Thinking Back

I’ve been asked what I would do differently if I could go back in time. First of all, I wouldn’t do that. I didn’t enjoy my early years, hated middle school and despised high school. I didn’t start to truly enjoy life until I met and married my husband. The years we have had together have been the best ones of my life.

As a child I was sulky and miserable. I was born eighteen months after my brother and walked in his shadow even beyond college. I knew that my mom worshipped and protected my brother, and so I wanted to be exactly like him. I played sports of all kinds as a kid, which meant endless hours of kickball with the neighborhood kids, whiffle ball in our backyard, along with badminton, sledding,  and snowball throwing. While I was a decent athlete, I could not throw as hard as my brother did and so found myself with reddened palms time after time.

I was one year behind my brother in school, which meant being held up to his academic standards by teacher after teacher. I don’t know how much time my brother spent studying. For me, reading, writing, science and history did not come easy. I didn’t learn to read independently until fourth grade, but once I mastered the skill, you couldn’t keep a book out of my hands. Spelling didn’t make sense. How can cow, how, now and show have the same root, but sound differently? Science and history required memorization, something which did not come easy to me. I spent hour after hour on homework every night, rereading the same passages time after time. There were two subjects in which I excelled: math and languages.

We were as close as kids could be. Partly because we spent many hours together inside the house during the winter, during which we played board games, that I always lost, built castles with Lincoln Logs and had epic battles with armies of plastic men. We built igloos and had epic sledding hills that crossed three backyards. We explored the woods behind our house, jumped off boulders and climbed trees.

Neither of us had any mechanical skills, so while my brother was a disappointment to our father, I equally disappointed my mom. My brother had no interest in changing oil or tires. I had no desire to learn how to cook. Both of us spent time watching and getting yelled at when we didn’t pay attention.

I did not play with dolls. In fact, the only dolls I ever owned were several of the fancily dressed kind that simply rested against my pillow and a mechanical one that rolled about on skates. I was not allowed to play with the first because my mother feared that I would mess them up. She was probably right. The skater required batteries, which were expensive, and so not available. Barbie came out when I was a young teen, but I could only afford a cheap plastic cut-off whose arms fell off and whose “skin” was translucent.

My sister was born when I was seven. There was enough distance between us that we had little in common, and so we did not spend time together other than the sharing of a bedroom. It was probably my fault, as I put no effort into befriending her, finding her unable to do and uninterested in the things that I enjoyed.

That is one thing that I would change. I would find a way to embrace her, to search out those activities that we could have done together. She was into playing with dolls, walking them through pretend worlds and relationships that I could not understand or relate to. But what if I had tried? Would that have erased some of the years between us? Would it have brought us closer together? Part of me wants to believe that it would, but another part of me remembers how much my mother cared for my sister. How much she protected her and fussed over her, and then I’m not so sure.

School was one of many places where I felt most alone. I did not have playground friends, so spent much of my primary years sitting on a bench against the wall, watching others laugh and giggle and run around like nuts. I remember hating Valentine’s Day. While I had cards for everyone in my class, I seldom received cards in return. I was never invited to birthday parties and only once went to a sleepover when I was in middle school. My mom bought me new pajamas for that affair, as mine were old and faded. But I had been sheltered from the world of teen magazines and gossip television shows, so when the girls talked about kissing and hair and clothes, I had nothing to contribute. I felt even more isolated after that.

In eighth grade I transferred to public school and fell in love with my teacher. Mr. Bennington was kind and patient, two qualities that I desperately yearned to be the receiver of. When asked to do a research project on a college that we might like to attend, guess what I did? I found Bennington College in Vermont. I was proud of myself until I turned it in, and then I was too embarrassed to talk about it in front of the class. That is something else that I would change. I’d find a college closer to home as my target and report on it.

I went on my first date in eighth grade. Our school had a prom-like affair in mid-year. A dorky boy asked me out and I accepted. (Of course, I was also a dork!) I did not know how to dance and was uncomfortable with his touch. The evening was long and painful.

I was a shy child, not just in Kindergarten, but all the way through most of my college years. I was the kid in the class that no one knew. I did not raise my hand to answer questions, did not seek help from my teachers, and did not go up to the front of the room for group activities. In fact, I remember scooting down in my desk when my reading group was called and sitting there while all the others had the teacher’s attention. Yes, it held me back. As I sat in my chair, I yearned for the teacher to notice that I was not in the circle and call me forward, but she never did.

If I could have chosen my desk in middle and high school, I would have sat at the back of the room, I so feared attention from the teachers. Unfortunately teachers generally assign seats by alphabetical order of last name, so I ended up somewhere down the second row. That is something I did change when I returned to college as an adult. I always sat in the first row so as to better hear and be seen. It helped me build confidence and so I succeeded. It is also something that I did not do as a teacher. I let my students pick out their seats and then left them alone unless they were being disrespectful of the right of others to learn.

One thing that I would change, if I could go back in time, is to make a better effort at finding and keeping friends. Because I was shy, I was not one of those kids who was sought after to be part of a group. On occasion, someone did approach me and initiate conversation, but I never was the initiator. Imagine how different my life would have been if I had had the courage to walk up to someone and simply say, “Hi.” Wow! Even now this is hard for me.

As a college student I had more success in building relationships. I did not get to attend the college of my choice because my parents would only let me follow my brother to the one he had chosen, which, it turned out, was a good thing. He joined a fraternity, which had a support group called Little Sisters, and they took me in. Because of being a Little Sister, I had invitations to parties, actual dates to events on campus, and a place to spend Friday and Saturday nights.

Unfortunately I chose an impractical major. I entered as a math major, thinking I’d study statistics and find a job working with data. I pictured me sitting in a room with charts of information before me and knew that this was something I could do. The problem is that when I went to college, the women’s liberation movement had not yet evolved into a force, so it was no surprise when the math department chair called me into his office and told me that no company would ever hire a woman because all we wanted was to find a man and get married. I left his office and changed majors.

If I could repeat that day, I would defy him, earn my degree in math, get hired, and work long, happy hours doing something wonderful with numbers.

Instead I took a serious look at how many credits I had in each subject area, keeping in mind that I had to graduate in four years as that was how long my scholarship lasted, saw that only in Russian could I do that, so chose that as my new major. I told myself that I could get a job as a translator, without taking into consideration that I was too shy to ever speak Russian outside of the classroom. And that there were no jobs for Russian translators.

What I should have done was stuck with math and defied the chair, but women didn’t do that back then. We were raised to be compliant and to think of being wife and mother, not employee.

After college I returned home and joined the real work force. The one in which the only work experience I had was sitting behind the desk in a college dorm was meaningless. I had a hard time getting a job because I had no office skills. I was a poor typist and could not operate any of the machines in use at that time. When I did finally find work, it was at a furniture store, unfortunately as a customer service operator. I had to answer phones and had to pacify upset callers. I hated the job!

I’m not sure what I could have changed about that except for going way back in high school and sticking with my one and only typing course, honed my craft, and then I would have had marketable skills years later.

After that I was hired by the IRS as a tax collector. Not a job for a shy person, but I will credit the experience as helping me move past my fear of meeting and interacting with unfamiliar people. I had to knock on doors, walk into businesses and drive around San Francisco, up and down those hills and in and out of all types of neighborhoods. I learned to sit in my car and practice what I was going to say before walking into those situations. It was valuable experience for later on when I became a teacher.

There were two great things about that job. First, I made enough money to buy a car and then rent an apartment. That gave me freedom to simply be. I was in charge of my own life, had the ability to get myself places, and made decisions about where and how to spend my money. I learned to cook rudimentary things, just enough to survive. The second most wonderful thing was meeting Mike, who later became my best friend and husband.

Being married to Mike is one thing I would never change. He brings light to my life. He has been my strongest supporter in everything I have set out to tackle. He has been a role model for how to be as a person, wife and parent. Without him, my life would have been unrecognizable. He has never once held me back, never discouraged me from trying something new, never stopped me from tackling college courses or conferences or workshops.

There are things I did as a parent for which I am proud. For one, I always prepared breakfast for my kids. Most days it was a hot meal, but there were times when they preferred cold cereal, and I let them eat it even though, nutritionally, it was not the best choice. I packed their lunches except for once a week when they were able to buy lunch at school. I drove them to swim lessons, soccer, baseball and softball, all of which I supported as team mom, scorekeeper, coach, and referee. I attended parent-teacher meetings when needed, and even though I was working, took off to go on some field trips. During the summer months, when they were younger, I worked with them on academic skills in between swim lessons and soccer practice.

On the other hand, there were things I wish I could take back. I was not the most patient of parents. When my kids got angry, I didn’t know how to handle it. In my growing up years, anger was met with anger, tantrums with spankings, yelling with hurtful, cruel yelling. That was the only model I knew and so, despite what I read in parenting magazines, when my patience ran thin, I resorted to the poor models of behavior that I had benefited from. I wish I could replay those events and this time, instead of reacting poorly, simply walk away. Calm down. Allow my kids to calm down. And then later on, talk about what caused the anger and seek out appropriate solutions. If I could have done this, I would have been a better parent.

I am glad that we cannot revisit the past just to do it all over again. There is no way that I would choose to repeat any of my previous years of life. It would be terrifying to be a child today, faced with all the terrors that today’s kids deal with. Drugs, alcohol and tobacco were not the temptations back then. Kidnappings probably happened, but the news was not filled with story after sad story. I feel sorry that today’s children do not have the freedoms that I had to ride my bike through neighborhood after neighborhood, going miles from home, without worry.

I would not want to be a teenager who wants nothing more than to be a mechanic, being forced into college prep classes because that’s all that is offered. To want to be a nurse’s assistant, but having no opportunity to learn those skills. To want to be a doctor but unable to take advanced placement classes because my school does not offer them.

So, to answer the question, would I want to go back and redo my life, the response is a resounding no. I have worked through the issues that burdened me as a child, teen, and older adult, am happy with who I am at this point in time. I love my husband and my grown up children. I love my grandchildren. I love being able to write, to having enough savings to travel, and spending time with my husband doing things that we both love. I have a good life, filled with things to do and people to see. What more could a person want?


Sepia World

Caught in a dark, sepia-toned world,

A desperate child cries in the night

Yearning for a mother’s love unfurled

Strong enough to scare away the fright


Hiding in corners to block out the fears

The abandoned child screams silently

Not bothering to wipe away the tears

He clings to dreams with such certainty


That reality flies far away

Swept up in a swirling gust of wind

The child’s home, a staircase of decay

The child’s heart, believing to the end


Mother, are you ever coming back?

I am so hungry, cold, and weak, that

It is hard to breathe.  Your love, I lack.

You left me nothing: not coat, gloves, or hat.


His cries float into the starless night

Reaching no friendly heart.  He gives up.

No more do the ravages of night

Disturb the boy.  Empty is his cup.

A Mother’s Duties

What does a mother do when she realizes

that her child will never witness a golden sunset

or the glory of the sun peaking over mountains

to greet the new day, nor will he stand,

slack-jawed, as a jet leaves a smoke

trail across a deep blue sky, or point,

mesmerized as a yellow-stripped bumble bee

frolics from flower to flower?


She hugs her son close to her breast and tells

him how intensely he is loved, opening his

senses to the world.


What can a mother do when she knows that

her son can barely pick out her smiling face

from the fuzzy world that fills his view,

or the brightly colored toys dangling seductively

overhead, nor the radiant smiles of his brother

and sisters as they greet him in the morning?


She uses words to describe the world, guides

his tiny fingers as he explores through touch,

what others experience with eyes, and she tells

him how intensely he is loved.


What should a mother do when her son is ready

to crawl, knowing that he will never see the

obstacles in his way until it is too late, or when

he takes that first tentative step and crashes right

into the pointed edge of the piano bench, or when

he wants to go outside and play like his siblings,

but the world is too dangerous?


She allows him to fall, just as she did the sighted

ones, for by stumbling we learn to conquer whatever

obstacles jump up to block our progress.


More than anything, a mother offers unbridled love.

That’s what a mother does.

Late Night Drama

“Stop it, Daddy!”

“Shut up your mouth before I shut it for you,” the man hissed in the little girl’s ear.  Holding her tightly by both arms, he shook her.

“Please,” the girl cried.  “You’re hurting me.”  Sobbing convulsively, the girl tried to wriggle free, but her father’s grasp was too tight.

“Cassie, come on.” The man tossed the girl over his left shoulder as easily as slinging a bag of cat food.  He marched out of the department store, glaring straight ahead, oblivious to the stares of customers.

Tears poured down Cassie’s face and fell to the scuffed linoleum, leaving behind an easy-to-follow trail.  Matted hair fell limply around the child’s head, and dirty ankles protruded from the frayed hems of her pant legs.  With each step of her father’s, Cassie’s stained gray sweatshirt slid further and further up her chest, exposing stomach and ribs.  The child was bone-thin.

As the angry man stopped past the registers, the sound of cell phones snapping open filled the air, mimicking the staccato beat of rain on a metal roof.  Dozens of narrowed eyes tracked the progress of the father, appearing to memorize his physical characteristics with each step that he took.

“May I help you?”  A blue-clad security guard interrupted the man’s determined march to the doors.

“Get out of the way,” he said as he brushed past the officer.

“I need you to stop.  Now.”

Silently, the father pushed ahead, deaf to the guard’s demands.  Step by step he neared the closed doors of the store, anger’s marks clearly defined on his unshaven face.

The guard fell into step behind the man.  Cassie lifted her filthy head, and with red-rimmed eyes mouthed, “Help me.”

“Don’t take another step,” the guard said, “or I’ll have to shoot.”

“Go right ahead,” the man replied as he turned and stared at the barrel of a gun.  “But if you hurt my daughter, I’ll kill you,” he called as the doors whooshed open.  He stepped into the cool nighttime air, to the astonished gasp of terrified onlookers.

The guard spoke into a walkie-talkie on his shoulder and followed them into the darkness outside.

The store’s lot was poorly lit.  Weak pools of pale yellow light separated patches of total darkness, creating an other-worldly effect.  The guard quickly scanned right to left, but did not immediately spot the man.  As he stepped further away from the store’s entrance, however, he saw movement near the garden center.  With gun held tightly in both hands, he cautiously moved in that direction.

Suddenly a chorus of sirens filled the still air, slowly building in intensity, like an orchestra warming up.  A mewling sound caught his attention, off to the right, near a dipsy-dumpster.  Focused on his target, the guard stepped ever closer to the battered metal container, gun raised and pointing straight ahead.

“Take another step and I’ll kill the girl,” the man’s gravelly voice sounded from behind the dumpster, echoing off a nearby brick wall. “I’ve got a gun and I’m not afraid to use it.”

“Let the girl go and no one gets hurt.”  Having just recently graduated from security guard training, a change-in-career job after being laid off from the local car manufacturing plant, this was the officer’s first serious confrontation.  Trembling slightly, he tightened his grip on the gun’s handle.  “Come on, now, buddy.  Your little girl looks pretty upset.  Let her go.”

“I’ve had a bad day,” the hiding man said.  “My wife has been ill.  I’ve been living at the hospital for several weeks now. She died this morning.”  The words echoed, repeatedly taunting the tormented man.

The guard sensed movement to his left.  Glancing over his shoulder, he sighed with relief.  At least half a dozen police, fully armed and wearing protective vests were amassed behind a Chevy SUV.  “Keep the guy talking,” said a quiet voice.

“I’m sorry to hear about your wife.  I know what that’s like.  Mine died a couple of years ago.  Cancer.  Wasn’t anything the doctors could do.”  He took two more baby steps.

“Do you have kids?” the man asks.

“Yeah, but they’re grown and out of the house.  Is that little girl your only child?”

“No.  I’ve got a son.  He’s three.  Jason.  That’s his name.  This here’s Cassie.  She’s six.  That’s all I’ve got left now.”

“Where’s your son?”  Lowering his gun, the guard took one more step and turned so that his back rested against the container. “Is he at home?”

“He’s inside the store with my mother-in-law.  She hates my guts.  Calls me a no-good loser.  Blames me for my wife’s illness.” The man’s voice grew in intensity with each word.  “I’m not a loser, I tell you!”  Shouting now, anger filled his words.  “She hates my kids, too.  Did you see how dirty Cassie is?  Not one Goddamned bath.  The whole time they were staying with her.  What kind of person treats a kid like that?  And you ought to see Jason!  He’s filthy from head to toe.  And she says I’m the nutty one.”

The guard realized that this man was not a kidnapper, but a parent trying to rescue his child from a horrific situation. After putting his gun back in its holster, the guard signaled the waiting police to stay put.  “No one’s going to hurt you or Cassie.  I’m Bob Johnson.  What’s your name?

“Markovich.  Stan.  Stan Markovich.”

“So, Stan, why not step out into the light?  Maybe we can get this all sorted out.  Is there anything about you that I should worry about? Like do you have a criminal record?”

“A couple of traffic tickets, that’s all.  I’m a good father and I was a faithful husband.  I don’t care what my mother-in-law says.  I love my family. Really I do,” Stan said as his voice fell to a whisper.  “My mother-in-law wouldn’t let me see my kids.  I tried to visit them every night, but she wouldn’t open the door.”

“How’d you know they were here at the store?”

“I parked down the street from the house.  Sat there for hours.  When the old bat took off, I followed her car.  Lucky for me she had the kids.”

“Did you talk to her?”

“No.  What’s the point?  I looked all over the store for them.  I heard Cassie’s voice.  It sounded like she was crying.  They were in the food section.  When I looked around the aisle, Cassie was inches from me.  So I grabbed her and ran.

The guard inched closer to the edge of the dumpster.  He thought about peeking around to make sure the girl was safe, but then thought better of it. His chest tightened and he had difficulty breathing.  “Not now,” he thought.  “Now’s not the time to have a heart attack.  Calm yourself.  For the child.”  He forcibly took several deep breaths.

“Cassie, go to the nice man,” Bob heard Stan say.  “It’s all right.  Everything’s going to be okay now.  Go ahead.  Stop crying, baby.”

A tiny foot, clad in a filthy sneaker peeked around the dumpster.  Soon another foot appeared, slowly followed by the rest of the girl.  Looking out from under overly long bangs, doleful eyes pierced Bob’s heart.  “Come here, Cassie,” he called as he held out his large hand, a kindly smile lighting his face.

The child’s movements were like a wary cat’s.  Her eyes darted about the parking lot, taking in the paltry lighting, the massed officers, the rhythmic cadence of the blinking lights of the gathered cruisers.

“It’s okay, child.  Everything’s going to be fine now,” Bob said as the girl tentatively placed her tiny hand in his.  “I’m going to take you over to those police officers.  They’ll make sure you’re safe.”  Together they walked, like a loving grandpa and grandchild.

“Good job, Johnson,” one of the officers said.

“Thanks, Captain.”

“Not bad for a rookie,” the captain slapped Bob on the back.  “Smith, take this girl for an ice cream cone, will you?”

The entire crowd flinched when a single shot rang out.  The sound reverberated through the paring lot, filling the night with a thundering roar.

“Oh, my God,” Bob said as he sank to his knees.