Coming Home

Grandma and Grandpa Williams’ house rested on the crest of a small hill overlooking the Ohio River near the Gallipolis dam.  From the porch, if I looked between the houses across the road, I saw numerous barges and freighters, some clearly full, riding low, just above water line.  Others bounced on the wake of passing ships, much like a bar of soap floating in a tub of hot water.

Sunday afternoons were spent with my brother and I chewing the gum my mother forbade, while Grandpa worked on accurately spitting tobacco juice into an old tin can.  When he missed, there was a disgusting splat, adding to a constantly growing pile of partially digested tobacco.  I pretended not to see or hear, preferring to watch the ships and speculate as to what the cargo might be and where the ships might be going.

Much of their house was a combination of put-together rooms, a rather ramshackle affair that, at one time or another, housed up to ten people.  Not one board on the outside had ever seen a drop of paint, and the roof was nothing more than tin sheets nailed together in an overlapping pattern.  It didn’t leak, which was all my grandparents cared about. I worried about how they kept warm during Ohio’s cold, snowy winters.

The house was so old that there was no electricity or running water inside.  Grandma Williams lit the house with candles and kerosene lanterns, long enough to do “piece-work,” as she called it, for a few hours after dark.  She had a pedal-operated sewing machine that she used for “fine” stitching, such as sewing on a lace collar or finishing off her quilts.  Spools of thread sorted by color, with white always on the top, were stacked on a rounded stick that Grandpa had lovingly whittled.

Grandma’s hand sewing was accurate and precise, each stitch neatly following the next, marching in a straight line of equal length and breadth.  It amazed me that she could create such perfection without benefit of modern machinery, and while I owned one of the best sewing machines available, my workmanship fell into the barely adequate, yet serviceable category.

A coal-burning stove sat majestically in the front room, providing the only heat for the house.  When the stove was “cookin’,” as Grandpa colorfully said, no one could stand within a few feet of it without feeling feverish.  Next to the stove sat a black tub filled with odd sized chunks of coal and next to that, a dusty black shovel.

When Grandpa opened the door in the front of the stove to dump in scoops of coal, the interior reminded me of the fires of hell. While I relished the warmth it created, I was terrified of being sucked into its cavernous interior. The fire called to me, hypnotizing me, saying, “Come closer, come closer.”  Only when the door was shut and firmly latched was I able to break free and step away.

There wasn’t much in the way of furniture.  A crate served as an end table, covered with a dishtowel hand embroidered in rose-colored flowers and meandering vines.  A kerosene lantern took center place, with odds and ends scattered about, ceramic and pewter “doodads” that folks had given Grandma over the years.  Crystal birds, miniature horses, and dolls’ heads stood with a grace befitting gold bracelets and diamond tiaras.  While Grandma encouraged me to touch her beloved treasures, I never did; I was too afraid of breaking both the item and her memory.

There was a loveseat big enough for two and a half grownups, but plenty of room for four kids.  The cushioned seat lifted up, disclosing storage room underneath, like a pirate’s chest holding gold doubloons.  This is where Grandma kept her quilts and pillows, always ready for company in case anyone stopped by looking for a place to sleep.  Every quilt was of a different folk pattern, all made by Grandma, all perfectly crafted in mesmerizing patterns of shape and color.  The fabrics Grandma used amazed me: pieces of Grandpa’s well-worn overalls, a sleeve from Uncle Dowie’s flannel shirt, a pocket from a gingham apron, and the collar from her old calico blouse.

Not one picture hung on the walls or sat on a flat surface.  My grandparents believed that a person’s soul was a tenuous thing, easily stolen, and so they forbade photographs either being displayed or being taken.

As they aged, my grandparents relaxed a bit in their beliefs, and so after much begging, allowed the taking of two well-cherished photos which now sit in my bookcase as reminders of two people who loved me unconditionally.

Grandma’s kitchen was so small that two people could manage to work in there at the same time, but only by carefully orchestrating the changing of places.  When we visited, my mother helped while I watched from the back porch.  Too little to help, too inexperienced in the art of cooking, all I was capable of doing was running for more wood or sweeping up spilled flour. What amazed me, however, was the magical dance the two most important women in my life performed as they, soundlessly, moved past each other, butts touching in a tender way.

Longing to share in their loving togetherness, I stayed close enough that one of them could reach out and brush my cheek.  Sometimes my grandma blessed me with a floury kiss or a sticky touch, and then my heart leapt like a stag through the forest.

Along one wall was a good-sized cast iron stove.  A box of cut wood sat nearby.  Off and on Grandma picked up a stick, opened the bottom door of the stove and threw in the wood.  She then wiped her hands on her well-worn gingham apron and went back to peeling and coring apples or rolling out a crust or boiling eggs.

She cooked with heavy cast iron skillets that she stored inside the oven, and cast iron pans that stayed stacked on the flat burners until she put them to use.  She did own a few cheap aluminum cookie sheets, pie tins, and measuring cups that were dented like pockmarked faces, but she didn’t like to use them, believing that food never came out tasting as good as when cooked in cast iron.

Along the opposite wall of the kitchen was a metal sink as dull as an unpolished car.  On the end nearest the window was a hand pump that intrigued me.  Lifting the handle up and down, up and down, again and again, brought the coldest, crispest water imaginable.

When, Grandma pumped her arm muscles bulged with effort.   For the longest time, nothing happened, and then a dribble showed up, followed by another and another. The dribbles turned into a gush, caught by the bucket that Grandma hung just under the faucet.  As the bucket filled, I often wondered why it didn’t slip, no matter how full it got. Grandma never explained the mystery to me, but when I was much older and touring an old Louisiana plantation, the docent pointed to a barely discernable niche in the spout, just deep enough to hold a bucket handle in place: and then I understood.

Grandma knew how much I yearned for her attention, without my saying so.  One of the first things she did whenever we arrived was to bring me into the kitchen, dip the cup into the bucket and give me a cool drink of water.  She smiled as I drank, and then patted my head as softly as she would a newborn babe.  Grandma didn’t have to do much to let me know that I was loved, even though she never said the words.

Off the kitchen was the porch: Grandma’s greenhouse.  Over the years Grandpa had enclosed the room, using pieces of discarded wood and scraps of screen.  The floor’s composition was equally mismatched: boards and bricks, tiles and dirt. Being a hodgepodge affair, the porch emitted an aura unlike anything else I knew.  It was homey and peculiar, safe and mysterious.  A place of growth and death.

There were no tables, just a collection of old boards balanced on homemade sawhorses, reminiscent of shacks built by hoboes in days gone by.  Every flat surface was covered with plants: mostly vegetable, some flower.  They grew in cans, ceramic pots, old buckets and cups, tubs, glassware, all of various sizes and shapes.

Knowing that my mother would not have tolerated such a mishmash made Grandma’s collection even more amazing.  As a child I thought plants required properly identified, single purpose pots, but Grandma’s green house proved me wrong.  Her touch was as golden as King Midas’ in the fairy tales, for greenery sprouted far and wide.

Grandma carefully pinched off dead leaves, repotted plants that had grown too large for their containers, watered each plant, one by one with a gentle spray of water.  She hummed as she worked, quiet tunes that were mostly hymnals that I recognized from records my mom listened to in the afternoons when my dad was at work.

Once I joined in the humming, thinking that my grandma might share her love of music with me, bonding us together as tightly as a snail and its shell, but that was a mistake.  Grandma, immersed in her labor of love, had forgotten that anyone else was around until she heard my child’s soft voice blending with hers. Her face registered surprise and then horror, almost as if I had caught her performing a criminal act.  From then on, Grandma never hummed when I was nearby.

There was only one bedroom.  A large feather bed took up most of the space. A few of Grandma’s quilts covered the bed and a pair of pillows stuffed with chicken feathers sat at the head.  One for Grandma.  One for Grandpa.  A lace doily, reminiscent of the ones Spanish dancers wore in storybooks, daintily covered each pillow. The bed was surprisingly soft, an amazing thing for a child whose mattress was as hard as the cement floor of a garage.  I loved to crawl up on the bed, stretch out full length, and sink into the comforting softness.

The only other piece of furniture was a chest of drawers.  It was of a dark wood, with four drawers and mismatched knobs. A large doily spread across the top, along with Grandma’s hairbrush and hand mirror, facial powder and lotion, barrettes and combs and even a ragged hairnet or two.

If I looked closely at the knobs, I saw indentations where Grandma’s fingernails cut into the soft wood and smudge marks where Grandpa’s farm-dirt hands pulled open his drawers.

Next to the bed was an oval rag rug.  Grandma made one for the living room as well.  Beginning with odd sized scraps of cloth, Grandma twisted each piece into a “rope” of color, then wound and wound the rope around its center until a large oval took shape.

Most of the colors were shades of blue, pieces from overalls Grandpa had worn through.  One of my favorite things to do was to sit on the rug and run my fingers along the track of the rope, inside out, outside in, sensing Grandma’s tender touch as surely as a baker senses the yeast working to raise the dough.

Because there was no running water, there was no indoor bathroom.  One of the sons had built an outhouse in the field behind the greenhouse; nothing more than a narrow building with a plank for a toilet seat.  High on one wall a narrow window provided the only light, and that was always kept open thanks to a couple of nails and a piece of twine.  No toilet paper.  Old store catalogues with missing pages sat next to the hole, giving indication as to how they disappeared.

Flies buzzed around and spider webs clung to the ceiling.  The stench was indescribable and unforgettable, the sight intolerable and sickening.

Not understanding the nature of outhouses, I wondered why it was in a different spot on every visit.  Years passed before I broached such a sensitive topic. My Uncle Joe roared with laughter, making a point of sharing my outlandish question with every member of the family within calling distance.  From then on, whenever I stepped foot on my grandparent’s gravel driveway, somoene hollered out the location of the outhouse, to my endless embarrassment.

Primitive though it was, my grandparent’s house was bursting with love.  Anyone who wandered up from down below found a warm meal, warm hearts, warm fire, accompanied by welcoming company.

To me, arriving at the small house at the crest of the hill was like coming home.

 

 

My Definition of Faith

One aspect of faith that’s important to me is the belief in the inherent goodness of humanity. I may be naïve especially in the light of the increasing number of mass shootings recently, and it might be misplaced, but it we cannot believe that the bulk of people walking with us are good, than things have truly fallen to a low level.

An example that occurred when I was still teaching Special Education at our local high school was that an article appeared in the school newspaper referring to a group of students as “Tard Kart.” In itself, the label does not seem offensive. However, in the article group members described themselves as being “crazy misfits not accepted by the rest of the school”. Hence, “Tard” is a derivative of Retard, a truly offensive term.

Because I represented all Special Education students on our campus, I felt it was my responsibility to speak with the teacher who oversaw the paper. Despite my explanation, she continued to see nothing wrong with publicizing the term and insisted her writers had every right to do so. Despite this opinion, I knew this teacher to be a kind, caring person.

Earlier in the week a student had been attacked outside my classroom door.  He was a relatively small freshman. The students who accosted him were burly seniors. When I heard a loud thump against the wall, I investigated. My student was curled in a fetal position on the dirty carpet.  Large tears coursed down his cheeks.

The ones inflicting the damage stood nearby with smirks on their faces. I do not think they intended to cause severe harm. I believe that it was a prank that got out of control. The older boys have reputations of being overly aggressive, occasionally defiant and at times, general malcontents. They were not on track to graduate with their class, so they had nothing to lose. Even so, my faith in their humanity told me that the beating was not a planned act, but rather an opportunistic reaction.

As an abused child, I grew up in an environment that was not conducive to the development of a personal faith. We did attend church when it fit my dad’s schedule. We did receive our sacraments when others our age did. I even attended Catholic school for the first seven years of my education. But it’s hard to believe that the God who died to give us an opportunity to go to heaven also allowed physical beatings, verbal harassment and emotional debasement. I prayed, every day, for salvation.

During my sophomore year of college the Neumann Club went on a trip to the mountains east of Los Angeles. Waling amidst the towering trees and seeing the snow-covered mountain tops in the background awakened my deeper faith. There I came to know that God loves the world so much that He gave us places of solitude and introspection.

God does not always grant us what we wish, for He knows that we need to be forged by our experiences. We may not want to walk the path we’ve been given, but we have to truly believe that our journey will lead us to a clearer understanding of who we are meant to be in the eyes of humanity, and in the eyes of God.

As I stood in that forest all those years ago I understood for the first time that I was not the horrible child that my parents saw. Faith allowed me to witness the goodness inside myself, the goodness inside my parents, and the goodness in those sharing life with me. It’s a cliché, but I felt a golden glow spreading throughout my body. That glow was faith.

Faith continues to be my rock. It gives me strength to transcend the travails of daily life. It opens my eyes to the good of others and allows me to feel generosity of spirit. When disheartening events rise forth, it is through faith that I am able to move on.

I believe that all are capable of living lives ruled by basic tenets of kindness. Even when challenged, my faith does not waver. That is my belief. That is my faith.

 

Could Of/Could Have and Other Such Things

Some cultures prefer slow-talking conversations. Words slither out, each with its own emphasis and pronunciation. The words are treasured for their meaning and elocution is a critical element in the delivery.

However, there are places and times when we find it necessary to rush through whatever we want to say. In this case words are shortened into sound fragments that are not grammatically correct.

For example, dropping the final consonants in words ending in “-ing.” I’m writin’ a letter, he’s callin’ his friend; we’re goin’ to the mall. Acceptable in casual conversation or when writing in dialect, but it is never acceptable in Standard English.

A huge mistake seen by learners is using “of” instead of “have” as an auxiliary verb. “Of” is a preposition that is followed by a noun or pronoun. “Have” is a verb that can be followed by other verbs. For example; I could have gone. You should have called. This is also true for could, should, must and might.

If this is hard for you, then avoid the use of those verbs altogether. Chose a verb that stands alone, expressing the emotion, feeling, action that you intend. I traveled all over Europe. You screamed at me. Bill tumbled down the hill.

If you believe that auxiliary verbs are necessary to your writing, there is a tip to ensure that grammatically correct English is used: skip “have” altogether and go straight to the bare form of the main verb. I could send an email. You should enroll in classes. Tim might build a rocket.

One more thing: I often see writers use “alot”. Please be aware that no such word exists. Instead use “a lot”. A lot of things happened on our trip. We bought a lot of souvenirs. Stan fell a lot when he was learning to ice skate.

These little tips will strengthen the finished product. I hope you find them useful.

 

 

A Different Kind of Bravery

By nature I am not a brave person. Put me in a room with unfamiliar people and I cannot speak. I want to join in, but can’t find the strength to open my mouth and risk not fitting in.

On top of that I don’t embrace change and am incredibly happy living my life as is.

Yet despite how I am, when I think back over the years, a number of events arise in which I had to fight against my nature and step outside my box.

As a young child I preferred my own company, so going to school for the first time was a frightening experience. Because I was socially awkward my parents found the money to put me in private Kindergarten. I learned a lot of things that set me on the right path academically, but I did interact with others. I spent playground time in the sand box, constructing my imaginary worlds.

Age did not improve my ability to meet new friend, but I did learn how to function within the system. And I did it on my own. No teacher, no school counselor, no administrator helped me negotiate the ins and outs of school. I roamed the playground lost in my own world, circling around and around, spinning stories both fantastical and what would now be called magical realism as they had nothing to do with what was feasible. I knew I was weird, and when you’re weird, you don’t have friends.

I had the grades and a massive scholarship so I was able to go to college, but this required a tremendous amount of bravery as this would be a new experience in a foreign environment. I was terrified. The first months were painful as even my roommate ignored me. But as time passed thanks to people that spoke to me first, I made a few friends.

Finding a job scared me, because as before, it meant entering unfamiliar places, approaching unfamiliar and often cold people, and facing repeated rejection. Once I did get hired, there was the problem of new expectations and jobs that I knew nothing about, which meant asking for help. I asked only when tears filled my eyes, but each time I was successful, my confidence grew.

I would like to think that age has increased confidence, but it hasn’t. What it has given me is the understanding of myself and has given me the ability to move into new situations despite the terror that such things create.

I am blessed with a husband who encourages me to continually step outside my box and go out into the world. Because of him I travel, write, and sing. Because of him I join clubs, go to luncheons and meet up with friends.

Sometimes I wonder how different I might have been if there had been someone like him in my life from the first time I ever left the house as a child. Because of my husband I am learning to be brave.

And because of people I’ve met through conferences, book clubs and the senior center, I prefer the company of others. I am no longer isolated in my head.

That’s a wonderful way to live!

 

Ninth Grade Dreams

I wanted to be popular. The type of girl that guys drool over and that girlfriends cling to while giggling hysterically about some life-changing event. One of those guys, preferably someone tall, dark, and not too handsome would ask me on a date. Not just any date, but a late night movie where you tremble in fear when a serial killer sneaks up on a defenseless little kid, and the boyfriend squeezes your hand to show that he’s there to support you. Or maybe he’d take me bowling. No, that’s no good as my dad just might show up and send poisoned arrows our way. Definitely not to a school dance as I have no sense of rhythm.

The guy, probably named Stan, would ask me to go steady after that first date. He’d tell me how much he liked my hazel eyes and slightly off-center smile. I’d smell the shaving lotion on his chin and nod, speechless in the classic sense. I’d wrap my arms around his muscular shoulders, nestle my tear-filled face against his neck and feel his Adam’s apple move up and down as he swallowed back his own tears. He’d pull back a bit, slip off his school ring, and offer it to me as a token of his “like.” I’d smile stupidly and admire it in the fluorescent lights of the theater lobby. Then I’d stick it in the deep pocket of my overcoat so as to not lose it.

The next day I’d beg my mom to take me to Woolworth’s. While she meandered the aisles gathering miscellaneous junk, I’d rush to the yarn section. My eyes would light up at the rainbow of colors awaiting my careful selection. Like every other girl in my school, I’d choose alpaca wool. A sky blue color, the color of his eyes. At home I’d wrap the yarn around and around the ring until it fit snuggly on my ring finger and plan how I was going to show it off at school.

Those were my dreams. There’s a song that tells you to reach for the impossible. It would take a miracle to make any of these things happen, as I was an overweight, painfully shy teenager. I had no friends and was clearly toward the bottom of the social pecking order. Unless I could be reinvented through plastic surgery, fat removal from over 90% of my body, and a hefty dose of makeup, applied liberally to disguise my puppy-dog sad face, the impossible would remain impossible.

So, what did I do? Smiled a lot and changed my hairstyle to a ratted-out bouffant. Dabbed on cheap, yet tasteful cologne and asked my mom to sew more contemporarily styled clothing. Practiced the “cool” walk and the “I-don’t-give-a –darn” egotistical look that the school’s cheerleaders displayed naturally. In a rather foolhardy moment, I submitted my name to run for Student Body Treasurer, thinking that if I plastered my posters all over the campus, that I would rise in social stature.

When you’re unpopular, you are as invisible as Glad Wrap. The odds of ever experiencing that first date decreased daily. Boys weren’t interested in the homely-looking girl who wore glasses that sported wings sparkling with fake diamonds. Or the smart girl who got the best grades in math and who spoke Latin like the ancients. And who could throw further than many of the boys who hung out at the neighborhood park.

No matter how longingly I looked at the athletes and cheerleaders, they uniformly never saw me. In the teenage world, you are who you hang out with, and what popular kid would want someone like me tagging along? Let alone as a girlfriend who hung on your muscular arm and leaned against your chest as you walked her about the campus. Wasn’t going to happen.

Geoffrey, the high school punching bag for pranks and tasteless jokes, stepped up one lunch break and asked me on a date. I put on a plastic smile and attempted to move far away, as the cheerleaders had repeatedly done to others like me. Geoffrey, however, was persistent. He pushed his thick-lensed glasses up his acne-covered nose and smiled. His favorite ratty sweatshirt, dirty slacks, and scuffed black dress shoes stunk almost as bad as his unwashed hair, but not quite.

His belly hung over his belt and his hairy wrists stuck out from his too-short sleeves. Talk about nerd. Geoffrey was beneath me on the social scale, not worthy of a platonic nod hello. The idea of going to the upcoming school dance was no more attractive than sitting in a darkened theater where his body odor would overpower the entire audience. Even so I said yes, despite the interior warning lights that blinked crimson, just to experience that first date.

What a couple we made. Me in my homemade pretend-silk, A-frame, square-necked dress that was in style five years earlier, while Geoffrey wore a black suit two sizes too big accompanied by a stiffly starched white shirt that crinkled audibly when he moved. He placed his left hand on my waist, while gripping my hand in his sweaty right. We stumbled around the dance floor, stepping on each other’s feet accompanied by loud guffaws and barely stifled snickers.

If Geoffrey had thought about asking me to go steady, he must have erased that thought from his mind after a rather emotionless and sloppy kiss while standing on my front porch. All evening I’d thought about what excuse I could offer. The best was that my dad would kill Geoffrey, a likely scenario. After drying the slobber off my lips, Geoffrey simply walked away.

So, I didn’t have to decline the going steady offer. Part of me was disappointed, as it meant that I wasn’t worthy of even his “like,” but the other part of me rejoiced.

Still without a “steady,” I solved the dilemma by purchasing a cheap man’s ring which I wrapped in blue alpaca and wore proudly.  When asked, I wove a magical story of the perfect boyfriend that I’d met while visiting my aunt in Vandalia, more than fifty miles away. My face glowed with an imitated “in love” radiance. I stood taller and blessed the popular kids with an “I’m one of you” sophisticated smirk. I invented dates, details, and dialogue.

Ninth grade turned out to not be too bad. Popularity continued to evade me, but I put on a good show of “belonging.” I experienced a first date, even though it was with the nerdiest boy in school. Best of all, I went steady with my secret self.

Being Me

For the longest time, I really didn’t like myself. I knew, intrinsically, that somehow I was not the child that my parents wanted. That’s a hard cross to bear.

I was not pretty. I was not talented in any way. I took a long time to learn things. My memory was not the best, so I repeated the same mistakes over and over.

I was not girly. I wore dresses only because that’s what my mother gave me to wear. I wanted to wear pants and shorts and t-shirts because that’s what my brother wore.

I hated long hair. It took too much time to brush it, and then what I got older, it was difficult to style it because I had no skill in that area. I wanted short hair cut in a “boy” style. When I finally did get it sheared off at shoulder length, it angered my father so much that he called me foul names.

In terms of academics I was not my brilliant brother. He excelled in science. I excelled in nothing. No, there was one thing that I could do better than him! I could write beautiful cursive.

I was so slow to learn that I spent most lunches in a tutoring room, supervised by a strict nun who offered no support. I hated the room in the summer as it was sweltering. In the winter, however, it was shelter from the cold.

In high school I discovered that I was good at math and languages. I was still awkward. I was still not pretty. I was still not girly. I was now able to wear shorts and jeans at home, but had to wear dresses to school and church. I felt fat and dumpy. When I sat, the width of a single one of my thighs matched the width of both of anyone else’s combined.

I discovered that I had a talent for bowling and badminton, so played on my high school teams. I was not the best, but I held my own. This gave me something to crow about. I held my head higher and walked prouder.

When a young man asked me out, I felt desired. Not at first, but as he continued to date me, I accepted his amorous fumblings with positive regard. Because of him I began to understand that beauty is not defined by what you see on television or in magazines, but what others see when you walk by.

Once I was in college I realized that my skills in math and languages were appreciated by my professors. My heart swelled with pride.

When contacts came on the market, I entered a trial program on my campus to wear them. Without my glasses I didn’t feel as old-fashioned or as clumsy. I dated several men at the same time! Wow! Imagine how it felt to be popular for the first time!

I smiled when I walked about campus. I greeted casual acquaintances and sat with people I barely knew. I worked in the bookstore and found myself a valued employee. I was a good roommate and a good friend.

As my circle of friends grew, so did my self-esteem. By the time I graduated, I must have had at least fifteen friends! A record number for me.

After college I had no choice but to return home, back to the environment in which I was less-than my siblings. I was subjected to cooking lessons which I never mastered. I was forced to clean house every day, including my sibling’s rooms which I felt was grossly unfair. I was little more than a servant.

To make matters worse, I could not find employment. I applied wherever I could. I was rejected over and over because potential employers didn’t like that I was a college graduate with no office skills. I wasn’t even hired to distribute cards from store to store! What skills would that require?

The longer unemployment went on, the lower my self-esteem plummeted. At home I was that unhappy, unfeminine little girl. I was worthless because I lacked domestic skills and had no desire to learn. My activities were monitored, so I was not allowed to be social. I could only go out when my activities were chaperoned by an adult.

I was an adult! I was twenty-one. I could drive and vote and drink legally.

When I finally got hired at a now defunct furniture store, I was out of the house forty hours a week. I bought a car. I rented a studio apartment. I was free! And once again I began to like myself.

From there I slowly became who I am today. It was not an easy road. I spent hours alone, but I also went skiing, saw movies, ate out with colleagues. I saw Joan Baez in concert. I went camping in the Santa Cruz mountains. I took a class in hiking and went with the group. It was tough! My backpack was canvas on a metal frame. By the time it was packed and on my shoulders, I feel over backwards! But I went.

The rest of my story, my story of learning to like myself, was like climbing a ladder. Each rung up taught me that I could do things, that I could succeed, that I had value.

When I look back and I realize how long I struggled to overcome those early restrictive years, it’s amazing that I emerged as me. I wish I could spare all girls the struggle. What I can offer is my life as example.

No matter where you are in life, never give up on yourself. Fight against whatever forces hold you back. Find something that you do well. Anything. It doesn’t have to be academics. It doesn’t have to lead to career, but it could.

Believe in yourself. No matter how others treat you, no matter those who try to hold you back, know that in you, there is value. You have much to offer the world.

Like yourself. Be you.

 

Conquering Loneliness

When I was a little kid I didn’t feel loved at all. I was a shy, miserable child. A loner who yearned to be held, caressed, even though I didn’t yet know the meaning of the term.  I wanted to be held in the same regard as my brother, who, in my mother’s eyes, could do no wrong.

I played alone most of the time, preferring my own company to the tension-filled interactions with my family. I knew that I was often the cause of much yelling even though I don’t recall hearing my name being uttered as the cause. Little kids just know these things.

Recently I saw some old home movies that were taken when I was a child. In all the scenes in which I appeared there were two brief moments when a tiny smile creased my lips. In one I was running toward my grandpa, in the other I was in his arms.

It was a great consolation to see that there were, indeed, periods of happiness.

When I went to school I understood that I was going not because I was smart, but because I was dumb. This was reinforced daily when my mother, who learned how to drive so she could get me to a school, reminded me of what she was giving up, the sacrifices she was making to enroll me in the school.

Later on when I went to elementary school I knew my place in the hierarchy of students. I was the dumb one, the girl who never knew the answers when the teacher called on me. I was the one who never got Valentine’s Day cards and who was never invited to play dates and parties.

Granted, it was probably my fault. I was a sullen, sulky kid who wandered the playground aimlessly, interacting with no one. I remember seeing in a magazine ad how to make tornadoes in a jar. Every recess I carried my jar, twirling it, setting the miniature tornado in motion, finding limited solace in watching my creation. Imagine what the other kids thought when they saw this strange girl roaming the playground with a glass jar in her hands. No wonder I was alone.

There was one girl who became my friend in fifth grade. She was new and so didn’t know my status. One weekend she invited me to spend the night. It was a revelation to me. At the dinner table her parents conversed without yelling. There was no name calling or bickering. Everyone had smiles on their faces.

I fell in love with that family. I wanted to live with them, for them to adopt me. I cried when my mother came to take me home.

In eighth grade an odd-looking boy invited me to go roller skating. I went because it was a date, my first one, and he was a nice kid. At the rink we skated side-by-side. The music was too loud to talk, which suited us both. After a while he held my hand. His was damp but I didn’t care.

In ninth grade he invited me to my first school dance. My mom made me a powder blue dress for the occasion. He arrived in a suit, bearing a corsage.

Neither of us knew how to dance, so we spent a lot of time standing on the outskirts of the floor, leaning against walls or, if possible, sitting on folding metal chairs. I thought he was nice because he was kind.

We moved to California that summer. I brought the addresses of neighbors that I had thought were friends. I sent them letters every week. None of them wrote back. I cried.

Because I was still shy, I made no friends that first year. My Algebra teacher was the closest thing to a friend that I had only because he smiled when I got the right answers.

Across the street from us was an older young man who showed an interest in me. He looked like every glasses-wearing boy of the sixties. Black haired combed to the side, black-rimmed glasses, and button up the front plaid shirts. We went bowling, to movies and hung out at his duplex listening to music. He wanted more.

Sometimes as our date was ending he’s park in an isolated spot and we’d make out until my lips hurt. I was terrified that the police would find us, arrest us, and then I’d be in trouble with both my parents and the law. But no cruiser ever found us.

He moved his love-making to the couch in his house. He told me how much he loved me. I believed him but I never said the same to him. My parents were thrilled. The daughter that they felt was unlovable had someone declaring true love.

When I transferred to USC I joined a group of lonely looking people who sat at the same table meal after meal. They welcomed me. We spoke about a variety of things, many of them intellectual in nature. For the first time I had a group in which I felt an equal. I don’t know what they felt when they saw me, but I was always treated with respect. I dated two of the guys. They were really nice.

And then the boyfriend showed up and took me to Disneyland. We had a good time, but all the while I knew that I was going to break up with him. He loved me, but during our separation I understood that I liked him, but did not love him. He cried when I told him. I did too.

At that point in my life I realized how much I had changed. I was no longer the lonely kindergarten kid but a part of a social group that did things together. That treated each other as equals. That valued intellect over money and appearance.

We did crazy things together, like drive across town just to buy chili burgers. We went to the beach even when it was raining. We studied together in the lobby of our residence hall. We were inseparable.

I still have my lonely days but I don’t let them drag me down. I know that they are only a blip in what are normally busy times with friends and family. I have a husband who likes to be with me, who respects me and encourages me to do all the different things that I love to do.

Being lonely as a kid is a terrible thing. You see other kids running around in groups that are ever changing, but you stand alone. There is no one to help you navigate the social circles, to teach you how to fit in. But there are glimmers of hope.

For me it was the girl who invited me over to her house, the boy who took me roller skating, the young man who said he loved me and all the college friends who respected me. Because of them I entered the world of work prepared to interact with those who showed signs of openness.

For the sake of all the lonely people in the world, be open. That will help them overcome loneliness. Be kind.