Traveling Again

For the past few days I’ve been in the Washington DC area. There is something quite satisfying about walking where so many game changers have stood and been honored.

We visited Montpelier, home of James Madison. We stood in the room where he researched laws and crafted the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

We strolled through his gardens where he went to contemplate. It was an awesome feeling.

The next day we went to DC proper. Walked around the tidal basin where the cherry trees were in full bloom. This has been on our bucket list for some time. It’s as beautiful as I imagined.

Yesterday we visited Lincoln’s cottage, a quiet space where he reflected on all the issues that plagued him. We saw the doors that he walked through, the veranda he stood on overlooking the capital, and a section of the original floor that he walked on.

So much history!

And our vacation is not yet over.

A Religious Awakening

Fifty years ago, my faith was in doubt.  Tired of hearing the hell and damnation homilies of the local parish priest, I tuned out every time he spoke.  I knew that I should have been listening, for I feared that I was one of the sinners that he condemned to everlasting fire, and that there was no hope for my salvation.

I did not “do” drugs, proffer myself to men, nor commit crimes against society.  I was, however, not a dutiful daughter who accepted her subservient status in a household that held women with little respect. My parents believed that my sole purpose in life was to work for them, as a household servant, and when those jobs were done to satisfaction, then and only then could I pursue an education.

I did not object to assisting with the care and operation of the house.  What angered me most was that my siblings were exempted from any and all responsibility, including cleaning up after themselves.

A major part of the problem was that my parents were ultra-conservative and narrow in focus.  To them, the duty of an older daughter was to manage the house and to marry young.  By young, I mean by the age of fourteen.  I didn’t even date at that age, let alone have a serious boyfriend, and I hated housework, so I was a failure in their eyes.

It should be a surprise that I was so affected by what was said for the pulpit, for Sunday worship was not something that my parents faithfully practiced.  They went to church when they felt like it, when the weather was good, when there were no sporting events on television.  And when they did go to church, it was not at the nearest church, but rather one which held the shortest service.

When I left for college in the summer of 1969, I decided to act boldly: I would not go to church at all.  My resolve faded as soon as the first Sunday arrived.  Not wanting to anger God, fearful of blackening my soul any further, I found the Newman center on campus.  The atmosphere was one of welcome.  The music filled me with joy, literally erasing all my negative thoughts and feelings in one fell swoop.

As time passed, my attitude toward the church changed. I believed the good news that I heard over and over during those joy-filled services. I understood that God had not judged me and found me wonting.  Instead, I now knew, He was a loving God who cried when one of His souls lost the way.  He offered peace and salvation to all who believed.  He gave solace, when needed, in times of stress and anxiety.  He loved us, no matter what we might have done.

Several months into that first school year, the Newman Club organized a retreat up in the nearby mountains.  I had never done anything this before, but it sounded exactly what I needed.

The camp was somewhere east of Los Angeles, a rustic setting nestled in a forest. From the time we arrived at the camp, I felt at peace. All of us hurried inside, anxious to claim a bunk in one of the dorm rooms.  There was no pushing, no domineering, no one person making others feel worthless.

Having never been camping, I was unprepared for the chilly nights and the crisp morning air.  My clothing was not substantial enough to keep me warm, especially when it snowed in the night, leaving about six inches on the forest floor. Nevertheless, thanks to the generosity of those who shared warm mittens and thick sweaters, I stayed warm.

Throughout that weekend, my heart sang.  It was as if a giant anvil had been removed. Like a newly feathered chick, I flopped my wings, and took off.  Faith came at me from every direction.  From the treetops came God’s blessed light.  From the ferns sprang His offerings of love.  From my fellow participants came God’s unconditional love.  From our times of prayer and reflection, came discovery of my love for the God who loved me back.

I smiled until my face literally hurt.  I laughed at the crazy antics of my roommates, and joined in the singing in front of the fireplace at night.  During prayer times, tears poured down my face, yet I did not have the words to explain why.  It was as if someone had reached inside, pulled out all the pain, and filled me with a wholesome goodness.

I do believe that God touched me that weekend.  Not with His hands, for I did not feel the slightest brush against my body. What I did experience was the enveloping of His arms, holding me and making me feel safe. He gave the gift of feeling both loved and lovable.  He made me feel important, and inspired me to continue to follow His way.

When the weekend drew to a close, it was with deep regret that I packed my things.  I hoped to hold on to all that I had experienced.

I would love to report that my life was permanently changed, but it was not.  When at home, I continued to feel inadequate.  Not one day passed without hearing what a huge disappointment I was.  There was nothing that I did that ever pleased my parents, and not once did they give me a single word of encouragement.

When I graduated from college, I moved back to the still stifling environment of my parents’ home.  Pulled down by the never-ending criticism of my unmarried state, my unemployment, and by the wasted years at college, I quickly fell into a state of despondency.  The local Mass situation had not changed, even if the pastors had.  One pastor continued to preach the same old fire and brimstone message about the blackening of our souls.  In another, the Mass was so short you could be in and out in less than forty minutes.

It was not until my husband and I moved into the parish that he had known as a teenager, that the glow returned.  I rediscovered the God who loved me, who sheltered me from the storms of life, and who walked with me every step of every day.

It was, and continues to be, a community of caring individuals who come together to worship and to pray for each other in times of need.  While priests have come and gone, the overall feeling has not.  We are the parish, the ones who define the atmosphere that envelopes all who step through the doors.

I know that there is a loving God who helps us walk through life’s challenges. He has blessed my life in ways that I am still discovering.

That is the story of my faith.





A Fresh Idea

            When it comes to getting my hair done, I’m an avowed cheapskate. As far back as I can remember, my hairdos were monitored and maintained by my mom. She cut it, permed it and styled it, all using home care products that were unpredictable at best.

My hair hung well below my hips until I was nine. At that point, after tiring of my cries of pain, my mom decided to cut my hair. We walked to a bus stop, then rode from the country into Dayton, Ohio. There, at a shop, I got my first professional cut and perm.

I loved the feeling when someone else shampooed my hair and ran a comb through it. I was entranced by the parting and snipping that shortened my hair to shoulder–length. I hate the perm. Long rods were wound into my hair, rods which were attached to an electrified pole.

My dad hated it. In fact, his words were so hurtful that it was a long, long time before I allowed my mom to cut my hair again.

After college it became popular to have an Afro style. I loved it. My hair was very short, easy to take care of, and required minimum care. The one downfall was that my hair did not take to the perm chemicals naturally, and so I had to have second and third dousing in order to get tightly wound curls.

I kept this “do” into my marriage.

Then I discovered the joys of going to the beauty college, where I could get my hair cut for free. Yes, it took a long time. Often hours. Every step along the way a supervisor had to come over and approve. But it was free! And inconsistent.

After months of this, I graduated to the next stage, which still required hours, but the skills of the operators were much better. For this I had to pay a minimum fee, I think five dollars. Quality varied, and I had to be flexible in terms of the final product.

When this program was terminated, I moved to the floor of the school, where my care was still monitored,  but not as closely. I was still getting perms, but only enough to put some life in my normally straight hair.

After I went back to work and was making a little more money, I found a local shop that only cost eight dollars. Perms were now out of style, so all I needed was a trim now and then.

I kept this up for years. Again, the quality varied. Sometimes I got a good cut, something that pleased me. But more and more often the operator cut my hair too short, making me look more male than female.

Three months ago my sister-in-law treated me to a cut at a salon that normally charges forty-five dollars! I was in shock, but, I have to admit, terribly pleased with the result.

That was the first time that I understood two main things: you get what you pay for and there is a difference between a cut and a style. I fell in love with style. Not that my “do” is fancy, because it isn’t. What I liked was having my hair cut evenly, the finished product a blend all the way around.

I would have returned to that shop even though it’s a long drive, but then I met someone local who called herself a stylist. The next time I needed a cut, I went to her. Once again, I loved the result. So I returned and will continue to go to her as long as she is local.

Now my cuts cost actual dollars. It pains me to pay so much for a cut, as I am still an avowed cheapskate, but I love the end result. It is well worth it to pay more if, when you walk out of the shop, you feel pleased.

The Awakening

When Vivien opened her eyes she didn’t recognize where she was. It was a small room, in a small bed, not the queen size she shared with her husband of many years. Her left arm touched the wall, an unfamiliar feeling. Directly above her was a large window through which the sun shone. The curtains and the comforter were white with tiny purple flowers, something Vivien would never have purchased.

When she looked to the right she saw a small, cheaply made table and a worn orange upholstered chair, its legs scraped clean of any stain. After that a built-in closet, painted white. At her feet, a small television was bolted to the wall. And next to that, an open doorway.

Vivien had to go to the bathroom, so she sat up. Her head spun for a bit and her body felt clumsy and heavy. She swung her legs over the edge, then stood. At first she feared that her legs would buckle, but once she was solid, she slid her right foot forward. Then the left, slowly, slowly until she was able to stick her head out the door. To her left was a bathroom, so Vivien headed that way.

Inside she went to pull down her underwear, but found she was wearing a diaper, taped at both sides. She ripped it apart, then sat, just in time. Finished, she looked in the mirror. Her hair, which she always kept short, hung limply to her shoulders. It was greasy and matted. And she smelled as if she hadn’t bathed in weeks.

Vivien turned on the shower, removed her stinky nightgown and stepped under the spray. It felt fantastic to have water streaming over her head and down her body. She found shampoo and scrubbed her hair. Conditioner. Soap. When she turned off the water, she heard pounding.

“Vivien, open the door.”

She didn’t. She pulled a stiff white towel from a rack and dried herself. The towel left her skin pink and barely dry. She hung it back up, carefully folded and even at the bottom. Vivien opened the medicine cabinet and found deodorant and lotion, which she happily applied.

“I’m coming in,” the voice said as the knob turned. A small brown-skinned woman came in, an angry look on her face. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“I was dirty. I took a shower.”

“You have to ask for help,” the woman said as she pulled Vivien, naked, back into the small room. “Sit.” The woman pushed Vivien into the chair and began opening drawers. “Put this on,” she said as she handed Vivien a blouse.

Vivien had a little difficulty getting her arms in the sleeves and her fingers wouldn’t cooperate with the buttons, but she got it done by being patient. That’s one thing Vivien admired about herself: she was a patient person. “Why am I here? I want to go home.”

“Don’t ask silly questions. This is your home,” the woman said. “Lay on the bed.” She pulled Vivien up, moved her to the bed, and pushed her down. “Lift your butt.” She slipped a plastic-sounding thing under Vivien.

“Stop,” Vivien said. “No diapers.” She tried to pull it off, but the woman slapped her hands. “I want to wear panties and a bra.”

“Okay,” the woman said as she removed the diaper. “Let’s see how long you go before peeing your pants.” The woman rummaged in the drawers and came up with a beige pair of underwear. “Put these on.”

Vivien loved the feel of the material. It was slippery and smooth. She put on her panties, and then when the woman handed her a pair of slacks, Vivien refused to take them. “I want to wear jeans. I wear jeans every day.”

The woman tossed a pair of jeans at Vivien and then huffed out of the room.

Vivien finished dressing herself. After a bit the woman returned carrying a brush. The woman was a bit rough, not seeming to care when the brush tangled and pulled.

“I need a haircut,” Vivien said. “I wear my hair short.”

“Stay here,” the woman said as she left the room.

Vivien found a TV remote on the table and pushed the red button. The news came on. She had always like listening to the news, knowing what was happening in the world, so she watched. So much devastation! Wars. Famine. Drought. Floods. Snow storms and tornadoes. Arguing about laws and decisions and statements. It seemed as if the world was crazy, but she felt compelled to watch, as if she hadn’t seen the news in a long, long time.

The woman returned with a small table and a tray. “Eat.”

Vivien tasted the pancake and it was cold. The eggs were gooey, not firm like Vivien preferred. Limp bacon and tasteless toast. She was hungry, so she ate as much as she could tolerate.

When the woman returned, she scooped the food remnants into Vivien’s mouth until the plate was empty. “You have to eat all your food. We’ve been over this.” And then  she left, caring away the table and tray.

Vivien went into the hallway, turning to her right, and soon found herself  in a sitting area in which four woman stared at a blank television screen. Vivien first sat on the couch next to a woman wearing a huge flowery dress, but the woman stank, so Vivien got up and moved to a wooden chair.

Vivien smiled at a woman, but the woman stared ahead, no reaction on her face. Vivien said, “Hi” to another woman, but that one looked at Vivien then brought one finger to her mouthed and shushed her. Vivien asked if she could turn on the TV, but another woman told her no, so she didn’t. It was boring sitting there with nothing to do.

Time passed. When Vivien had to use the restroom, she took herself. She used the toilet without incident. “I don’t know why that woman wanted me to wear a diaper,” she thought. When finished, she returned to the small bedroom room and turned the TV back on.

“Time to go,” the woman said when she came into the room. “We’re going to the park.”

“I want to go home and be with my husband,” Vivien said. “I don’t want to go to the park.”

The woman grabbed Vivien’s arm and pulled her to a standing position and out into the hall. Altogether there were three women wearing some kind of uniform who led the silent women down the ramp and onto the sidewalk. Even though she wanted to wait for her husband to come, Vivien was happy to be outside. The sun was shining, the sky was blue and birds were singing.

They walked two blocks down to a main street, waited for the light to change, then crossed. The group walked a short distance to a park. It was a huge place, with two baseball fields and a playground. Small children were swinging and climbing up and sliding down. Vivien smiled, remembering when she used to take her son to the park and how much fun he had.

“Sit,” one of the uniformed women said as she pushed Vivien toward a picnic table.

The women sat at the table. No one talked. No one looked at Vivien. All of a sudden Vivien knew where she was. She knew she was on Dyer in Union City. All she had to do was walk down Dyer and turn right on Whipple. East on Whipple, then north on Ithaca. A left turn, then a right, another right and she’d be home. Back to her husband, whom she loved and missed.

“I have to go to the bathroom,” Vivien said. One of the women took her to a bathroom behind a baseball field. Vivien noticed that the building backed up to the scorekeeper’s shack. Suddenly she knew how to get to her husband. All she had to do was sneak out of the bathroom, squeeze between the two buildings, and hide there until she could find refuge some bushes in a neighbor’s yard. Stay there until they stopped looking for her, and then walk home.

When she was finished in the bathroom, Vivien looked outside. The woman’s back was to her, so Vivien slid around to the back, moving as quietly as she could. She brushed away cobwebs that tickled her face and arms. She waited there, breathing as quietly as she could.

She heard the woman calling her name and when the sound seemed further away, Vivien took that opportunity to scuttle around the baseball field and into a front yard, where she found large bushes that were perfect for hiding behind. She sat on the ground, amidst ants and bugs and dirt and waited, expecting to be found, but thankfully no one came.

Early evening came. The sun lost its brilliance and the air cooled. Cars zipped down the street, but still no one came for her. When it was nearly dark she left her hiding spot and headed north. She realized that there was no hiding places on this side of the street, so when she came to a crosswalk, Vivien went to the other side.

She was careful now. When she heard a car coming, she ducked into the darkness. When  it was safe, she walked, further and further along. She crossed Alvarado Boulevard, then Alvarado-Niles. When she tired, she’d rest on fire hydrants.  It seemed like she had to rest more and more often as she walked past a restaurants that her husband liked and then past Walmart where she bought her birdseed. She acted as if she belonged there, believing that no one would challenge her if she stood straight and moved swiftly.

Traffic eased from the evening rush to a trickle of cars. After the train tracks, Vivien turned north at the Seven Eleven. Left at Geneva. Right at Carroll. Right at Gresel. Right on Gerald Court. Two houses and she was home.

Vivien wrapped her arms around herself and admired the front yard and the stucco and the windows, but most of all, her car, sitting right there in the driveway like it always did.

Vivien went to the front door and turned the knob, but it didn’t open. She knocked and heard shuffling, then the door opened a crack. Her husband’s face looked at her. She smiled. “Steve,” she said. “I’m home.”

He opened the door and pulled her inside. “Oh, Honey, I’ve been so worried. Why did you run away?” His arms felt strong and good, even after all these years. He smelled of Dove soap and coffee and felt like love. He brought her into the bathroom and asked if she needed help.

“I’m fine,” she said, but she had difficulty pulling down her pants, so he helped. When she was finished, he pulled them up for her. Then he took her to the dining room and sat her in a chair.

“I bet you’re hungry,” he said. “I’ll zap some spaghetti for you.”

Vivien admired the beautiful house. The pictures on the walls. All scenes of Native American life. The dolls in the display case, dressed in the traditional clothing of various tribes.

Steve put a plate in front of her and handed her a fork. “I don’t understand why you ran away.” He brushed her hair back from her face.

“I wanted to come home. I woke up in a strange room. I smelled and got yelled at for taking a shower. The food was soggy and cold. I wanted to be with you.” She tried scooping up the spaghetti, but it slid off her fork, so her husband fed her.

When she was finished, he led her to the family room and settled her on the couch.

He ran his fingers over her head. “I love you,” he said. “But I can’t take care of you. That’s why you live in the home.”

Vivien stared at her husband. “I can take care of myself just fine,” she said.

Steve kissed her cheek. “Today maybe. But most of the time you can’t. You need more help than I can give. That’s why you live in the board and care home.”

“Please let me stay here,” Vivien said, tears running down her cheeks. “Don’t make me go back there. They’re mean to me. Please let me stay here.”

He got her a tissue and wiped her cheeks and then he went into the kitchen. She heard him talking to someone and thought it was her son. That maybe he was telling  her son how happy he was to see her. He returned and sat next to her. He pulled her to his chest and held her tightly.

“If only it could be like this. It would be wonderful.” And he sobbed.

He held her until the doorbell rang. A woman and a familiar looking man came into the room. The woman said, “We searched all over for you. We even called the police.”

Vivien tried to remember where she’d seen the woman before. The man smiled at her, then held out his hands and pulled her up. “Come on, Honey,” he said. “Time to go.”

The woman held one arm, the man the other as they walked her through the building and out the door. They helped her down some steps, then put her in a van and buckled her in. The woman started the car and pulled away. The night was dark except for a few streetlights shining here and there.

Vivien stared out the window, watching as buildings sped by. The van stopped and the woman turned off the engine.

“We’re home now,” the woman said. She opened the door and said, “Get out.”

Vivien did as she was told. The woman pulled her into the building and then into a small room. “Lie down,” the woman said as she pushed Vivien onto a bed.

The woman washed Vivien’s legs. “You’re a mess,” she said and then put a diaper on Vivien. Took off Vivien’s top and slid a soft nightgown over her head.

“Get under the covers.”

Then the woman pulled a blanket up to her chin. “Go to sleep,” the woman said and then turned off the light as she left.

Vivien lay there for a long time, trying to figure out where she was. She closed her eyes.