The Teacher Who Changed My Life

            Academics did not come easy for me. The alphabet made no sense, so I couldn’t read or write. While math was easy, time and money stumped me. No one had ever read to me and there were few books in our house, so that was probably the main reason that everything was so hard.

            I did attend preschool for a while. I recall that the teachers were nice, but they only gave me assignments that involved coloring alone, at my desk. Kindergarten wasn’t much better.

            The one skill that I did master was being invisible. I was the student who disappeared into her desk. When my reading group was called to the front of the room, I scooted down so far that only my forehead was above the desk. If the teacher had been paying attention, she would have noticed that I was missing, but she seldom did.

            My returned papers had poor grades. When I realized how poorly I was doing, I decided to teach myself. My determination was what helped me succeed.

            I still struggled, so much so that at the end of each year, when the teacher called me to her desk and marked on my report card whether or not I had passed, I never knew what would happen. It could easily have gone either way. Repeating a grade might have been the best thing for me except for the punishment I’d have gotten at home.

            Along the way my academic skills improved, enough so that by the time I went to high school I was able to enroll in the more challenging courses. I was on was on the college-bound track. Even so, English was still difficult.

            My ninth grade English teacher seldom called on me, which was good, because most of the time I had no idea what he was talking about. He’d ask about theme, moral of the story and characterization. What I thought was the theme, was never what he thought. My interpretation of moral was always wrong. I confused characters and so didn’t “get” what one character intended or meant or said.

            There was one time when the teacher called on me to answer a question. I had thought I knew the answer, but I froze. Instead of saying what was on my mind, I replied, “I don’t know.” Not only did he laugh at me, but so did all of my classmates.

            When we moved to California, I had a chance to start over with new classmates, in a new school where none of the teachers knew my history. My Algebra teacher was Mr. Kjekegard, a short, squat, ruddy-faced, pleasant man. He was incredibly patient and explained things in a way that not only made sense, but allowed me to excel.

            Mr. K saw something in me that no previous teacher had seen: a person capable of becoming whatever she wanted to be. When the class was working independently, he often stopped by my desk to give words of encouragement. Sometimes when class ended, he called me to his desk and commented about how well I was doing.

            His demeanor and support encouraged me to work harder, to master complex problems and to push ahead of the class. When he asked for students to come to the board to solve problems, I frequently volunteered, something I had never done before.

            He didn’t teach Geometry, so I had a new teacher, one who was not patient or kind. I found Geometry complex and confusing. It didn’t follow any mathematical principles that made sense to me. No matter how hard I worked, I struggled. The teacher offered no help or encouragement.

            My senior year I was assigned to Mr. K’s class for Trigonometry. I rejoiced when I saw his name on my course schedule. Once again I was a stellar student, mastering complex problems with ease.

            The best part was that Mr. K encouraged me to think about college, something that I wanted to do, but felt I’d never have sufficient academic skills to even consider the possibility. I applied as a Math major, of all things! And, surprise of all surprises, I was accepted at every college.

            While I eventually changed my major because of a misogynistic Math Department Chair, I was always grateful for the confidence that Mr. K had given me. Under his tutelage I discovered that not only could I succeed in higher lever math, but that I could also excel in almost all academic areas.

            Mr. K changed my life. The child who was once invisible later became the teacher who stood at the front of the room, the teacher who made sure to recognize the good in all of her students.  

A Dose of my Own Medicine

I don’t consider myself the mask police, but I am aware of who isn’t wearing one when I’m out hiking.  When such an individual approaches, I make sure mine is on properly, but I don’t correct their behavior. Likewise, I say nothing when I’m at a store or the gym and catch someone wearing theirs incorrectly. It seems that the most common error is not covering the nose.

Perhaps they don’t realize that we send droplets into the air with every exhalation. But, rule are rules, right?

I have reported a few individuals at the gym and have requested that staff walk the gym floor on a regular basis to ensure compliance. My health and that of others is at stake.

Now that we are fully vaccinated, we went on our first trip out of Alameda County over the weekend to visit relatives. They live in an area that resists compliance with any laws, so I was not surprised to encounter folks not wearing masks of any kind. It made me both angry and sad. It’s one thing to not care about your own health: it’s entirely another to not care about what you might inflict on others.

Coming home Tuesday we stopped for lunch at a fast food restaurant that had tables outdoors. My fingers got quite messy. When I was finished I tossed our trash and went inside to clean up. A woman, who appeared to be in line, waved her hand in a circle when she saw me. I assumed she meant she wasn’t in that line, but the one for food.

As I washed my hands, I glanced at myself in the mirror and discovered, to my embarrassment and horror, that I had not put my mask on before entering!

I made a promise to myself that I will no longer look askance at those who are not compliant. After all, they might not be aware that their mask had slipped, or like me, had simply made a mistake!

One Lucky Lady

They say that cats have nine lives.  Through some quirk of nature, I must have some “link” to those lives, for I’ve gone through four already.  That’s about as lucky as a person can get, I suppose. 

Sure, I’d love to win the lottery, but that requires buying a ticket.  I could go to Las Vegas, Nevada and throw money at the slot machines, or go to the horse races at Golden Gate Fields and bet on a long shot, but those things seem unnecessarily wasteful.

I don’t play Bingo, Scrabble, or cards, so you’ll never see me entered in a competition.  Pool is not my game either.  The only contests I enter are for authors who love to throw good money away on entrance fees.

 Some things are worth much more than money.  Family, love, satisfaction, shelter, food, friends, and employment rank right in the top ten.  Simply having the good fortune to still be walking on this earth is about the luckiest that anyone could possibly be.

It’s equivalent to finding the golden ticket in the chocolate bar, or watching the long-shot horse cross the finish line well ahead of the others.  Every morning that I arise is my lucky day.  Every evening when I’m able to climb under the covers is another opportunity to count my blessings.

Once you’ve faced Death and emerged victorious, nothing can compare.  Four times I’ve walked away, knowing that Death had called my name and I had had the fortitude to stare him in the face and say, “Heck, no.”

About ten years ago a common cold moved in to my lungs.  It had the nerve to take up residence, and stubbornly refused to leave.  The sniffles turned into a full-blown, fever-induced hallucinogenic excursion into the netherworld.  Weakened by its ravaging forces, I was unable to motivate my combat troops to erect a formidable defense. 

Night after night I coughed my way through the lonely hours.  Food refused to stay down, and fluids ran right through, stopping only long enough to gather random reinforcements along the way.  Awareness took a temporary vacation, leaving me in an imbecilic state.

Eventually the battle reached a critical point.  As I pretended to sleep, each gasp was like playing a “cat and mouse” game. That’s when something bizarre occurred.  I floated.  Yes, I literally floated above my reclining body.

Looking down, I knew that I was dead.  My chest did not rise and fall.  No fluttering of eyelids or twitching of fingers.  A coldness drifted upwards as a pallor overcame what I thought of as simply, “my body.”

My husband slept peacefully next to my corpse, unaware that I was no longer there.  My heart broke, thinking of the devastation that this would cause him, and I cried, “No!” 

I fought to break free from my insubstantial self, screaming silently that my time had not yet come.  I closed my eyes and literally willed myself back into my body, one part at a time.  Fingers.  Toes.  Legs.  Arms.  Chest.  Head.

My eyes opened, and I was back.  Joy flooded my thoughts, and I knew, then, that I was victorious.

Much later someone told me about out-of-body experiences, and that it was possible for someone to defy death.  That was life number one.

Life number two was taken five years ago when a chronic asthma attack landed me in the hospital for eight days.  Every breath was a fight.  My lungs gurgled, and the feeling was much like that of drowning.  The specialists gathered about my bedside throughout the day argued as to what to try next.  Nothing worked. I weakened by the hour.

Six days in, I begged my husband to call our children.  I wanted to hear their voices one last time before I died.  Yes, I said that, for I believed that my end had come. 

One by one the calls came.  I was so weak that all I was capable of doing was whispering, “I love you.”  That night, at peace, I readied myself to die.

When morning came and I was still there, I cried.  Another day of fighting for every breath, of coughing so hard that my ribs were sore, did not appeal to me in the least. 

When the crew of doctors gathered this time, one of them suggested antibiotics.  After the first injection, my fever broke.  Within hours air began to fill my lungs, the coughing subsided, and Optimism walked into my room. 

Two days later I went home, grateful to be alive. 

Within five months I returned to the hospital with another chronic asthma attack.  Because the specialists knew what was happening, they began the antibiotics immediately.  Once again, I cheated Death.

My fourth life disappeared when the car I was riding in slid off a snow-covered Interstate 80, thirty miles west of Salt Lake City.  Normally the road is crowded with huge semis traveling at seventy-five miles an hour.  For some bizarre reason, none were near us as the car swerved in and out of lanes. 

Time stood still as we drifted to the right, heading for a ditch.  The car seemed to float off the road, down the hill, and over the clumps of weeds.  When we stopped, we were right side up, perpendicular to the interstate.  My daughter, the driver, and my granddaughter, riding in the back seat, were unharmed.

Within minutes rescuers arrived.  One was so kind as to drive the car out of the ditch.  Shaken, we returned to the highway, knowing that we would exit at the first safe-looking ramp.

On our journey home, we passed two similar accidents.  Both vehicles had flipped over as they slid off the road.  Both had landed upside down in icy water.  Both had fatalities.

So, while I have never won a grand monetary prize, I have won my life four times.  For me, that is luck enough for any one person.

Opening My Eyes

When you have very little, even the smallest thing can change your life. It often doesn’t matter what it is, it’s the ownership that allows us to see ourselves in a different light.

For most of my growing up years living with my family I felt inferior to my siblings. My brother Bill, who was a little more that a year older, seemed to bask in my mother’s attention. I understood that my father didn’t often see the good in my brother, no matter how hard he tried to gain approval.

My dad was a natural athlete: my brother was not. Bill signed up for Little League. He wasn’t good enough to get on a team. My dad was so angry that he lashed out at league officials, but no matter how obnoxious my dad was, Bill didn’t get placed on a team. My dad found out that he could pick up all the boys (yes, only boys could play back then!) that had been rejected and set up practice times with them.

My dad got busy, spending night after night making calls. When he had called every boy and got enough to make a team, practices began. I was allowed to tag along. Every time a ball went wild, it was my responsibility to retrieve it. Because theses boys had terrible skills, I spent almost the entire practice time, day after day, wading through thigh-high weeds gathering all the stray balls.

 I ended up with a such a severe case of poison ivy that I couldn’t bend my legs without being in pain. It did not deter me.

After weeks of practice, my dad arranged preseason games with organized, uniformed teams. His boys did not lose every game. When they did lose, it was not by the huge margin that the other coaches expected.

My brother was not the best player nor the worst, but he had an unusual style for running the bases. He never slid, but always arrived bent over with his butt facing the crowd. People snickered. My mom and I laughed.  My dad was embarrassed. He tried to teach my brother how “normal” boys ran the bases, but it didn’t change a thing.

What was important was that my dad took a group of players that no one wanted and made them into something valuable. In fact, two of his players made it onto the all-star team at the end of the season.

About the same time doctor shows were popular on television. Every doctor appeared in the typical “doctor” shirt, a white, short-sleeved button-up the shoulder shirt.

On a shopping trip to the nearest five-and-dime, I saw a display of doctor-shirts on a rack just inside the door. To my surprise, they had one in my size. Something I did not expect due to being quite overweight. It was marked down, but still too expensive, so my mom wouldn’t buy it for me. When my mom registered my dismay, she agreed that I could earn the money to buy one.

I set to work pulling weeds in the vegetable garden, picking blackberries along the border between our house and the woods, which gave me an outbreak of poison ivy, and cleaning my brother’s room which meant picking up dirty underwear off the floor.

As the days passed, I kept my fingers crossed that the shirt would still be there.

When I finally had enough saved, on the next trip into town, I was allowed to accompany my mother. With money safely stored in a little pouch tucked in y shorts pocket, I prayed for the entire thirty-minute trip.

I was so anxious that I could hardly breathe as we opened the doors to the store and walked in. The rack was still there. The shirt in my size was still there, now marked down even more. With joy I pulled it off the rack and carried it through the store, cradled against my chest. I refused to put it in the cart no matter how much my mom insisted.

As soon as I got home, I tried on the shirt. It was perfect! It fit just right. It made me look like the television doctors. It was a tad thin. This was before I started wearing bras, so my nipples showed through.

After washing I hung the shirt in my closet and saved it for special occasions. I took it off it food was involved. When school began several weeks later it was the first thing I wore. Picture me getting out of our car and striding across the playground. See my squared shoulders and confident step. Watch me as I approach classmates, expecting glowing comments about my wonderful shirt.

Now erase all that from your mind. The shirt was so out-of-style that everyone laughed. It was an awakening to me. The shirts were on the clearance rack for a reason: no one wanted them. Add to that my humiliation when I was teased about not wearing a bra.

That was the last time I wore the shirt.

I share the two different stories for an important reason: growing up means not just physical growth. Our bodies change, yes, but so must we change our awareness of ourselves in the world.

My brother might not have been a great baseball player, but later in life he discovered a love of swimming. He enjoyed it so much that he put in a backyard pool so he could swim every day. He taught his daughters how to swim and supported them through lessons and team practices. Like Bill, they were all excellent swimmers. At one time the girls were featured on the cover of a magazine as Olympic potentials. None of them did make it on a Olympic team, but they did swim for their respective colleges.

My shirt did not win me the admiration and acceptance of my peers, but it did teach me that theme-related items have a shelf-life. As a parent I never made the mistake of dressing my kids in no-longer-popular cartoon characters or out-of-favor styled clothing. As a mother I couldn’t afford the latest styles for myself but I could sew something similar.

As a child my clothes were usually hand-me-downs that were often stained. My kids never wore stained or torn clothes. My teenage clothes were sometimes too tight or too long or made from the wrong fabrics or designs. While my kids’ clothes might have come from thrift stores, they dressed like everyone else their age.

We learn a lot of things growing up if we keep our eyes and ears open. Chasing baseballs taught me the element of the game, something I still appreciate today. Watching my dad coach taught me what it takes to teach a sport, something I carried with me when I became a soccer coach.

Listening to my teachers exposed me to the good and bad of education. I admired and respected the teachers who saw me as the awkward, insecure child that I was masking the intelligent capable student who could go on to college and excel. They showed me what good teachers do, skills that I took into my own classrooms.

Throughout my adult life I have tried to keep my eyes open. Each time I experienced something for the first time, I lodged it in my mind, sorted by what worked and what didn’t. Those things that worked, I tried to repeat; the ones that didn’t I put away.

Imagine what kind of world we would have if everyone opened their eyes to what’s happening around them. Imagine the difference it would make in people’s lives.

Just Another Dream

            I wasn’t the kind of kid who played with dolls. At least not in the usual way. Like most girls I had been given a few dolls as gifts, but none of them piqued my interest. I never gave them names, never changed their clothes, never pretended to feed or diaper them.

            Mostly they resided on my pillow, a line-up of meaningless plastic constructions that my parents thought I should have. Several of the dolls were still enclosed in boxes. I had been forbidden from opening them, and since I really didn’t care, I never so much as broke the seal.

            Those dolls were beautiful, too beautiful for a “little girl” as I had been told by my mom. They had glossy pretend hair. I recall that one’s was black, one was blonde and another had long wavy brown hair. I had seen what other girls did to their dolls’ hair, turned it into unruly tangles, and I understood that I was not supposed to ruin my dolls in the same way.

            Since I didn’t care, threats were meaningless.

            Dolls were also pretty boring back then. Their arms and legs might move, maybe even the heads might rotate, but they weren’t cuddly and did nothing that imitated life.

            Christmas was nearing, the year I turned eight. We did have a television then, a small black and white model that carried maybe three stations. One evening an advertisement appeared that called my name. A walking doll! Can you imagine such a thing? A doll that would follow you around. A doll that could be your best friend, something I dearly needed.

            I begged for that doll. When it was time to visit Santa, the only thing I wanted was that doll. When I went to bed, pictures of me playing with the doll, happy and laughing and having the best time of my life filled my thoughts.

            I was young enough to still believe in Santa, but old enough to understand that my family had very little money. No worry: Santa would bring me the doll.

            Our family attended Mass and then ate breakfast before we opened the colorfully packaged gifts under the tree. Because it had snowed heavily, we couldn’t drive the miles into Dayton to attend church, so we gathered around my dad who read the entire Mass. My mind was not on prayer, not on the service, but on the gifts under the tree. Would there be a doll for me? I prayed and prayed for the doll.

            Breakfast was oatmeal. No surprise there. Almost all of our breakfasts were oatmeal. Never cold cereal. That wasn’t allowed until we moved to California. Never bacon and eggs. Sometimes the despised Cream of Wheat.

            We didn’t add anything to the oatmeal. No brown sugar, no raisins, no honey. Nothing to make it interesting or more palatable. I was a picky eater and because I hated oatmeal, it usually took me forever to get down one bowl. But that morning, that Christmas, I gobbled mine down in record time.

            After breakfast we’d gather around the tree. My brother and I would sit on the floor, my parents on chairs. My dad was the only one allowed to touch the gifts, so we had to wait patiently while he picked up one, read its tag, then delivered it to the recipient. Gifts could not be opened until each of us held one in our laps.

            When our dad sat and gave the signal, we carefully removed bows and ribbons, so that they could be reused next year, then ran our thumbs under the tape binding the wrapping paper. Once free. We had to smooth out the paper, fold it along its lines, then stack it neatly beside us.

            If the gift was in a box we again had to open it carefully so as to not bend it or crease it in any way. If the gift was in its own box so that the contents were revealed with the unwrapping, we were forbidden to open the box until after lunch Christmas Day.

            I don’t remember anything I opened except that none of them were the doll. When there was nothing left under the tree, my eyes filled with tears. Santa had disappointed me.

            We helped Mom sort ribbons, bows and paper into neat stacks. When the job was complete, we were set free to play. My brother was older and therefore determined what toys we played with, what games we chose. Most likely we played with his green Army men. He loved lining them up in formations and sending them to attack the meager Army I was given. My men never won. Instead they “died” gruesome deaths of his choosing.

There was something satisfying in watching my men die that day. Their misery was a metaphor for my own. Those plastic men had wishes and dreams that would never come true: my one wish had also not come true. Each death mirrored the death of my dreams. In some perverse way, it was comforting.

            Before we could move on to another activity, the Army had to be cleaned up and put away. Because I was lower on the pecking order, cleanup was always left up to me. My brother had most likely moved on to another of his preferred activities, abandoning me to place the Army in the storage box in which they lived.

            Lunch must have been served. Most likely bologna sandwiches with a slice of pretend American cheese. No chips. No soda. Maybe, if we were lucky, homemade applesauce that Mom had canned in the summer.

            Free to play with the new toys, we were set free. I wish I remembered the things I had received, but I don’t. I was having trouble learning to read and tell time, so there might have been something related to that. Most likely not. We owned no picture books. No books of any kind except for an old bible that we weren’t allowed to read.

            I did have coloring books and crayons, but no plastic dishes with which to set up house. I hadn’t wanted plastic dishes, so I didn’t miss them at all.

            My dad and brother were into trains, so I bet there was track and at least one train car or engine. My dad was trying to turn my brother into the skilled athlete that he was, so there might have been a new glove or baseball. I would have loved my own glove! Girls didn’t play ball back then, so there’s no way a glove would have been under the tree for me.

            We did play board games. Because we were often trapped at home during snowy Ohio days, my brother and I spent hours playing games. I love getting new games. Each presented a new challenge, a new experience. Until my brother dominated my pieces. He won every time.

            By this time it would have been late afternoon, early evening. At some point I probably sank into one of the two chairs in the living room, crossed my arms over my chest and let the tears fall.

            Crying for me was normal. I cried every day, sometimes all day long. I cried when my brother hurt me, beat me at a game, hit me with a ball, stole my share of the Army men. I sobbed when I was punished for being me, for not knowing my colors, my alphabet, money and time. I was a miserable child: not the kind of girl that people want to cherish, to hold, to nurture.

            At some point my dad entered the room carrying a large, colorfully wrapped box. I knew that it wasn’t for me. There was no way I’d get something that large. No way that a gift for me had been overlooked.

            My brother, on the other hand, would have been given a surprise gift. He would have been the one that my dad would set the box in front of, the one who would get to open a gift while I watched.

            Imagine my shock when the gift landed at my feet! When I stood, the box was nearly as tall as I was. Could it be? Was it possible?

            When told to do so, I gingerly removed ribbon and bow. Ran my fingers along the edge of the paper. As I did so the contents were revealed: it was the doll from the televison.

            She was beautiful. Her golden hair fell to her shoulders. It gleamed in the Christmas tree lights. Her plastic arms were pearly and smooth. She was wearing a blue fitted dress that had eyelet trim along the edge of the sleeves and the bottom of the hem. On her feet were black Maryjane shoes like the ones I wore to church.

            My dad opened the box while I waited, holding my breath. This doll would change my life. There was something about her, something so special that I knew, I understood, that I would never be the same weeping girl. I would be as special as this doll. She would become my best friend, my only friend, as she followed me around the house.

            Once the doll was set free, I yearned to see her walk. But I couldn’t. No batteries came in the box. We had no batteries at home. Because the roads were covered in snow, no batteries could be purchased until the snow melted. All I could do was push her about. You see, on the soles of her shoes were rollers. Tiny black rollers. Four on each shoe.

            In a way, that was somewhat satisfying. I’d never had a doll with rollers. Never had a doll whose eyes opened and closed. Hers did just that. I’d never had a doll that was close to my size. There was so much about her that pleased me, that I didn’t mind, much, that I couldn’t watch her walk.

            Because I couldn’t turn the doll on, my mom insisted that she be returned to her box until batteries could be purchased. I was disappointed, but also relieved. With her in the box, her hair would not be mussed, her dress could not be torn, her legs and arms could not be broken. I also couldn’t sleep with her, but her plastic body was so hard, so dense, that there was no comfort in touching her. The box was hidden in my mom’s closet.

            I don’t remember how many days passed, how many days I had to wait to see the doll walk. But one day, after I’d nearly forgotten that the doll was in safekeeping, my dad returned home from work with batteries.

            After dinner the doll was brought out. I watched, eagerly, as my dad inserted the batteries. I stood over the doll and waited, holding my breath, while my dad flipped the switch.

            A grinding sound began. It sounded like metal on metal as the doll’s right foot slowly, almost imperceptibly moved forward a few inches. The left followed at snail’s pace. Then the right. The left. Ever so slowly she moved, the rollers allowing her to go forward to the horrible grinding sound. Then she died.

            Just like that. She moved a few inches, then died. The batteries only lasted for a few minutes. End of story. The doll was repackaged and returned to the closet.

            Sometime later, when I had definitely forgotten the doll, more batteries appeared. By now I had lost interest. This doll, this longed-for treasure, the one thing that would change my life, was just another huge disappointment in a long list of disappointments.

            I watched the doll move because I was expected to. Once again her feet moved minuscule bits to the grinding sound. Once again the batteries died.

            At this point I was given the option of keeping the doll in my room. I could play with her as long as I was careful not to muss her hair or ruin her clothes. The doll’s thrill had ended on Christmas Day when I saw how little she could do.

            Her eyes did not open or close. Her head did not turn and her arms did not move. She could not sit or bend. She was not cuddly, and since standing or lying down were the only things she could do, I no longer wanted her. She was just a cold, hard, rigid body. An image of me. Or at least what I thought people saw when they looked at me.

            My mom put the doll in her box and took her somewhere. I didn’t care. Never asked about her. Never missed her.

            When I got older I realized that the doll represented my status in the family. Like the doll, I was a disappointment. My mom had wanted a girly-girl but I was a tomboy. I hated dresses and stiff shoes. I loved being outdoors, playing on the swing, imagining great adventures as I flew back and forth.

             I never became the girl she dreamt of. And when I went away to college, like the doll, I was out of sight, out of mind. The doll’s disappearance hinted at what was to become of me.

            I thought I had gotten over the doll, but obviously not. I came to accept that the things we yearn for do not always turn out to be what we really want. Desire is just an elusive feeling that is easily subdued, easily conquered.  

            As we grow older we put away childhood toys and games. We outgrow clothes, change our hair styles, pierce our ears. We fill our hearts and minds with other, more immediate joys. We pretend that we’ve pushed aside those things that let us down, but they lie buried, deep, deep inside.

A Little about Me

Terry Connelly’s short story, “The Visitor” won first place in the 2019 Mendocino Coast Writer’s Contest and has been published in the Noyo River Review.

Her interest in writing began when she was a child. As a teen she lived in an isolated rural community in Ohio. Back then she wrote fantasy stories that were memoir disguised as fiction. Wanting to share her work, she created a neighborhood newsletter that featured only her writing. After printing she’d hop on her bicycle and ride through the winding country roads dropping copies into mailboxes.

As academic demands increased in high school her creative writing was put on hold. When her focus turned to the search for information, she developed the love of discovery as she delved into divergent topics that caught her interest.

After Terry’s children were grown she became a high school Special Education English teacher.  To encourage her reluctant students to write, she created prompts that related to novels that read in class. To model expected behavior, she wrote along with her students. That was the impetus for Terry to begin writing her own stories once again.  

Several years ago she decided to write about her life growing up in a dysfunctional family. Many of those stories appear in her contemporary women’s novel, The Story Cried. Several years later Terry decided to participate in NaNoWriMo. That story evolved into her YA novel, See Me.

Terry has two blogs: one that shares prompts to inspire writers, the other showcases her short stories, poetry and essays. Many of the prompts are in her nonfiction book  Have Fun  With This One. She is currently working on a fantasy novel, Proving Ground, which features a strong female protagonist fighting against her restrictive rules.

Terry enjoys attending writers conferences as a way to improve her craft. Her favorite conference is the Mendocino Coast Writer’s Conference where she has workshopped several pieces, each time learning something new.

She has a BA in Russian Literature from USC, an elementary teaching credential from Holy Names College, a BA in English from Cal State East Bay and several Special Education credentials and certificates also from Cal State East Bay.

Learning to Cook as a Metaphor for Life

            When I moved into an apartment complex for graduate students, I no longer had access to cafeteria food. I was on my own for all meals, a terrifying concept for someone whose repertoire consisted of canned soup, fried bologna sandwiches and fried eggs. I relied on things that came in cans and boxes, food that required little preparation, minimizing failure. There were times when I yearned for better food, but I was on full scholarship due to financial hardship, so there was no money for eating out.

            Marriage thrust me into new responsibilities, one of them being to cook dinner five nights a week. I relied on my old standbys even though I really wanted to do better.

            One time a soup can had a deal: for a certain numbers of labels I could get a cookbook for the cost of shipping. It didn’t take me long to save up the requisite number and send them off.  When the cookbook arrived, all the pictures looked inviting.

            One of the first things I decided to try was a squash stuffed with ground beef and rice. It required advanced preparation. The night before I gouged out the squash seeds and mixed together the rest of the ingredients. We had been given a set of dishes. I used a square one to arrange the stuffed squash, covered it with plastic wrap and put it in the refrigerator.

            All the next day I dreamed of the meal I would present to my new husband. As soon as I got home, I turned on the oven. I changed clothes while waiting for it to reach the proper temperature. With excitement and anticipation, I removed the wrap and put the dish in the oven.

            Imagine my horror when the dish cracked! I didn’t know that the dish couldn’t go from the refrigerator to oven. It was an off-brand, not the advertised one. The meal was ruined.

            I dreaded telling my husband. After all, it was my responsibility to fix dinner and now there was nothing left. Tears streamed down my face as I waited anxiously for him to arrive.

            This was when I learned what an awesome man my husband is. He didn’t get angry. Not at the ruined meal or the broken dish. Instead he gave me a big hug, helped clean up the oven and then prepared a wonderful meal of tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches.

            I relied on that cookbook for years. I leaned to make an awesome meatloaf with cream of mushroom soup as a base. I made a nice pot roast using onion soup, in the electric skillet. I experimented with baking chicken in cream of chicken soup and kept on trying new things. Our family always had a warm meal that was edible.

Because of that cookbook my confidence grew. The pages got stained and wrinkled, but I could still read the directions! Even today it still has a special place in the kitchen, even though I no longer do the cooking.

There were other disasters. My husband makes delicious fudge. It seemed easy enough, so I gave it a try. Mine ended up being chocolate sauce.

Then there was turkey soup. I had seen my husband take the carcass and turn it into broth. I seemed like something I should be able to do. I chopped the veggies and put it in the pot. I followed the steps carefully. My broth was horrible! It tasted more like dirty dish water than soup.

My husband likes lamb. My family never ate it, so I knew nothing about what cuts are the best, but I had a recipe. Once again I followed directions. It smelled okay. He ate it, but I couldn’t stand the taste and neither could any of our kids.

I learned to stick to the basics. Try nothing exotic or that had too many steps or ingredients. Roast beef, chicken and ground beef were my go-to meats.  As long as I could cook it in broth or soup or mix in something to keep it tender, I did fine. I discovered a range of things that came out good in a crock pot, such as a turkey leg or barbeque beef.

I bought boxes of pizza dough mix and painstakingly kneaded it. I mushed it out and then covered it with whatever ingredients we had on hand. It wasn’t as good as store-bought, but it was satisfying.

Cooking requires a certain degree of skill, but mostly an understanding of how food works together. What spices go with what meats and what sauces add flavor to tougher cuts. How to blend, chop and combine ingredients into palatable dishes. And patience. Lots and lots of patience, something which I don’t possess.

Cooking days are behind me, a true blessing. But when I look back on my earlier failures, it is not with despair, but with more of a sense of accomplishment. Thanks to my husband’s kind support, I tried again and again, learning along the way what I could do, not just what I couldn’t.

Isn’t that what life is all about? Learning not just from our successes, but also from our failures.

Crimes of Passion

            When I was a child, my family was poor. We always had food, clothes and a place to live, so we weren’t destitute. Much of what we did have came from relatives. This included everything from furniture to food.

            I don’t recall ever being extremely hungry, but I was never full. Apply this to not just the physical sense of lacking food, but to the emotional. I missed something that was wholly mine. Yearned for something that had never been owned, worn, felt by someone before coming to me.

            At the time I lacked the words to describe the feeling. There was an emptiness that was never filled. As a consequence, my eyes sought objects that were small, so insignificant that they would not be missed.

            My mom frequented the Five and Dime, a general merchandise store that catered to people like us. My mom loved to roam the aisles, feeling this, holding that, occasionally buying the things she came there for: a spool of thread, buttons, a swath of fabric.

            Perhaps I learned from her that it was okay to pick up and hold things that you weren’t going to buy. Maybe I was taught to slip things in your purse when the owner wasn’t looking. In later years I learned that my mom often left stores with hidden items. If that was true, then I was an observant understudy.

            My sister’s birthday was approaching and on this trip to the Five and Dime my mom needed candles for the cake. In that section there were tiny pink dolls, plastic cribs to match, and paper umbrellas on thin sticks. I wanted them all. One of each size, shape and color.

            Something inside of me must have known that it was not okay to pocket too many items, at least not on one trip. My hand reached for a plastic baby on its own accord. It felt smooth and easy to touch. It weighed nothing. It fit perfectly in my small hand and even better in the pocket of my jacket.

            I wanted more. The crib, the umbrellas. I trembled and sweat broke out on my forehead. I couldn’t talk. When we approached the register I knew I was going to get caught. My eyes looked down. I feared that the owner could see guilt, could see the inside of my pocket. He said nothing.

            On the way home my fingers held that baby, still inside the pocket. At home I buried it in the backyard, hiding the evidence.

            One plastic baby didn’t satisfy the want inside me.

            The next visit to the store I pocketed a box of six crayons. The problem, I realized once home, was that I couldn’t use them without my mm knowing that she had not paid for them. The crayons joined the plastic baby in the backyard.

            By now I was a seasoned thief. I planned my outfit, making sure I had at least one pocket. I knew I had to roam the aisles like my mother did, feeling this, picking up that, examining something else. When mom led us to the trinket aisle I knew what I was going to take: an umbrella. The problem was, which one. I chose the blue. It slid into my pocket just as the other things had done.

            By now I wasn’t afraid of looking at the owner. After all, I had stolen before and not gotten caught. With the umbrella secure, I accompanied my mom to the register, stood complacently while she paid, then walked out. Except something different happened.

            The owner asked my mom to wait, but not until after I was outside. I don’t know what was said, but when my mom stormed outside and grabbed me by the sleeve, I knew I was in trouble. She dug in my pocket and produced the umbrella. With it held aloft, she pulled me back inside the store. She handed over the umbrella which was now broken thanks to her tight grip.

            I was told to apologize. I refused. I had done nothing wrong in my mind. I had seen my mom slip things in her purse over and over. If I had to apologize, then so should she. I didn’t say it, thankfully.

            After much prodding I mumbled an apology. The owner then forbade me from ever entering his store again. I thought his punishment was excessive considering it was only a tiny umbrella.

            My parents decided I need moral guidance so they enrolled me in a Brownie troop that was being formed at the Catholic School I attended. I didn’t know anyone and had no intentions of making friends with them.

            I don’t know how I knew, but I understood that the girls and mothers who ran the troop came from wealthier families. It might have been the newness of the girls’ uniforms versus my faded one from a thrift store. Perhaps it was because the mothers wore necklaces and earrings, something my mother didn’t have. Maybe it was the way they treated me: like an idiot who didn’t understand English.

            It wasn’t on the first meeting, but maybe the third, that the mothers had planned a craft activity. It involved the use of colorful rubber bands. I don’t remember what I made, if I made anything at all. What I do recall in vivid clarity was the desire to own the bag of rubber bands.

            My palms began to sweat. My heart beat wildly. I couldn’t take my eyes off the bag. Whenever a girl took a rubber band from the bag I cringed inside. I wanted that bag so badly that my stomach hurt.

            I had to have it. I had to take it home. But how? How could I sneak it home without being caught?

            The solution came when it was time to clean up. The bag still sat on the table, all alone. It called my name. I moved closer to it. The desire intensified. I checked to see where the others were. The girls were giggling off to the side. The mothers were in a circle, talking. No one was near me. No one was watching.

            The entire bag of rubber bands slid into my school bag. I latched it shut then hurriedly left without saying goodbye.

            My mom was waiting outside. We drove the long way home in silence. At home I took my school bag into my bedroom as I always did. I removed the rubber bands and hid them in my underwear drawer. Moved them to under my mattress. Stuffed them in a shoe. Found a hole in the back of my closet and stuck them in there.

            When my mom finally asked how the Brownie meeting went, I told her it was dumb and I never wanted to go back. That was a lie. I had had fun. The mothers were kind. I felt safe there, at a time when I needed safety. I feared that the girls and mothers knew I had taken the rubber bands. That was the reason I couldn’t return.

            My crime of passion ruined what might have been a good thing.

The History of a Struggle

            After being yelled at once again, I flew into my bedroom and collapsed upon my army-regulation-taut bed.  Tears coursed down my cheeks as my fists pounded my pillow, the only allowable outlet for the rage rushing through my body.

            The offense?  I can’t recall.  It most likely had something to do with my sister.  I was seven years older but couldn’t see what difference age made in the realm of discipline.  She was practically perfect in the eyes of my parents while I was the demon child.  Her hair should have been Goldilocks’ yellow and the purity of her heart should have matched Sleeping Beauty’s.  I was the Ugly Duckling, the orphan in Dickens’ novel, the Cinderella of the evil stepsisters. 

            At the ripe old age of thirteen I decided that life at home was unfair and I should run away.  At that time, we lived in the small rural community of Beavercreek, Ohio, several miles outside of Dayton.  There were more farms than people and the population of cattle exceeded that of the entire town.  No buses came near and the closest pay phone was over a mile away at a Chevron gas station.

            I had very little money.  When I shook out the coins from my piggy bank it totaled almost three dollars.  Not enough to go anywhere.  Not enough to buy much more than a couple of meals at a burger joint.

            As darkness fell, I contemplated my options.  Once my parents were asleep, I could sneak out of the house and walk into the woods at the end of our lot.  I was confidant that I could find my way out to the main road about a half a mile away.  From there I was unsure where I would go, but anywhere had to be better than home.

Stealth would be critical.  I pictured myself following the road, hidden from view in the darkened recesses of the woods.  If I made it that far there was a major intersection. From there I could go north or south.

            If I turned south and could walk that far, I’d end up in Dayton.  That would be the logical way to go, except for the fact that I knew little of the city.  This was the 1960s, a time of racial unrest all across America.  There were parts of town that would be too dangerous for a naïve white girl, and so I ruled out the city.

North would take me deeper into farm country.  The land was flat and unbroken by stands of trees, culverts or any other form of natural hideout.  I imagined myself sleeping in barns and sheds by day, traveling by dark of night in order to avoid detection.  However, I was terrified of horses, cows, sheep, and goats, and so knew I could never share a stall with any of them.

If I continued west following the road that paralleled the forest, I would end up in the town of Beavercreek.  There was no Post Office, bank, fast food restaurant, or bus station.  There was a police station, but I believed that the police would only return me home without listening to my concerns.

My high school was miles outside of town, deep in farm country. There were some houses along that route that could offer hiding places under porches and behind bushes, but I was terrified of spiders and bugs.  I pictured myself dashing from house to house, hiding until the coast was clear.  Stealth was my new middle name and cleverness clung to my shoulders.  Until I remembered that I had no money.

That left turning around and heading east, back past the woods and my housing development.  Eventually I would reach the main road that went to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Along that stretch was a gas station, A & W, Kroger’s, and a five and dime store. If I got that far, I figured I could get a job at Kroger’s in the produce section, as I knew about fruits and vegetables since we grew all that we ate.  But no, that was too close to home.

All night long I planned scenarios that I believed would never work.  I was too young, too naïve, too scared of my own shadow, and too paralyzed to take action.  My only recourse was to stay in a house where I felt unloved and to make the best of my situation.

As the morning sky lightened to a silvery gray my tears had long since dried and my heart had sealed itself from additional hurt.  I made several resolutions that I was determined to keep: never speak to my sister, avoid my mother and father, speak only when commanded to do so, save every penny, seek an escape route, and stay numb.  These were perhaps not the best options, but they were all I had.

They stood me well.  By not speaking to my sister, I avoided painful spankings.  When I was blamed for something she did, a regular occurrence, I took the punishment as bravely as possible. I complied with any orders given without protest even when I knew they were unfair. 

By avoiding my parents, I was able to stay out of arguments about preferential treatment.  I answered when questioned, in as few words as possible.  I did as told, even when my parents increased my list of chores. 

I saved money, forgoing new clothes (which I had to buy for myself while my sister’s were provided), no records which I loved and no teen magazines.  Slowly my pennies turned into dollars, building into a tidy nest egg.

I kept my grades up, especially once I was told we were moving to California, the land of community colleges.  With surprisingly mature long-range vision, I saw that my only way out of the house was through a college education.  I set my sights set on earning a scholarship. I chose the hardest classes and spent hours every night rereading text and memorizing facts.

The most challenging promise I had made was to keep my heart numb.  I cry way to easily, and my feelings can jump from ecstatic to miserable with the slightest provocation.  To keep myself on track I wrote reminders on my calendar.  I filled my school bag with notes to myself.  I taped signs on the head of my bed, inside my closet door, and on the book covers of my textbooks. Even so I slipped.  Over and over I allowed my family to break my heart with their lies, their cruel comments, their physical abuses, and then hated myself for forgoing my pledge.

The struggle was never-ending.  At no time could I let down my protective walls, for when I did, a knife slid in and cut my heart.  The walls got thicker and taller as I sealed myself into a prison of my own making.  I became an expert at repair work, for with each failure on my part, I had to plaster the holes and toughen the exterior of my heart.

After years of doing this, there was no “me.”  I was a student with no personality.  A friend to none and a silent force without power.  An emotional wreck inside, but inhumanly serene on the outside.  A plastic face masking tear-filled eyes. 

Because of my excellent grades I won a scholarship from the state of California.  My parents would not let me leave home that first year, so I enrolled in the local community college. The work was easy. In fact, I was frequently told to transfer out of the easy class into the next level. In this way I prepared myself for my sophomore year when I would be permitted to follow my brother to the University of Southern California, my yearned-for haven. 

Off and on I made a friend or two.  We partied, talked long into the night, and even studied together, until I discovered that most of these so-called friends were only interested in my brain.  I dated a few boys and got serious with two.  Both of them walked away when I respectfully declined to participate in recreational activities that required my sacrifice to their enjoyment.  I was sexually abused by my brother’s best friend, but didn’t report it for fear of being accused of lying.

During the summer before my senior year I applied for a position as a residence hall advisor.  I interviewed and was turned down.  When I inquired as to why, I was told that it was too negative, too hard on myself. I got angry.  Very, very angry.  I walked around with a furrowed brow until I admitted to myself it was true.

I had worked so hard to seal myself off from pain that I had also closed doors to enjoyment.  So with the same level of determination that I had applied to keeping myself numb, I turned to joy. 

I removed all my self-imposed boundaries and became a party-girl. There were lots of, late-night frivolity which sometimes caused me to take potentially life-threatening chances.  Determined to forge a fun-loving personality out of a rock, I took the high road and plunged off a cliff.

After years of trespassing into the land of fun and games, I realized this was not the path to success and freedom from home. In order to get back on track, I resurrected my defenses and kept them in place for many years. 

Unless you’ve lived the life of an abused child, you cannot understand the day-to-day struggle to stay safe and sane.  As a teacher I’ve come across damaged children who did not build defenses and who were consequently seriously hurt. 

I wanted so badly to heal them, there was little I could do to glue together the broken pieces of their lives.

There were times when I felt as if I was down in a deep, dark well, trying to scale the walls into the light.  I would get close to the top, make what I considered a friend, have some good conversations, and then slowly sink back into the depths when the friend did not act as an equal partner.

I am sure now that I was deep in the throes of depression. I might have benefited from psychiatric care, but where would the money come from? Time healed me.  Through work in a fulltime job I began to see myself as a person of intelligence, a person who succeeded, a person who survived. My defenses disappeared and I found true friends and true love.

My life was a struggle, one that is now thankfully behind me, locked in the recesses of my heart. The struggle made me stronger, more able to confront the difficulties of life.

My history is one of challenges. While I couldn’t overcome them all, I did climb out of the well into the light.

Food Memories

            When I moved into the graduate student housing at USC, for the first time, I no longer had a meal plan. I was now on my own for all three meals, frightening for someone who didn’t know how to cook.

            I quickly figured out how to fry an egg, so fired egg sandwiches with American cheese and mustard became a staple along with cold cereal, toast and jam. Lunches were often bologna sandwiches with pickles, more American cheese, mustard and mayonnaise. On occasion I had the fried egg sandwich for lunch as well.

            Dinners usually came out of a can. Soups were the most prevalent choice.

            My brother also attended USC. He had a car and so would drive us to second-hand food stores where we could buy damaged goods for a fraction of the normal price. I learned to cook things out of boxes, greatly expanding my repertoire.

            I relied on these foods until I got married, when I felt an obligation to become the food provider. By saving and redeeming wrappers from Campbell’s Soup cans I was able to get a cookbook that used some flavor of soup in every meal. The recipes were easy to follow and required simple ingredients. My confidence grew with each recipe I tried.

            I bought more cookbooks, some of which are still in our cabinet today. Even with increased options, I tendered to stay with the tried and true.

            As a parent I tried to fix a hot breakfast almost every day, reserving cereal for rare occasions. I got good at pancakes and French toast, but I failed at oatmeal. Mine was always a lumpy mess.

            My mother canned fruits and vegetables and made jams that were quite delicious. I felt compelled to do the same. I poured through cookbooks until I’d find a recipe that looked doable.

My specialty became applesauce cooked in a crock pot. I’d add cinnamon because my kids liked it that way, and stop the cooking when there were still chunks. We went through lots and lots of applesauce.

I still relied on boxed and packaged foods such as macaroni and cheese, Hamburger Helper and noodles. Lots and lots of noodles. Canned vegetables were preferable over frozen, probably because I’d turn frozen into mush.
            In time I attempted pork roasts, pot roasts, meatloaf and homemade soup. The soup tasted like dishwater, so no more of that. Using soup as an ingredient, I could make tougher, cheaper cuts of meat edible.

What I prepared provided sustenance, but was not creative or even things of beauty. Our family didn’t go hungry unless a child refused to eat.

Considering how my weight skyrocketed over these years, one would have thought that I was an amazing cook. I was not. My skills had improved since college, but I never added an ingredient that wasn’t in the recipe, never altered preparation or cook time. The basics got us by.

So, why did I become obese? I have a love affair with cookies and candy. I was pretty darn good at making cookies, plus they were often on sale, so there was almost always a package or two in the house. I failed at fudge-making: mine came out as soup. Fudge became a special treat, one that I could not resist.

I could make a moist cake from a box mix, so there were lots and lots of cakes. I didn’t need a special occasion such as a birthday: I made a cake because I wanted one.

My mom had made a tapioca pudding that I loved. I bought a box of tapioca and cooked it up. It came out pretty good, so now we had pudding. Jello as well.

A pattern emerged. I could make sweets better than I could provide healthy dinners.

About twenty years ago my husband took on the job of cooking dinner. Things improved greatly with one caveat: he loved sauces and gravies. Almost every meal he made contained at least one of those two. He was also not a fan of most vegetables, so they were often missing from our plates. We never went hungry, I was relived of cooking duty, and so I was happy.

My relationship with food is mixed. As a child I was often punished for not cleaning off my plate. I spent hours crammed into an old high chair in front of the stove, condemned to be there until I ate every last remnant of cold food.

I knew the old sayings about starving children, but I didn’t care. If I didn’t like something, I wasn’t going to eat it. Period.

My childhood diet was carb-heavy. My mother believed that a fat child was a healthy child and so she worked hard to keep me fat. I was doomed from the start. Years of putting on weight created a situation in which it would take years to get it off. Over and over and over again.

When I first decided to end the cycle I enrolled in a course at Kaiser. I learned about nutrition, about balance, about control. I lost thirty pounds over twelve months. When they told me I couldn’t repeat the course for a fourth time, I forgot what I had learned and the weight returned.

I joined a gym. I exercised almost every day, after work, and both days on weekends. I lost some weight. It came back when I had a knee replaced.

Walking in water was supposed to be good for my knee, so I found an indoor pool a twenty-minute drive away. Every morning I was there, bright and early at six in the morning. When I got the okay from my doctor I switched to lap swimming. I had put on weight after the surgery: I lost a bit of it.

After seeing commercials on television I turned to Weight Watchers. I returned to the practices I’d learned at Kaiser. I lost some weight, put it back on, over and over.

My obsession with food, with sweets, was powerful and pulled me down. I’d swear I wouldn’t eat a cookie and then I’d consume three or four. I wasn’t going to have ice cream, but then I’d have a bowlful.

As time passed health issues derailed efforts to lose weight. Another knee replacement kept me from the gym. Then I fell and broke my ankle. I chipped my elbow removing my laptop from the trunk. I fell going down steps and fractured the bone below my knee replacement. Another six months of limited exercise put on the pounds.

Mu love affair with sweets was hard to tamp down. I tried, really I did, but the call was too great and my willpower too weak. I loved food, loved to eat, loved the socialization around eating, loved sitting at a table waiting for food to arrive. Much of my childhood had been spent being hungry, so it was as if I was making up for it, over and over again. No amount of self-ridicule or negative self-talk curbed the appeal of food.

I am grateful that my husband learned to prepare low-calorie foods. He changed the way he cooked in order to help me. No more were serving dishes set on the table. No more were meats drowned in sauces.

Meals now included fruits and vegetables. Carbs were limited in frequency and size of serving. He grilled more, stewed less. He still prepares food that I don’t like, but less often.

I’d like to report that food no longer takes center stage: it doesn’t. I can be satisfied with a tiny bit of rice, a scoop of mashed potatoes or a half-cup of noodles. There are a lot of meats that I prefer not eating, but I make sure I have the correct portion anyway.

I discovered a love of fresh fruits and vegetables, two things we seldom had growing up. No longer do I drink hot chocolate or egg nog when it’s in season. Instead I consume water and other calorie-free drinks.

All the changes I’ve made, all the miles I’ve walked, all the obsessions I still struggle with, continue to be a burden. I understand that sweets will always call my name, so when I hear a cookie speaking, I reach for a banana. When I yearn for ice cream, I turn to grapes.

It’s interesting to me how child who hated eating as much as I did, managed to get as fat as I was. Because of this I understand that the same child is still here, still dreaming of sweets, still hearing their call. And if I succumb, that obese me will make a comeback.