restored it to its original state. Chimneys were discovered as the wallpaper and plaster came down. The confetti floors were lifted only to find beautiful pine flooring beneath. The footed tub was restored and the bathroom remodeled along with the kitchen. New windows replaced the worn storm windows and the wrap around porch with the white columns were reconstructed to comply with building codes. The owners keep it looking like a scene out of Country Living. The pine furnishings and updated fixtures make the house one anyone would grab should it ever go on the market.

I recently found a baggie filled with skeleton keys—all of which opened her front door! Her porch was surrounded with perennials and I can remember clothes hanging from the old wooden clothesline that was near the blackberry vines and the white shed on the side of her home.

As I go through boxes of old dusty papers and find that baggie—Strings Too Short for Use—I also come across Roy Rogers and Dale Evans coloring books, the First Primers, the worn Shirley Temple storybook and her painting of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.

I do wonder, gaga, how you are.

Life Before MoPac

Living in Austin is a daily dose of FRESH AIR. I have accepted the traffic, the closing of all but one Night Hawk restaurant and Holiday House and the urban sprawl. But, I do remember Austin before MoPac and Highland Mall. My first sighting of a Gulf Mart, on Anderson Lane where Houston’s stands today, made me happy. Our step-dad tried to earn points with his new family that included me and my twin sisters by keeping the Buick Electra tuned in to The Association and Jimi Hendrix. Never did I dream, forty three years later, that Austin would attempt to build a mass transit system or acquire a minor league baseball team.

San Antonio
I stood in front of Howard Elementary on Broadway Avenue in November of 1963 as a 6th grade crossing guard, while a black motorcade passed, and our student body waved. We faced fear and great sadness when Mr. Cunningham, our beloved principal, announced over the loudspeaker the very next day that John F. Kennedy was killed by an assassin’s bullet in Dallas in THAT black motorcade.

Our Buick Special held a trunk full of water jugs and canned goods as we faced the Cuban missile crisis a few months before the death of JFK. Neighbors panicked at the thought of a nuclear attack in our quiet Alamo Heights neighborhood bordering Jim’s Coffee Shop and Loop 410 and where four major military bases surrounded the Alamo city. My favorite teacher, Mrs. Flood, kept us abreast of all these current events.

The carport at 110 Verdant Drive where the twins and I acted out Bye Bye Birdie for a nickel a seat, the Girl Scout troop #22 meetings held on our back patio with a terrace covered with passion flower vines and St. Luke’s Episcopal School where mama taught second grade and the twins and I watched the Twilight Zone on Wednesday evenings during choir practice—are crystal clear memories of life before Austin.

Life in Austin-before MoPac
We moved into a home in University Hills in 1967—right after mama married Jesse. I attended one semester as a Reagan Raider, the same year their football team took their first state championship. Over the summer we purchased a ranch style home built in the 50s—on Perry Lane near Bull Creek Road and Valley Oak Drive.

My mom, Gwen, remarked to us, “I am just not sure about buying this home. I hear that something called MoPac might go in, and the street appeal will be ruined with heavy traffic.”

My twin sisters, Paula, aka Pony, and Wendy, aka Trot, along with Jesse, loved the pink and white tiled bath, the red laminate kitchen counters, the crank windows, cork flooring and the breezeway with a detached garage—being a former Mayfield Builder model home gave it eye candy appeal. We moved in despite the MoPac rumors.

Mama came with baggage—that would be us, ‘the girls’ and boxes of memories. Those memories included oil paints and many sketches and paintings-some framed with blonde wood. My step-dad, Jesse Root, Jr., a writer, illustrator, photographer and artist with a journalism degree from UT had no idea how four girls were going to turn his life upside down and that the Austin Country Club on Riverside Drive would become his haven for relief from us and a toddler named Amy, aka Bouise.

Jesse took us school shopping the summer before I started at Big Mac—at Snyder-Chenards at Hancock Center. The twins and I modeled our brightly colored polyester dresses that didn’t measure up to the school knee-length dress code. We loaded up on Yardley makeup, false eyelashes and panty hose from The Highland Park Pharmacy on Hancock Drive which later moved to Far West Blvd. and became Northwest Hills Pharmacy.

Life was good during those years on Sunshine Drive at McCallum High School. Driving to school in the dark blue Buick Electra with power locks and windows was the highlight of my week. We spent our summers slaloming on Lake Austin behind our inboard outboard Glastron always stopping for a cheeseburger at The Pier with our friends.

Faded Memories
Our homes in San Antonio and Austin were filled with prized oil paintings mama displayed at Randolph Air Force Base and La Villita. She was attracted to the two men in her life, who didn’t fear a loss of manliness during an age of severe masculinity and when Viagra was not an option, because they were able and proud to show their flair for the arts—their creative minds that painted stories with syllables, engraved canvases with heavy brush strokes and took photographs highlighted with sepia tones.

I still have my dad’s camera that he carried while serving as a pilot in the Korean War, along with the Smith Corona typewriter he used to later write manuscripts once confined to a wheelchair. He eased into the daily routine trips to Brooke Army Medical Center for iron lung treatments for polio before mailing his manuscripts off to NYC and Chicago publishers.

My father, Bob Hoffman, passed away in 1958 and my mom when I was 20. My step-dad died in 1987. We cherish their paintings—my sisters and I—all four of us, display them in our homes. My little sister, Amy, has the canvases that Jesse painted, and I so sarcastically critiqued. I think that every birthday photo of me from the age of one has an easel or two propped in the background with an abstract, portrait or still life painting waiting for finishing touches.

I hope that my paintings are not hidden in a cluttered attic and my children and grandchildren carry on the art affair my parents started. Mike, my soul mate and husband of 45 years, has always supported my interest in art—being a loyal volunteer at the Laguna Gloria-Cold Beer Here! front gate beverage booth in the 80s. Our daughter worked in NYC for Random House and as an art director for Delaune and Associates after receiving her photojournalism degree from UT. In 2016 she began her own company. ( Our son is a biologist with The City of Austin Health Services and an avid reader who enjoys everything Austin–including the Annual Polar Bear Plunge on New Years Day at Barton Springs. He headed to Long Beach after graduating from UTSA and worked for ERI before returning home to Austin–after 911.

Art of various mediums continues to seep from our family—our children and grandchildren are serene examples.

Two Steppin’ and Almost Three






Until we became graparents, we had no idea how much more love we had left in our hearts. We thought we had given it all to our own children. And, then these children you raise begin their own families.

I felt like my heart would melt every time I peeked in on my first grandson, Graham. He is not yet three and has become Paw Paw’s shadow. The two talk about hunting, fishing and bugs. Oh, and trucks! Graham can recite every type of truck made in America. This includes an excavator – he calls it an excabater which is parked at the corner of Avery Ranch Blvd. and 183.

I recently learned that there are grown men who race trucks called Monster Trucks. They are not three– but fifty three! These men still like the thrill of watching big wheels roll over a bump or make a curve at high speed. They like the smell of the rubber and the grinding sound of the back hoe. They like to watch the truck do high jumps and land on a giant pumpkin. Graham turns three in May, and I betcha he’s gonna have a Monster Truck party complete with a race track made from Lowe’s mulch.

We were overwhelmed when the second grandson arrived in August of 2009. Everett is an Allison Dowd Mabry look-a-like. He’s the happiest baby and laughs when he burps, sees his jumparoo and when Lucky leaps from her chair to answer the door. Today he ate his first cracker and laughed at the feeling he felt when it went down his throat.

Children are like puppies in a remote kinda way. They are so cute—you can’t resist them. They are honest with their language, love unconditionally and are so formidable. I remember when my kids were little, if I told them I was Republican—they were Republican. If I told them I would never shop at Wal-Mart—they wouldn’t either. How things change! My kids are Democrats and shop at Big Lots!

Last weekend we took Graham to Cavenders to get him boots so he could go to the livestock show. He walked into the western shop like John Travolta—standing tall like in Urban Cowboy. He and Paw Paw found the kids shoes and Graham grabbed the most expensive boots off the shelf. He had to be sized and the rest is history. He loves his boots. He wants to sleep in them. It’s a site when you wake up to see a toddler in bed with his boots on! And, they are covering his footed pjs!

I know he won’t remember Cavenders on Burnet Road because our minds don’t hold memories until three or four. But I will have to tell him when he’s older how he insisted on stepping up and into the window display because he spotted a big boo boo—that would be a gigantic live cactus. He really wanted to touch it, but knew those thorns would draw blood. The next morning I received a text from our daughter with a photo of Graham in his footed pjs and his boots on eating Cheerios.

Interesting that these precious little bundles need the basic necessities of life to survive—food, shelter and love. Isn’t it magical that those three ingredients are all we start off needing, and when we grow old, those same securities take precedence? Just like gaga—she needed a hot meal every day, the nursing home and letters from her granddaughters! That’s all she needed. Life just doesn’t get much simpler. Does it?

What’s New Pussycat?

I absolutely love Halloween. It’s my favorite holiday of the year. On Friday night the native Austinites will be gathering for my baby sister’s rehearsal dinner. She is getting married to a wonderful guy – first marriage for them! That’s significant in itself. My husband and friends will be dressed in memorable attire – this year we are going as a gang of cool cats. But, we are not your usual hello kitty cats. We’ll be entering the Zilker Park Clubhouse to  Tom Jones’ provocative  tune “What’s New Pussycat?” I’ll arrive with jewels and chandalier earrings as an aristo-cat with black lace gloves and a feline mask. My dear friend, Cecelia, will be Miss Kity from the old western. Mike and Bill will probably show up in Hawaiian shirts as just plain ole Tom cats or alley cats. Donna, my BFF, will arrive as a KITTY CAT!

Graham and Everett will be at the dinner as well – along with 124 others – many from NYC where my sister, Amy, worked as an editor for FSG and Random House. Her last office was next to Jackie O’s if that gives you any idea of her talent. She continues to freelance for writers such as John Grisham and Oprah and is the marketeer for reader’s group guides. Her to be husband is an urban planner and architect.

Anyway, I know something is up with Amy and her fiance, Andy, as SHE was attempting to glue on false eyelashes and HE was having a time making Windsor, Half  Windsor and Four-in-hand knots.  Hmm? I think they might just love Halloween as much as I do.

As for Graham and Everett – I just got phone images of them as Buzz Lightyear and The Alien, respectively. So, of course, I am going to post those pictures as soon as I finish this up.

I am bending the rules again and asking my students to dress as a font on Monday. They have researched and downloaded some of the greatest fonts of all time. I need font therapy – I know. But when you see a student dress as Times Roman, Papyrus, Ariel & Helvetica after watching the font fight on YouTube-you can understand why my 8th graders get into this serif and sans serif craze.

I am off to iron the burlap runners for the rehearsal dinner, but just had to post these adorable photos of my grandkids that make my world go ’round!

Buzz Lightyear






Today I spent time with some of the 12 X 12ers–Amanda B., Suchitra, Kathleen & Gina Marie. Each of these ladies paints with a different style. Kathleen is known as the bus painting artist and creates on her way to UT where she works each day. Suchitra specializes in encaustic art and creates some of the most unique and colorful art you can imagine.

Port A 1983 - not for sale

Port A 1983 – not for sale

I painted from a photo taken when our kids were 4 and 6 and at Port A. We used to take the kids with us everywhere and never dreamed of vacationing without them. The Helgrens, Denbows and Aldridges were with us on this family beach trip. The year must have been 1983. Randy found a very large, very dead crab on the beach and the kids were so intrigued with it’s crusty body and long legs. Adrienne thought “crabby” was the cutest find on the beach.

So, I tried to paint it several times today. Here is a very rough illustration of that memory at Port A. I’ll continue to repaint it until it’s perfect, and I can bring it to a UT tailgate!

We painted today with orange and drank lots of wine. We look forward to November when we will watch a demo from Maria G. and in December when we will have a gift exchange.


Texas is a state of mind. Texas is an obsession. Above all, Texas is a nation in every sense of the word.
— John Steinbeck

Pics from the UT vs WVU tailgate 2012

Finally sweater weather arrived for the game. We were surrounded by the essential and familiar ingredients–Darryl’s BBQ that melts in your mouth, smooth bar drinks compliments of Susan, McCallum High School friends including three generations and the gourmet sides that are a meal alone. Even a few Mountaineers joined us–oh and one SMUer. I think that we were favored to win even though WVU is in 8th place. The crowd at Royal-Memorial was as loud and proud as ever, bleeding orange as always, despite the 3 point loss and first defeat of our season.

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Hey You With the Face

It’s just 9 weeks until school is out for the 2013 grads at my school.  A chain email made me think about our kids today. We think they are spoiled rotten, use the B word and the F word on a whim, and that is true sometimes. But kids really do want to be liked and feel that they fit in-especially in middle school.  So this is for them.

About Kids
Kids are kids and aren’t always nice to each other. They learn to admire those who think differently as they grow up. Middle schoolers are little kids in big bodies and are not grown up. Bullying has been around forever. We just didn’t always call it that,and it’s sensationalized because of social media.

About Teaching
Good teachers want to see their students take responsibility for their actions and words, and provide a foundation for learning that incorporates the fundamentals of everyday living. Kids aren’t tested on these fundamentals, but they should be. Kids should know right from wrong by being taught at an early age. That comes from good parenting most of the time. Kids are most likely going to model their parents. Like I tell my students…when my kids were little if I told them I was Republican they agreed with anything I said about an election.  If I told them I hated shopping at WalMart,  they wouldn’t want to shop there either. Today they are Democrats and shop at Big Lots. They developed their own opinions as they grew older, read and studied.

About the English Language
Learn to speak the English language and well, and then learn another language. We speak English in America. My pet peeves are using their, there and they’re in the wrong way- using it’s and its incorrectly and my biggest pet peeve – trying to grade papers when kids forget to spell check. I tell my students, I once sent out a notice to parents that said “Open to the Pubic.”
Know how to use the language.

About YOU
Do your best, be honest, be kind, learn from others, listen to new ideas and study hard.

Don’t worry about ethnicity or religious preferences or whether someone isn’t heterosexual. We are all in this together, and we need to help each other become better leaders, listeners and followers. Not everyone can be a chief or for that matter–the Pope.

We live in a free world.  Remember that. We are lucky, and you should count your blessings.

Over 20 years have passed since I began teaching, and kids haven’t changed. Some will still cheat, lie, curse and try to get by doing the bare minimum. But most kids really want to be accepted and know that someone out there notices them. They want to learn and be told they are smart.

Most teachers teach because they are life long learners. And no matter what grade you are in, kids still love a good story from a teacher, a cool science experiment and a note from their BFF.

We need to be literate and want to seize the opportunities. It’s human nature. Everyone wants recognition – just don’t expect to be told you are the one and only genius, and you deserve a raise. You won’t start off as CEO making $100,000 at your first job out of school. Appreciate what you have and make sure you choose friends for the right reason. They will be there for you when you get old – like me.


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