Disaster Strikes

The weekend before Christmas my critique went on a writer’s retreat in Mendocino. The weather was spectacular despite being a bit chilly, but the skies were a deep blue. The four of us would meet, discuss our work, eat something, then repeat. By evening we were finished for the day and so decided to visit the Botanical Gardens in order to see the colorful light displays. While we roamed about taking in one spectacular display after another, the fog came in.

We decided to eat at Hotel Mendocino because of its charm and the quality of the food. After parking, we headed up the steps. I placed my right foot on the first one, and then found myself falling. I landed so hard that my right arm shattered. I knew it was broken despite not feeling any pain.

When the paramedics arrived they cut my sweatshirt off then slid a blow-up cast on my arm. I was then transported to Fort Bragg’s hospital. X-rays revealed that my bone was in there distinct pieces that would require surgery to mend.

The orthopedic surgeon was in Willits, a winding one-hour ride away. It was now almost midnight, so my friends left me in good hands. I must have been given something for pain, as I felt none and was a bit loo

The surgeon was waiting for me, but couldn’t begin until my blood was checked. I had been on blood thinners for years at this point and had recently had it checked. It was at 3.2, a good number. However, the surgeon reported that he couldn’t operate because it was 3.9! I was given three bags of plasma before the operation could take place.

I remember nothing of that morning except for the ride to the ICU. Just as they wheeled me past a door, I heard my husband’s voice! He had begged for a ride as my car was in front of the Bed and Breakfast. Knowing he was there lifted my spirits. I felt blessed in so many ways.

Falling was not what I intended to do that evening, but because of my friends who took care of me, the paramedics who kept me comfortable, a renowned surgeon who just happened to live in Willits and the support of my husband, the tragedy wasn’t as bad as it could have been.

Open Arms

“Welcome,” Aunt Lucy shouted from her front porch, waving my family into the front door.  She wore crispy pressed slacks, a bright floral print top, a shiny silver necklace, and dress shoes with heels shaped, in my mind, like skewers; her usual attire.  Her shiny black hair was neatly tucked into her traditional bun.  Despite her formal appearance, however, she was the friendliest of my relatives, and the only one who treated me as if I were more than a moron.

Standing before my aunt, staring at my too large oxfords, I whispered, “Hi.”

After pulling me to her chest with a suffocating hug, Aunt Lucy said, “Come on in.  I just turned on the television so you children could watch cartoons.” Her smile lit up the sky, making me feel instantly at ease.

Not to be undone, my mother pulled her sister away. “I brought an apple pie that I made this morning.  Fresh picked apples, too.”  Taking the pie from my brother’s hands, my mother proffered the well-stuffed pie, which Aunt Lucy accepted with grace and dignity.

“We’ll have this for desert with a dollop of vanilla ice cream on top,” Aunt Lucy said as she stepped into the house. “Come on, children. The couch is waiting for you.”

Following Aunt Lucy’s receding form, my older brother, younger sister and I scrambled up the perfectly proportioned red brick steps, through the glistening dark wood front door, down a richly carpeted hall lined with fairly large, golden-framed paintings evenly hung, and into the formal front room.  I chose to sit on the right hand side of the baby blue overstuffed couch, my sister plopped into the middle, and my brother squeezed into the other end.  In front of us sat the largest television we had ever seen: much larger than our eight inch black and white cabinet model.  The cartoon had animals taunting each other into performing dangerous daredevil tricks while living to do them again.

I hated the cartoon. My brother was a big tease who always tried to get me to do things that were terrifying, especially if they involved heights, so even though I didn’t want to watch, I was transfixed.

My mother glided past the television, choosing to ignore the loud cartoons that we were never permitted to watch at home.  “Don’t move until I call for you,” she whispered.

“Obey your mother or you’ll be sorry” my father added.

When an aroma of fresh flowers filled the room I knew Aunt Lucy had returned. “They don’t have to sit here like statues.  Leave them be,” she said while cradling a huge bouquet of brightly colored roses.  “Children,” Aunt Lucy pronounced as if by royal decree, “my garden is in full bloom.  Please feel free to go out back whenever you grow tired of the television.”  With a dramatic turn, she flounced out of the room, the floral scent lingering long after the sounds of her footsteps faded away.

I looked at my siblings who were glued to the show.  “Do you want to go outside?”  Neither responded, so I arose and headed toward the door all while expecting them to change their minds.  When neither of them so much as twitched a muscle, I placed my hand on the knob, ready to turn and open.

I hesitated though when I thought I heard someone calling my name. Expecting parental chastisement to float through the air like a sinister magic carpet, I was frozen in place.  When nothing untoward occurred, I opened the massive door and stepped out into the warm sunny afternoon.

With surprising nonchalance considering the unexpected freedom, I skipped my twelve-year-old body onto the yard humming a silly tune that echoed my jubilant mood. The sky’s shocking blueness lifted my spirits, making me feel as if I could fly. I danced down the granite walkway that led to a paved road that lead deeper into the yard, not really having a plan in mind other than relishing the beauty of the day.

Aunt Lucy’s brand new black Cadillac regally sat in front of the garage as if occupying a throne.  Glistening with newly applied wax, the sun’s reflection nearly blinded me as I moved close enough to graze my fingertips along the driver’s door.  Withdrawing my fingers as if electrified, I looked over my left shoulder, expecting to find my mother standing on the steps glaring with the ferocity of a challenged lioness.  There was no one there.  Nevertheless, I stepped away from the enticing vehicle.

Continuing my journey I walked past tulips in a rainbow of colors, baby’s breath with its miniature white blooms, bird-of-paradise resembling a flock of long-legged birds readying for flight, and multicolored chrysanthemums with blooms larger than the pumpkins we carved for Halloween.  Butterflies of all colors and sizes danced from flower to flower, and huge bumblebees, deadly dangerous to my severe allergic reaction, hovered and buzzed with excitement.

As if having their own mind, my fingers brushed the pink petals of a fully opened rose, the feathery frills of a yellow tulip, and the knife-like edges of the bird-of-paradise.  Checking to make sure that no bees were inside, I leaned over a cantaloupe-sized chrysanthemum and inhaled, calling the scent to my heart.  As I strolled along through the meandering garden, I noticed the greenness of the recently cut grass, the blueness of the sky, and the freshness of the air.

Where the garden ended, a large green hedge stood, taller than my father and so dense that even with my face buried in its leaves, I could not see through. Hoping there was a concealed gate as in a storybook, I followed the contours of the hedge, filled with a sense of exploration.  I pushed aside likely looking branches here, got down on hands and knees there, leaned left and right, and jumped and bent down as I went, enjoying the intrigue.

About twenty steps along I found an ivy-covered wrought ironed gate, lifted the latch, cautiously pulled it open, and stepped into paradise.  Deep green hedgerows stretched far off into the distance: one to the left, clearly visible, and one to the right, seeming to spring from the very house itself.

Directly before me lay an expanse of verdant grass larger than the playground at school.  Neatly mowed into a series of diamond shaped patterns, the yard did not immediately invite trespassing.  Its surprising perfection cried out, “Don’t step on me,” as loudly as my father’s admonishing voice.

Not one object disturbed the grandeur of the lawn.  No carefully placed wooden benches, no picnic tables or umbrellas to block the sun.  No garden decorations like windmills or pink flamingoes.  Not even a bubbling fountain.  Here and there, however, growing with a randomness that implied careful planning, grew huge maple trees, leaves larger than a man’s hand.

Feeling as if I were entering heaven on earth, I took a hesitant step onto the carpet of grass, instantly sinking into its cushiony softness.  No alarms sounded, no shrieks of anger, no grating voices chastised me for my audacity, and so I took a few more cautious steps.  And then a few more.  Moving deeper and deeper onto the lawn, feeling almost suspended in time, I moved toward one of the trees, searching for the perfect place to disappear into the loveliness before me.

Once I stood under a dense umbrella of leaves, the temperature dropped. A cool breeze rustled my short-cropped hair, feeling as if gentle fingers caressed my scalp.  An unexpected feeling of safety washed over me, something I had never sensed before, and with that came a carefree abandon that sent me flying across the lawn, arms making airplane wings and a smile springing across my face.

I ran and ran until my chest heaved with exhaustion, and then I fell into the enticing carpet.  Cool blades of grass tickled my neck and arms.  A pungent smell filled my nostrils: a rich, earthy odor like something decomposing.  Not repulsed, I relished the unexpected depth of both aroma and grass, rolling over and over like tumbleweed across an empty highway.

That done, I sat up, wondering what new experiences awaited my discovery.  Imagining myself a conqueror of a newly discovered world, I boldly stood at attention. Birds hidden in the heights of the trees commanded me in a joyful carol, saying, “Look.  Look at us.”  Craning my neck to an uncomfortable degree, I spied a family of cardinals sitting majestically amongst a nest of sticks and string.  The babies’ open mouths screamed, “Feed me. Feed me.”  I laughed as the parents took turns blessing the young ones with gifts of food.

Called by a distant pecking, thinking it must be a woodpecker, I squinted my eyes in order to see better across the verdant lawn, and instead of seeing the bird, I discovered a fence that divided the backyard into two distinct areas.

To my inexperienced eye, it was as if two countries coexisted in this place; one country thriving in the area closest to the house, and a second one, less lush, just beyond the fence.  As I approached the barrier I discovered that Aunt Lucy’s immaculately groomed lawn gave way to a meticulously tended garden. Forgetting about the peck-peck continuing in the background, I gingerly stepped close, not knowing what to expect, or whether I was allowed to enter what appeared to be a safely guarded place.

Brick walkways wound through the back garden as if through a maze, enticing me to follow, much like Dorothy heading toward the Emerald City.  Entranced, I opened a frail wire gate and stepped from the coolness of the manicured lawn into the desert-like heat of the garden.  No grass grew here: only a rich brown soil mixed with smoothed stones meticulously placed along the edges of the path.  Plants of various sizes and shapes grew everywhere.

Some flowers I instantly recognized.  There were Queen Elizabeth roses and yellow daffodils, cyclamen and crocus in full bloom.  Peonies and tulips, golden poppies and pussy willows. Pink flowers with white stripes and white ones with red stripes. Tiny orange spikes and fringed yellow petals. Others were a beautiful mystery, combinations of exploding blossoms and oversized petals coexisting in a cacophony of color.

As far as the eye could see, flowers sprung from the dark soil, some inches high with miniscule flowers, others sky-high explosions of hue.  I wandered into the maze, gaping at the spectacle before me.

A rustling sound behind me startled me, causing me to spin around, eyes agape and mouth hanging open in a giant oval.  Nothing but a common starling which bounced from one place to another, stopping to peck at a miniature something on the ground, turning over pebbles and crunching fallen leaves as it searched for whatever tidbit it could find.  I watched the bird for several minutes, fascinated by its lack of inhibition at my nearness.

The bird was on the vegetable side of the garden where giant beefsteak tomatoes draped over wire cages and tiny cherry tomatoes sprouted out of clay pots.  Long stalks of onions huddled in clusters and green beans dangled from vines twisting up long poles.  Green leafy carrot tops sprung from the midst of meandering pumpkins, while blackberry and raspberry vines draped over wires held up by huge poles.

“Do you know what those are?” Aunt Lucy’s voice came from over my left shoulder. After shaking off the initial surprise of hearing a voice amidst the beauty,, I followed her pointing finger, seeing a strange looking vine with elephant-sized leaves covering a brick-enclosed plot.

“No.”

“It’s squash.  Spaghetti squash some people call it,” she said as she indicated a rather odd looking vegetable.  “And these are ornamental pumpkins.  You can’t eat them, but they look really nice as table decorations.  Here,” she said as she guided my hand to a really odd looking one. “Feel the smoothness of the squash’s skin.”

With her guidance, I touched purplish eggplant, ping-pong sized Brussels sprouts, clusters of cauliflower, and crisp Romaine lettuce.  I felt leaves as soft as fur and others sticky like glue. My hands traced twisting vines of pole beans, and I stared up at gargantuan sunflowers that turn with the sun.

We meandered around her garden, touching this, smelling that, picking off dead leaves, and sprinkling water on thirsty plants.  Much of the time we said nothing, for there was something about the uniqueness of the afternoon that called for silence.

Every step offered something new to see and touch and taste.  The sweetness of a fresh picked tomato contrasted with the bitterness of a not quite ready carrot.  The powdery smell of a rose was obliterated by the breath-taking pungency of a bright red geranium. I reveled in the sensory overload, the serenity, and the peacefulness of Aunt Lucy’s special world.

“Well,” Aunt Lucy said after setting her watering can on the ground near a tightly coiled hose.  “We had better go inside.  I think your parents want to leave right after dinner and your father will be getting fidgety  for food by now.”

“Okay.”

“Here,” she said as she plucked a deep red rose near the gate.  “Take this as a reminder of my garden.  When you look at it, think of the peace you found here.”

We stepped through the gate and onto the lawn leaving behind the wondrous place of growth.  Aunt Lucy reached for my empty left hand, squeezing it as if sharing a secret society’s code.  We strolled across the lawn, taking time to feel the bark of a tree, listen to the song of a bird, and smell the richness of the loam spaded around the base of a tree.  We arrived at the back door, still hand in hand.  My soul soared with happiness, despite carrying the knowledge that I would soon reenter my known world of rules and expectations, frustrations and tears.

Before we entered the house, Aunt Lucy stopped and knelt before me.  Staring deep into my eyes, she whispered, “I know that life isn’t always easy for you.  That sometimes you don’t feel loved.  That you cry yourself to sleep at night.”

“How do you know that?”

“When I was younger I lived with your parents well before they had children.  It was a rough time emotionally.  I felt unwanted, unloved, and misunderstood, like a flower in a field of weeds.”

“I feel like that.”

“I’ve told your parents that I want you to spend a weekend with me very soon.  Would you like that?”

I nodded as Aunt Lucy pulled me into a tight embrace and planted a soft kiss on my cheek.  She opened the door into her mudroom and waved me inside.  We cleaned off the bottoms of our shoes, brushed leaves and petals off  our clothes, and then entered her bright yellow kitchen.

Something wonderful smelling simmered on her stove and baskets of bright red apples, fist-sized oranges, and bananas as yellow as the sun lined her counters.  “Sit here,” she said, as she opened the refrigerator and pulled out a pitcher of lemonade.  After pouring me a glass, Aunt Lucy busied herself with the meal, humming a happy sounding song as she worked.

“What are you doing in here?” my mother’s harsh voice demanded.

I dropped my glass, spilling what remained of my drink.  Ducking just in time to avoid a blow to the back of my head, I scrambled off the chair and huddled next to my aunt’s sheltering form.

“Get out of this kitchen, you disobedient brat,” my mother screeched as her finger pointed the way back to the television room.

“Leave her alone.” Aunt Lucy pulled me close.

“Stay out of this,” my mother said.  “She disobeyed and will pay for it.”

“Really, it’s my fault.  I told her she could go outside.” She stared daggers at my mom. “Let’s eat dinner and then have a piece of pie.”

When my mother left, Aunt Lucy ushered me into the dining room.  “Sit here,” she said, “and don’t worry.  I’ll take care of everything.”

Dinner crept by with a painful slowness, marked only by the clank of a fork or the ping of a spoon.  My siblings and I said nothing as we ate, as expected.  My parents participated in what conversation there was, but tension filled the air, spoiling the meal.

I ate every bite, even the offensive peas that my father dollopped onto my plate.  Only once my plate was clean was I dismissed from the table and sent back to the television room to await my punishment.

My aunt walked me to the car holding my hand all the way.  Before I got into the backseat she hugged me, whispering, “I love you,” and then planted a kiss on my cheek.

As we pulled away I waved until her shape disappeared behind an oversized hedge.  Ignoring the painful thorns that punctured my fingers, I held my rose to my nose and pulled in its sweet aroma.

Throughout the entire drive home the rose reminded me of all had I experienced that day as a smile graced my face and a crimson glow lit my cheeks.

I promised myself that I would never forget the loveliness of that special place and time and the open arms that made me feel welcome and loved.

 

Reflections on Faith

My parents were Catholics when convenient. They baptized us as infants because it was expected and demanded by family. Going to church, however, didn’t begin until it was time to enroll my older brother in Catholic elementary school. The parish checked tithing records and saw that my parents didn’t donate regularly. Once they established a pattern, then my brother could attend.

I enrolled a year later, no questions asked.

School began with daily mass. Prayer occurred at regular intervals. Massive school-wide processions took place with regularity, rain, snow or shine. Students were disciplined with ruler, clicker, social isolation and words. We studied the saints and wrote countless reports about our favorites. All art was related to church and church teachings. No frivolous country scenes. Only crucifixions or stained-glass windows.

We read the bible, not contemporary literature except for the occasional Dick and Jane and see Spot run. We were conditioned to believe that church was our life now and in the future. Every year priests and nuns and missionaries spoke to our entire school about a life of service.

Throughout all these years I often attended Sunday Mass, but only if there wasn’t an excuse to skip it. It crops had to be planted or harvested, no Mass. If it was too snowy, icy or rainy, no Mass. Too hot? No Mass. Memorial Day? No Mass only endless visits from one cemetery to another. Relatives to visit? Well, you get the picture.

My parents made sure we received our first Communion. We processed in with our classes, hands neatly folded with a white prayer book nestled between and a white plastic rosary draped over the tips of our fingers. My brother got by with a white school shirt but I was stuffed into a stiff Communion dress and a tight-fitting veil pinching my puffy cheeks.

Once that milestone was accomplished we once again attended Mass when my dad saw fit. Interestingly enough, ten cents out of the quarter weekly allowance was handed back to my dad as our donation to the church we never attended.

My brother and I stayed at the Catholic school through Confirmation. My teacher, a strict nun, made sure I understood that this sacrament sealed my commitment to a life of service to God and church. I took it quite seriously. When the annual recruitment took place, I was ready to sign up for a monastic life of solitude and prayer. I envisioned myself in a place of peace, a place of reflection, a place devoid of the tension which was my home life. My parents wouldn’t let me go.

When we moved to California in 1964 my dad began his search for the fastest mass in town. He took us over the hills to Half Moon Bay and Pacifica where the priests spoke of fire and brimstone, damnation of everlasting hell. They terrified me.

We tried churches in San Mateo and Burlingame. We didn’t fit in those well-to-do parishes due to our extreme poverty. He found one in San Bruno that he liked until the priest asked for regular donations. There were two in South San Francisco:  one which was supposed to be our assigned parish and the other, a tiny one, with a thirty-minute mass. That’s the one my dad chose. In and out, over and done.

When away at college I discovered the Neumann Center, a tiny chapel on campus with a welcoming atmosphere. The music was contemporary with drums, guitars, keyboard and cymbals. Dancing in the aisles. Hallelujahs and lots of praise be to God. I fit in.

My husband grew up in a family that attended mass faithfully regardless of whether even when they had to sludge to church through downpours.  Going to church was part of who he was. It influenced his thinking, his behavior, his attitude toward others.

His beliefs built our family into who we are today. If we were camping, he found a church. Skiing? Church. Traveling? Right, church. Sometimes we drove for miles to find a church, but we got there nevertheless.

For almost 46 years Sunday Mass has been an integral part of our relationship. In fact, when I travel on my own, I seek out church and attend.

Not being able to attend due to the coronavirus takes me back to my childhood days of any excuse to miss going to Mass. Except for one caveat: this isn’t voluntary, but enforced.

We found a Mass on television, which is a nice substitute, but there’s a huge difference between sitting in your family room and being in the church building. There are stained glass windows in the TV church and statues and the readings and the service, but the lack of physical presence takes you away from the reverence, the spirituality.

Today things changed for me. I was asked to be the lector for today’s Sunday Mass. I put on a dress and necklace. Studied my readings. Made sure my hair was neatly combed. Put on my mask when I entered the church. Three others were there: the parish secretary, the parish office manager and the choir director. The church felt hollow. Voices echoed.

But the pews were there. Candles, flowers, statues, stained glass windows, all the things that identify that church as mine. When the priest entered and the service began I was filled with awe. Several times my eyes filled with tears. Singing with the director took me back to a few weeks ago when I’d be standing with five other choir members, lifting our voices in praise. Now there was just two of us.

The priest shared a time when he had strayed from God and how, when the call came, how powerful it was. His words carried me back to  my childhood when it wasn’t me that chose to stray, but circumstances beyond my control, and how powerful it was when I found God in my late teens. He spoke for all of us, reminding us to talk to Jesus.

Next Sunday we’ll watch the television Mass once again. It won’t be the same, but I’ll share the experience with my husband, the man who taught me that attending church was a powerful connection to our faith in God.

In these times we need reminders that there is someone up there, someone ready to listen when we’re ready to pray.

 

More Than Just Surviving

These are trying times. Because of a coronavirus are lives have drastically changed. Workers aren’t working unless they are deemed “essential”. Roads which normally would be congested morning and evening are practically empty. Restaurants aren’t serving unless they can provide to-go meals.

Libraries aren’t open. We can’t go to the gym, theater or conferences. Families can’t see each other and teachers can’t provide one-to-one assistance to their students. Baseball and basketball aren’t happening.

Many parks are closed and those that are open have closed parking lots and imposed restrictions limiting how many people can gather in a given place at the same time.

How do you survive in these changed circumstances?

Technology has become the lifeline for most of us. Virtual meetings, family visits, classrooms, even yoga studios allow us to interact with others. Of course there’s the phone, but it can’t take the place of seeing a loved one’s face or interacting with cherished friends.

Because we are curious about when life can return to normal we feast on the news. We find ourselves spending too much time online, reading reports and studying statistics hoping to see the light at the end.

There are days when circumstances seem to be changing. We smile more, laugh more, feel lighter and brighter and happier overall. Then we hear of a new outbreak and we sink back into that dark hole.

We forget that there are things we can still do. If we have yards, we can go outside. Live in an apartment building? Go up on the roof. We can don masks and walk around the block, making sure to maintain social distancing when we encounter others.

We can still barbeque and sit on balconies or decks if we have them. We can listen to music and read good books. We can watch documentaries on television and play board games with those in our homes.

If we’re crafty, we can make something. Paint, knit, crochet, sew, build. Cut, fold, stamp.

If we have the physical ability we can tackle home-cleaning tasks that we’ve put off for years. The stuff in the garage might not be needed anymore. The garden that we’ve neglected now needs plants that can provide food as well as beauty. Clean windows, showers and tubs. Polish the wood floor and wipe down blinds.

When we’re feeling sad we can do something uplifting. Bake cookies to nourish, sew masks to give away, connect via email, phone or internet.

We have to change our mindset. Instead of dwelling on what we can’t do, think of all the blessings we’ve been given. Instead of moping about, rejoice in another day of life. Instead of carrying sorrow on our shoulders, find reasons to rejoice.

Things may not be wonderful right now, but an end will come. When it does, let’s not look back on these times with regret for what we didn’t do, but instead on all the things we did.

That’s the attitude needed to survive. We can do this. We can choose to walk alone or we can use what tools we have to pull others into our circle. We are children of survivors. We are survivors.

 

Tackling Projects

There have been things I’ve wanted to do but never had the time or inclination to take them on. For one reason or another I never have the time. Either I’m running off to the gym or meeting with book club friends or walking with my husband. There are a myriad of preferred activities I have at the tip of my fingers that prevent me from taking on the big projects.

Now that I my outdoor activities are limited to quick trips to the grocery, walking with a friend while maintain six feet of separation or neighborhood with my husband, I have run out of excuses.

This week I decided to sort through all the music CDs I have bought and stored over the years. For a long time the cases were stuffed into a cabinet, but when that became unruly, I filed the CDs in binders and taped the cases into boxes which were stuffed under beds or stacked high in closets.

I began simply by retrieving only one box. As I reunited the CDs and cases, I reflected on whether or not I really needed to keep it or if it could go in a pile to sell at a nearby store. Amazingly enough, the majority went into the sale pile.

The next day I tackled another box. The day after that, one more. The ones I kept were numbered in the twenties. The boxes of giveaways grew taller.

The boxes high in the closet were easy to reach; the ones below the bed required gymnastics as I cannot kneel and have difficulty getting up off the floor.

As each day passed and one more bit was accomplished, my attitude changed. At first it was a tedious chore. It changed to a challenge as the cases had not been stored in any organized fashion. Country was mixed with Christian along with Pop and Christmas.

Yesterday I finished. Most CDs had the correct cases but about ten cases had no CDs! Where were the missing CDs? I have no idea. The only possibility is that I accidentally put the wrong CD in a case. But, if that is so, shouldn’t there by a CD remaining by the same artist? And shouldn’t the numbers of empty cases match the numbers of homeless CDs?

After attempting to look through the piles of giveaways, I decided to quit. I accomplished what I had set out to do. The mishmash has been cleared. The mission completed.

Now I can slowly rebuild my collection as my favorite artists release new albums. That simple thought brightens my day.

One project tackled successfully. Where do I go from here? Who knows, but at least I can chalk one off the list.

 

Memories of Life in the Projects

I first became aware of home when I was about four years old. Our house had a front porch that stretched across the width, the front door right smack-dab in the middle. There were no chairs out there, no toys, no swing, but it was my preferred place because it got me out from under the watchful eyes of my mother.

I remember getting splinters every time I was out there, and although I hated the Mercurochrome that my mother applied after each extraction, I returned time after time. Maybe this is why my parents thought I was slow: I never seemed to learn from my errors.

My older brother was really into cowboys, so therefor I was as well. He had a hat, chaps, and a holster. I had a hat and a skirt. When he wanted to play cowboy, he’d get dressed and go out on the porch. He was five, big enough to climb the railings and straddle the top. I couldn’t do it no matter how hard I tried. He’d tease: I’d cry.

I wasn’t aware of appliances at that age, but I was mesmerized by the washing machine. It was a huge tub with two tight rollers, which my mom called ringers, on the top. Mom would stir the clothes in the tub, then push them through the ringers one at a time. She was afraid that her hands would get stuck. I sensed her fear, so I tried to stay back far enough, but because I wanted to see, I’d slowly move closer and closer.

One warm day Mom sat on the side steps smoking. I wasn’t supposed to be out there, but I went anyway and sat next to Mom. She wasn’t good at snuggling, so I maintained distance between us. A steady stream of kids came by, each dressed nicely and carrying a metal box. I knew about those boxes because my dad took one to work everyday.

Those kids seemed so happy on their journey, so I stood to join in. Mom pulled me back to the steps. I cried because I wanted to hear what they were laughing about, to be a part of their silliness, to run and hop and skip with them as they passed along the path. But more than anything, I wanted my own lunch box.

Mom told me that the kids were going to school, that I wasn’t old enough, and that my brother would go to school next year. I didn’t know what school was, but I felt that I would love it.

I begged over and over to go, to have a box, but Mom always said no. Eventually she yelled at me, something I earned often, scolded me and sent me away. I was told never to mention those two things again.

One night when my dad came home from work, he brought me a gift. This was an unusual occurrence as we only got gifts at Christmas. Guess what it was? A beat-up blue metal lunch box that someone had left at work. My mom washed it out, my dad gave it a fresh coat of paint, and then it was mine, all mine. My brother stole it from me, but dad forced him to give it back.

For several weeks someone packed a lunch in it for me. Eventually that person must have grown tired because one morning it was empty. After throwing a wonderful temper tantrum I was told it was never going to happen again. I got to keep the box, but I turned it into a keepsake collector where I stored pretty rocks and other such things.

We were seldom allowed off the porch by ourselves. One day Mom was busy doing something and my brother and I snuck around the side of the house. There was a hose on the ground. My brother picked it up and waved it about, telling me it was a snake out to get me. He grew tired of that so moved on to something that would get me in trouble: he turned on the waer.

Because the sun was shining, when he waived the hose up and down, it created a spray that took on the hues of a rainbow. He repeated the action over and over, amazing us both. Of course he grew tired of that and decided to soak me through and through. However, when I ran next to the neighbor’s’ house, the spray hit the window before it got to me.

My brother was old enough to understand that something terrible had happened, so he handed me the hose and disappeared. I was thrilled to be in charge, but only until the neighbor arrived. I was the obvious culprit. I was the one that he dragged to the front door and who was shown to my mother. Even though I pleaded innocence and blamed my brother, I was the one who was punished.

One last memory comes to mind. Someone gave my brother a tricycle that was no longer needed. To celebrate, we all went outside to watch my dad teach him how to ride. It was great fun. My brother learned quickly enough that he could pedal all around the house without falling over. My parents went off to do something important.

My brother, seizing the opportunity to torment me, chased me with the trike. He’d pedal as fast as he could then crash into me, knocking me over. I’d brush off the dirt just in time to be hit again. Over and over he did this. You’d think I would have been smart enough to leave, but I had been told to stay with him for fear of punishment.

Even after me knees, hands and elbows were scratched and my dress filthy, he continued. At some point he got off the trike, so I got on. The problem was that my legs weren’t quite long enough and strong enough to make it move. My brother returned and pushed me. At first it was great fun, but he pushed faster and faster. I must have hit a bump because I toppled over, hurting myself even worse.

My brother didn’t get in trouble but I did.

Much later when I was older and we had moved away I learned that we had been living in the projects, low income housing. Once I understood that, my mother’s protests made sense. She was miserable there and let her displeasure be known whenever my dad was around.

As a kid I saw nothing wrong with the projects. We were on the path to school, we had a wonderful porch and there was a path around the house perfect for riding. We had food, beds and clothes. While I was a whiner and crier, I was comfortable there, sharing space with Mom, Dad and my brother.

My memories are all a mixture of happy and sad, a perfect combination for life in the projects.

A Bear of a Man

My mother had many siblings.

Her brother Joe scared me because he liked to pick me up, turn me upside down and paddle my bottom, long after such things would be done to someone my age. Tears never deterred him and my parents never intervened. One time he threatened to stuff me in my grandparent’s coal-burning stove. I kicked and screamed and cried for help, but not even my grandmother stopped him. When I felt the heat on my face and thought my hair was on fire, Joe finally set me down. I scurried away as fast as I could. Thankfully he lived many hours away and so visits were limited to twice a year.

Clarence was a backwoods man. He lived off-the-grid before it was popular to do so. He was moody, somber and seemed to have had children with several of the women who shared the house. It was hard to tell who belonged to whom because they all looked the same. Because his home was so far off any civilized road, we only visited him once.

There were several sisters. Rachel lived on a huge chunk of land, her house sitting high on a hill overlooking meadows of green grass. Not only was it a peaceful environment, she was a calming presence in my hectic life. I loved visiting her. Her youngest son was older than me but still liked to play little-kids games. Only later did I learn that Jimmy was learning disabled. One time my brother and I got to spend a weekend with Aunt Rachel. It was one of the best weekends in my life. I missed her when we moved to Ohio.

The uncle I knew the best was Rudy. He had moved to California before we did and was established in Orange County. He had bought a house, had a good-paying job, and his three sons and wife seemed happy. When we first arrived in California we stayed with them for several days. The sons were rough-and-tumble, but overall good kids. The wife was merry, easy to be around, and a good cook. Rudy was a quiet, respectful guy, quick to hug and laugh. He told great stories and enjoyed athletic pursuits. He was also an alcoholic.

When Rudy drank his personality changed. He growled with anger at perceived insults, was argumentative and disagreeable. He grabbed me whenever I passed nearby and held my arms so tight that he left bruises. He pulled me to his chest and kissed my head, over and over, stroking my hair. It gave me the creeps.

He threatened my brother, called him names and made fun of him for being an intellectual. Rudy respected only his type of intelligence: mechanical skills. He could fix any engine, appliance, television or radio. When he was sober. Drunk he was useless, which is probably why he moved so often.

My family rented a miniature house a few miles away from Rudy. My dad was struggling to find full-time work. Rudy came over one evening and after quite a few drinks convinced my dad to be his courier. My dad was to go to a mail pick up spot, open the box, remove whatever was inside and deliver it to a different address each time. He was not to open the envelope or ask the name of the person receiving the package. For this Dad would be given several hundred dollars, an amount that would feed us and keep us sheltered.

I think my dad knew there was something shady about this business. After Rudy left my parents huddled together in their bedroom for a long time, the murmur of voices the only sounds we could hear. The need for money won so my dad made a few runs.

Each time he was handed a bundle of cash. The money was a wonderful gift at a time when we were desperate. But then something happened that frightened my dad and he was not easily frightened. A man was standing outside the box pickup spot, followed my dad to his car, knocked on his window and demanded the package. Dad sped away, but later noticed a car following him. A case ensued through the streets of southern California. Eventually my dad shook the tail and delivered the envelope.

When he got home he called Rudy and told him he would never do that again.

Within minutes Rudy stormed into our house. He threw his barrel chest out, bumped it into my dad and pushed Dad up against a wall. I believe that punches were thrown, but by now I was hunkering behind the couch. I heard thumps and bumps and tons of curse words.

My uncle’s bass voice reverberated against the walls. He threatened to turn my dad into the police for laundering money. He promised jail time and a long conviction. His verbal abuse continued for a long, long time.

When my dad did not give in, Rudy demanded a beer, which my mom delivered. He parked himself in our rocking chair and sat there, downing beer after beer until his words were slurred. Throughout it all, he ranged from being abusive, threatening, intimidating, and finally as the alcohol set in, he fell into uncontrollable sobs.

Shortly after that incident we moved to South San Francesco. My dad found work and things were going well. We were in school and finding our way about in the new environment.

Rudy reemerged, this time as the warm, loving bear of a man that I knew and loved. He was once again jovial, telling jokes and stories that brought guffaws. But I knew, I remembered the evil version, the threatening grizzly bear who intimidated my rock-solid dad, a man who was threatening when displeased.

If Rudy could intimidate Dad, then what could he do to me?

Even when Rudy moved back to Ohio I never forgot his temper, his strength, his posturing. The teddy bear when sober was a man-killer when drunk. I was glad that I never saw him again.