Facing Obstacles

            When I look back, I realize that many obstacles were placed in my way that I either had to overcome or ignore. Beginning with my early years, I knew that I was not my mother’s favorite and had little respect from my father. I could discount those feelings as being caused by “middle-child syndrome”, but that would be falsifying what actually happened.

            My older brother was not the jock or the mechanic that my father wanted. My mother, however, held my brother in high esteem. It often felt that in her eyes, he could do no wrong. He also had little responsibilities around the house, for she wanted his focus to be on academics.

            On the surface, that was very noble of her. She only had an eighth-grade education, so insisting that my brother graduate from high school and go on to college was admirable.

            However, she held no such regard for me. My primary function in the family was to clean. Not just my half of the room, but my brother’s room, the kitchen, front room and even wiping dust off of indoor plants. Only after those jobs were finished could I study.

            Her expectations for me were to marry as a teenager. Going to college was not encouraged or expected. When I expressed a desire to get a degree, she didn’t actively discourage me, but she also didn’t encourage me.

            Neither did my high school counselor. By the time I was looking to graduate from high school, I already had several obstacles in my way: low self-esteem, low expectations, low placement within the family, and low belief from adults as to what my future held. I fought and clawed my way through all those years of self-doubt and familial stress.

            I graduated from high school and then college with honors. Hah!

            Getting a good-paying job was equally difficult. Back in the late 1960’s women’s opportunities were just beginning to open up. Most women became teachers, nurses or secretaries. Or they got married and had children. Or they worked in elder care or as low-paid office clerks.

            I had no office skills. My typing speed was incredibly slow and I made frequent mistakes. I could file but not operate an adding machine with any accuracy. I did not know stenography and had no interest in learning. I was not pretty enough to catch a boss’s attention.

            I applied for any job that required few, if any, skills. No one would hire me because they all believed that I would leave as soon as a job opened in which college degrees were valued. They were right, but first I had to find that job.

            I tested with a temporary agency, but my skills were so low they refused to accept me into the pool.

            When the phone company announced openings, I made an appointment to take the test. My mother insisted on applying as well. I knew that I stood no chance of getting hired: who would hire someone who could only apply if their mother tagged along?

            I needed a job so that I could buy a car and rent an apartment. Living at home was stifling and restrictive. At college I had freedom to become my own person: at home I was back to being the middle child.

            Eventually I got a good-paying job with the federal government. I hated the job, but it gave me needed experience and allowed me to save money, but a car and move out! Yeah! Plus it was where I met my husband.

            After years of being told how ugly I was (by my brother and father), finding a husband seemed impossible. But when I looked at the man who would later propose, I knew he was the person I had hoped to find.

            Another obstacle overcome.

            I had never wanted a government job. I knew from the time I was quite small that becoming a teacher was my goal. Teachers were kind to me. They never called me names or made fun of me. Not all teachers saw potential in me, but at least they never ridiculed me in public. Because of this, I imagined myself in front of a classroom.

            Another obstacle: there was a glut of teachers and not enough jobs. Add in the cost of continuing education and it seemed impossible that I would ever get to teach.

            When my first child was preschool age, I searched for early childhood education that we could afford. We didn’t qualify for Head start or the county’s programs because, theoretically, we made too much money. I eventually found a preschool program through Parks and Rec that was aimed at parents. While my son was in class, I attended classes in parenting. I needed the class as much as my son needed being with others his age.

            From there I enrolled in classes at the community college, thinking that being a preschool teacher was where I should be. After completing a ton of credits, I got hired by the Rec Department to teach preschool. Yeah! Another obstacle mastered.

            It was not for me. I discovered that dancing and singing in front of tiny kids made me uncomfortable. I hated the art projects and monitoring behavior on the enclosed playground. I hated snotty noses, wet pants, and holding hands with kids who’d just smeared mucus about their faces with their fingers.

            Even though I was teaching, I quickly realized this was not my ideal job.

            I needed to return to college to get an elementary credential. We had no money for tuition. My sister-in-law offered to pay! Another obstacle met.

            After completing my program, I applied for various positions. A local Catholic school was the first, a position that I loved right away. I taught third grade, a good age for me. They had some academic skills and were already socialized and fairly well behaved.

            However, after three years there I knew I couldn’t stay. The principal stated that she loved having young teachers and had already run off two older ones. A third retired. I wanted that job, teaching seventh grade, but the principal hired a young man from outside.

            I left before I got another job.

            Obstacles arose that I had not foreseen. One public school district claimed that my Catholic school job did not prepare me for their students. If only they had listened! I had students with learning differences, students with poor behavior and disabled students.

            I began substituting in my local district. It was awful. Students mistreat subs. They won’t obey, refuse to sit and talk constantly. They laughed and jeered at my attempts to follow the lesson plans. High schoolers were the worst, but so were eighth graders at the middle school in the wealthier part of town.

            A coaching position opened up and I applied, thinking it would give me greater opportunity to be hired as a teacher. I was thrilled when I became coach, that is until the head coach began delegating her responsibilities to me. She mistreated her players, made them run until they threw up, called them names and when one young lady broke her foot, accused the girl of faking it to avoid practice. When I took my concerns to the Athletic Director, he scoffed. I left.

            In October I was told about a job in a different district, applied and was hired. I loved my sixth graders. They were not the brightest kids at the school, but most of them were excited to learn. I developed lessons to fit their needs, including a “dig” for artifacts, a hike through the neighborhood, reading to first graders and even putting together our own yearbook at the end of the year.

            The district did not rehire me because the original teacher was returning from her one-year job.

            By now I figured out that there was a need for PE teachers so I enrolled in classes at the university. I enjoyed learning about physical fitness, warmup activities and taking PE classes to fulfill requirements. I hated the training and conditioning class because I had to learn the names and functions of every bone, muscle and tendon. I’m not good at science, so I had to work extra hard. It was a huge obstacle, but I succeeded anyway.

            I still didn’t get hired, but I kept getting sent to Special Education classes. This was not how I saw myself as a teacher, but the need was great. Back to school I went.

            This time I got hired after my first interview. The one problem: I was warned that there was a difficult parent that wanted to meet me prior to the first day of school. That parent created one obstacle after another. Nothing I did pleased her even though her daughter was happy and learning. Eventually I ended up in an arbitration and then a hearing. It was awful.

            The end agreement was that I would never teach the girl again. One obstacle removed.

            Two years later an awful child was put in my class. He was so violent that an aide was hired to shadow him at all times and step in between when the kid came after me. The school psychologist also shadowed him, but none of that helped.

            The rest of the class and I spent a lot of time outdoors, regardless of weather. The boy was so violent that everyone feared that either myself or my students would get hurt. Later I learned that he got kicked out of his previous placement when he threw a desk at his teacher and broke her foot.

            The parent put up one obstacle after another. She’d want to know how his day went, but if I was honest, she got mad. If I wrote mediocre comments, she got mad. If I wrote the truth, she’d get even angrier. Again I ended up in a hearing. Again I would never have to teach the boy again.

            The district was good to me. When an opening arose at the high school, I was encouraged to apply. I was hired without an interview. I taught there for eighteen years.

            Along the way, however, the state kept changing the rules. I had to keep earning certificates in various specialties or I would lose my job. At one point I returned to college, this time completing a BA in English. To finish, I had to pass three grueling tests. I conquered that obstacle as well.

            There were familial issues along the way. A few years into our marriage my mom tried to get me to leave my husband, claiming that he wasn’t a good father to our son. My mom was controlling and at times abusive toward me. Nothing had changed from my childhood except my age.

            Add to that recurring weight issues, knee problems, and health complications, all obstacles that jumped up, getting in my way.

            The difference was that now I had confidence in myself. I knew I was smart, I knew I was capable, I knew I was loved.

            The obstacles were stubborn, however, refusing to go away. It took determination and years for me to accomplish what I had wanted to accomplish.

            I had learned that, yes, obstacles would keep popping up, but that I had the tools to get past them. So when the pandemic happened in 2020, I considered it just another thing that I could handle.

            Some people give up when an obstacle arises. Some people fight back. While I never gave up, there were times when I doubted myself due to the voices in my head.

            The one thing I learned was that life is filled with obstacles, and that if we face them, if we meet them head-on, we can succeed.

Blood Red Days

            Children aren’t supposed to get sick.  Romanticized images picture little darlings running, jumping, climbing, laughing, living life as freely as a butterfly flitting from flower to flower.  Even in prayer, when most solemn, those cherubic faces glow with rosebud color.  So it should be, forever and ever.

            Unfortunately strange diseases invade, causing any possible varieties of illness.  Most we understand.  Tonsillitis, ear infections, colds, cuts, bruises, and even the occasional broken bone fall into that realm.  Kids are susceptible to germs, primarily because they play with “germy” things, and so we expect them to fall ill. But we pray that those times are few and far between.

            When your four-year-old child’s urine turns the color of burgundy wine, however, the only normal reaction is fear.  So it was for my husband and I when it happened for the first time to our six year old daughter. 

            When it occurred, we tried not to panic so as to not alarm our daughter. What we did do was make phone calls followed by tons of doctors’ visits.   We began with our regular pediatrician who thought the bleeding was caused by a bladder infection. The prescribed dose of antibiotics seemed to work.

But then it happened again. More antibiotics were given. And then the same thing, over and over.

 We were referred to a urologist who was used to treating senior citizens who would willingly allow tubes and prodding. He had no experience with a five-year-old.

Our daughter fought him with the strength of an army, clenching shut her legs and refusing to budge. I didn’t blame her. I thought the doctor a little too interested in seeing what was between my child’s legs.

At my insistence, our pediatrician referred us to a pediatric urologist/oncologist.  Imagine the fears those words triggered. Oncology. Cancer. Curable or not? We didn’t know or understand what was happening or what the doctor would do. How he was going to make the determination as to the diagnosis? The person setting up the appointment offered no reassurance, but because the bleeding continued, we went to his office.

By the time we finally got to see him, months had passed. The color of her urine had deepened to a deep, dark red. It was frightening, not only to us, but to our daughter. Even a small child understands that urine is not supposed to be that color.

            For my daughter’s sake, we put on happy faces, attempting to disguise our deep-seated fears.  When she was out of visual range, we allowed ourselves to cry.  Of course, we prayed.

            There were days when her urine was a healthy golden color and so we tried to convince ourselves that she was cured. That the newest round of antibiotics had worked. We wept with joy and gave thanks to the Lord.  But the space between those times slowly shrunk until it was pretty much guaranteed that we would see red, and only red.

            Even the strongest antibiotics had proved to be ineffective, and so the pediatric urologist ordered x-rays to search for the still unknown cause.

            We went to Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley, California, one of the finest hospitals in the Bay Area.  For the exam, our daughter was placed on a cold, metal table.  She was given huge quantities of liquid to drink.  The x-ray machine was lowered until it hovered above her lower abdomen.  She was told to urinate, right there on the table, in front of five total strangers.  She couldn’t do it and I didn’t blame her.

            They inserted a tube to allow the urine to flow.  Pictures were taken.  We went home and waited, impatiently, to hear the results.  When they came, we were terrified and confused. Because of the way her bladder was constructed, it was unable to fully close.  Surgery was recommended to insert a tube to narrow the urethra.

            Shortly after the recommendation we drove to Children’s Hospital in Oakland, arriving just as the sun was beginning to peak over the hills.  It was a peaceful scene which helped to somewhat ease our nervousness. It was short-lived, however, for immediately after completing the required paperwork, our daughter was whisked away by an efficient, yet friendly nurse. 

            My husband paced the floor of the waiting room, talking to himself.  I prayed, placing my daughter’s life in God’s capable hands. 

            This operation was a success. Her bladder would now allow her to control the flow of urine. However, during the surgery, the doctor discovered that her ureters did not enter the bladder at the correct angle.  Not only that, but the flaps that prevented urine from moving into the kidneys were missing.  Another operation was planned.

            Despite the negative news, my husband and I eagerly took our little girl home, hoping that at least there might be some reprieve from the tinged urine.  It was not to be.

            Within hours after getting her settled, her urine had turned from a healthy golden hue to a blood red, bone-chilling liquid.  Several phone calls later, another trip to the doctor’s was scheduled.  She was again put on a regimen of antibiotics, hoping to stem off any invasion of germs that might interfere with the next operation.

            Good Friday found us, once again, in the waiting room of Children’s Hospital.   My husband paced while I pretended to read.  Both of us turned our hearts over to the Lord, begging Him to watch over our daughter. 

            In the midst of one of many recitations of the Our Father, I felt a gentle touch on my right cheek.  A calm washed over me, settling in my heart.  I nodded, and whispered, “Thanks.”  My eyes filled with tears of joy, and a smile burst through.  I knew, then and there, that everything would be fine.

            When the doctor came to us still dressed in his surgical greens, he was smiling. While he was looking inside our daughter’s bladder, he discovered a blood vessel that was weeping, something it was not supposed to do. He cauterized it, forever stopping the flow of blood into her bladder.

            Because of the severity of the operation, however, she had to spend a week in the hospital.  It was scary for us. Imagine how frightening it was for her, spending nights without her parents nearby. Our sons stayed with a relative so that my husband could go to work and I could go to the hospital.

Every day she got stronger and her urine became clearer.  I gave thanks to the Lord for giving my daughter another day of life.

            Those were trying times, for sure.  I had no choice but to rely on my faith, as even the most highly trained, respected pediatric urologist had had no idea what was wrong.

Even years later, I still believe that the Lord stood by, watching, whispering advice in the doctor’s ear.  How else did he find the exposed vessel, the incorrectly seated ureters, the missing flaps, and the enlarged end of the bladder?

            While the likelihood of her bleeding to death had been slim, she could easily have died of kidney failure.  If we had known about this earlier, we could have acted sooner.  For some reason, the Lord kept her alive long enough for medical science to rise to the occasion.

Faith kept me sane.  Faith allowed me to put aside my fears.  Faith was my constant companion. That operation solved the problem which allowed our daughter to grow up into a college graduate, wife and mother.

Love

Isn’t love marvelous?

Isn’t love grand?

Isn’t love walking

hand in hand?

Holding each other

night time and day.

Listening carefully,

avoiding most fray.

Isn’t love special?

Isn’t love fine?

Isn’t love sharing

quality time?

Graciously giving

with nary a thought.

Remembering days

and gifts to be bought.

Isn’t love wonderful?

Isn’t love great?

Isn’t love stronger than

anger and hate?

Keeping no secrets.

Holding no ire.

Kissing and hugging.

Hearts on fire.

Isn’t love brilliant?

Isn’t love fair?

Isn’t love brighter

and lighter than air?

Come to me, darling.

Arms around me tight.

I’ll kiss your sweet lips

long into the night.

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.

Life Lessons

French silk wrapped up memories

Gently formed from softened clay

Whispers blown upon the breeze

Moved by ocean’s lasting spray

Wrinkled fingers in soft caress

Rightful place upon the cheek

Erases sin and duress

Lovingly, in praise they speak

Houses lit by morning sun

Reflect a heavenly force

Flocks of angels golden spun

To guide humanity’s course

Compassion lights people’s eyes

Understanding the command

Love another is the prize

When offered by loving hand

Feelings moved by ocean’s spray

Carried home by mountain breeze

Fresh nurtured by softened clay

French silk wrapped up memories

A Thanksgiving Lesson

            I am not a particularly good cook. In fact, I am a pathetic cook because I have no interest in cooking except for the simple act of putting food on the table. I can usually follow a recipe, but there’s no guarantee that the finished product will look or taste as advertised.

            The problem goes back to my teen years when my mom insisted I learn to cook. She’d make me stand next to her and watch every move she made. It was incredibly boring. I needed to study. If I didn’t earn straight As I’d be punished. My allegiance went to books, so I’d stand next to her with book in hand.

            That meant I wasn’t paying attention. So when I was told to replicate her concoction, I couldn’t. My mom cooked from memory, not from books. Unless she wrote it down, there was no way I could produce the item. When she did record her recipes, she often left out an ingredient or a crucial step.

            One year my family decided that my husband and I should host Thanksgiving dinner. Mike is a good cook, so he took charge of the turkey and gravy, leaving me to handle the rest. I pulled out every cookbook I owned to find recipes for dressing, green beans and pumpkin and mince meat pies. I chose the easiest options.

            Things were in the oven or on the stove when my family arrived. Altogether there were fourteen hungry people crowded into our house. Fortunately we had planned snacks of cheese and crackers for that kept the kids happy and held the adults at bay while they downed mixed drinks.

            There was only about thirty minutes to go before the turkey would be done, the gravy could be made, the potatoes mashed and the green bean casserole put in the oven.

            The adults were getting restless. They had arrived with a preconceived notion of when the meal would be ready and we were not meeting their mental deadline. I was anxious. While everything looked okay, what if my concoctions didn’t meet their approval? My family could be obnoxious when disappointed, so as time ticked by and tempers began to flare, I knew things were going horribly wrong.

            Then the power went out. One moment the stove was working, the next it wasn’t. Was the turkey done? The beans? Potatoes? Everything appeared to be mostly done, but what if it wasn’t? You can eat the side dishes even if they aren’t quite finished, but you can’t serve an undercooked turkey.

            We waited for the power to return, but after thirty minutes it was obvious that it wasn’t happening. My dad and brother offered advice laced with sarcasm, almost as if it was something we had done to switch off the power.

            My husband is a calm, easy-going man. He moved the barbeque into the backyard and lit the coals. When it was ready, he placed the turkey outside. Everything else went into the still-warm oven.

            The troops, however, were impatient, frustrated and hungry. They had allotted only a certain amount of time to be at our home and that time was ending. Either food would be served or they would leave. The options were not politely phrased.

            I hung out in the kitchen pretending that I knew what I was doing and that things were in hand. Mike monitored the turkey, which meant he was outside leaving me inside getting the brunt of the criticism.

            When the turkey was finally done, I was able to breathe a tiny sigh of relief. As he cut and placed meat on a platter, I pulled everything out and got it on the table. He made the gravy and poured it into the bowl.

            Dinner was served. People sat. Grace was said. The food was edible even though most things weren’t hot. Tempers settled. A bit of peace entered the house.

            Just as the last of the dishes were being rinsed off, the power returned.

            People left, some bearing leftovers.

            The meal worked out, but never again would I host a family meal. The stakes were too high and I refused to bear the brunt of their anger when the fault lay not in something I had done, but in the failure of the power to stay on.

            Later on Mike helped me understand that things had worked out despite my nervousness and fears. After all, food had been served. No one left hungry unless by choice.

            That Thanksgiving was over thirty years ago, but it left an indelible mark. Never again, I told myself, would I host a family gathering.

            Little did I know that when my mother-in-law died that my husband’s family would decide that we would host a brunch for sixty people. I announced that I would cook nothing. I would take care of paper goods, but that was it. The family would have to prepare every dish and clean up afterwards.

            Guess what? I held to my pronouncement. When cooking was happening, I stayed out of the kitchen. I picked up no dirty dishes, washed not a single thing, refilled no snack bowls and did not monitor the ice chests of drinks. I found myself a quiet place away from the crowds and stayed there for the five hours that people were in my home.

            One failure was sufficient to keep me from ever cooking for a crowd. Even though I had had not control over the power going out, blame was still laid at my feet. If my husband’s family wanted a party, they would have to shoulder the effort. Never again would I shoulder the mantle of responsibility.

            It’s amazing how liberating it is to refuse, to loudly proclaim that I would not be in charge. If only I had applied that motto to other areas in my life, things might have been different. But that’s another story for another time.

Summer of 1964

Exactly one month after the end of my freshman year in high school, we moved.  Not just across town, but halfway across the country, from the damp climate of the Ohio Valley to the foggy San Francisco Bay Area of California.

There is some back history to the move.  During World War II my dad was stationed in San Diego, and then in San Francisco, before being shipped out to sea.  He fell in love with the mild temperatures and friendly people. He promised himself that when the war was over, he’d move to San Francisco. He never forgot his dream of someday living in such a pleasant place even though work, marriage and family delayed the move.

My family was not quite destitute, but certainly was considered low income.  We were never truly homeless, but often in between housing.  My mother did not work when we were young and this placed a major financial burden on my dad.  He sometimes worked a forty-hour week at one job and then picked up extra hours driving a cab or helping on construction projects.

 In 1963 my mother developed chronic asthma brought on by the mildew that grew in the crawlspace beneath our house.  While she was never hospitalized, there were several close calls.  After one severe attack the doctor declared that we had to move if we wanted her to live.

That was when we began planning for the trip to California.  This was well before the Internet so we made many trips to the library to gather information.  My brother and I took on the role of California experts.  We analyzed climate options, for there is a wide range, and decided that the Bay Area would be the best match for our mother’s needs.

One discovery that tingled our toes was the Community College system.  At that time the tuition was miniscule and therefore affordable even to us.  For the first time I had hope that I could become something other than someone’s wife.

As the time to move neared we sold things too bulky to take with us, gave away even more, and packed the bare essentials into our boat-like station wagon.

One morning we loaded everything into the car and literally drove away with the sun at our backs.  The car was jammed full with a family of five, the pet dog, clothing, bedding, and travel games sufficient to keep my brother and I occupied.

The early parts of our journey were boring.  We drove past one cornfield after another as we crossed Indiana and Illinois.  Colorado was much more promising with its spectacular vistas and unfamiliar trees.

All had gone reasonably well until that point. The car had performed marvelously, we’d been able to find affordable lodging and there was food to eat. Things changed when we were high in the Rocky Mountains.

Rain clouds darkened the sky.  Huge, boiling, black masses of clouds that drastically dropped temperatures and brought ripping winds that nearly blew us off the road.   Amazement at the high craggy peaks quickly turned to fear.  While we knew tornados, we were ignorant in the ways of mountain storms.

My dad persisted, however, for we had limited money for luxuries such as an extra night in a hotel or additional meals on the road.  Unfortunately, it was his persistence or stubbornness that nearly doomed our journey.

An awareness arose that mud was washing across the road.  Not just an oozing of dirt, but bubbling masses of dark brown, saturated mud that quickly covered the road, obliterating edges and lines.  My dad, the determined explorer, kept us pointing westward.  No mud was going to delay us.

We slogged on, albeit slowly, mile after mile until an avalanche blocked our path.  Rain was pounding so hard on the windshield that the wipers could not move the water fast enough for clear vision.  My Dad leaned forward, bent over the steering wheel straining to see ahead, following taillights of a vehicle in front of us. No matter how much mud was on the road, my dad kept us moving westward until traffic came to a complete halt.

My dad has never been a patient man.  He always had a hard time sitting still.  He was happiest working with his hands, building, scraping loosening, greasing, keeping busy, keeping moving. Imagine him in his thirties, which was how old he was at the time of our move.  He was brass, bold, daring, critical, mouthy, and arrogant.  While his business was an admirable quality, my dad was not a pleasant man unless things were going his way.

Dad being who he was, was flustered by the avalanche.  We could not move forward and there was no way he would turn around. Retreating would add precious travel time and expenses.  After sitting motionless for what felt like at eternity, he got out of the car, to do what, I was not sure.

He stalked over to a group of men standing under a nearby tree.  I assumed that these guys were drivers of other trapped cars, talking about what to do.  Through the rain-created haze, we watched our dad approach the men. His posture and stride were aggressive, typical of the man I knew. When he stood face-to-face with the men, we could see, but not hear, his lips move. His gestures were angry and accusatory, very familiar to me as I was often a victim of his ire.

Eventually my dad returned, not with a solution, but with extreme anger. Using a bevy of foul swear words he explained that the wall of mud completely covered the road.  No one could get through from either direction.  We were stuck just like all the other drivers. My dad despised helplessness in others, so imagine his anger at being the one who could do nothing to change our circumstances. He tortured the steering wheel, my mother and myself and my siblings since there was no one else that he could attack.

I have no idea how much time passed while we huddled inside our car, but my older self believes that it was possibly no more than an hour.  My brother and I knew to keep silent but our sister played with her dolls, singing and talking and laughing. I feared that she would bring Dad’s anger down on me, for it was my responsibility to watch over her. Obviously, I wasn’t doing my job.

 My mother, ever the nag, didn’t help when she began calling my dad a series of disgusting names.  The tension was horrendous as I knew that Dad would explode and that someone would get hurt.

Just as his arm swung out to smack my mom a loud roar erupted not too far from us.  Through our foggy windows, we watched mesmerized as a large truck moved out of line.  It crossed over into the opposite lane which was empty, thanks to the slide.  When the truck was parallel to our car it suddenly stopped.

All of a sudden there was another roar and then the truck shot forward.  It went up and over the mound of mud with the grace of a gazelle leaping a small hill.

That did it.  My dad’s male ego was seriously threatened.  If that truck could climb the hill of muck, then our station wagon could do the same. 

  If I had known what I do now about weight and trajectory and propulsion, I would have calculated that we could never make it over the mud hill.  Even if I had known all those things, it would not have deterred my dad’s intention to match the truck driver’s bravado.

Following the truck’s example, my dad pulled us out of the line of cars.  He positioned us into the still empty lane.  He wiggled us back and forth until we were aligned with the hill of mud.  He put the car into forward gear, jammed the gas pedal, and when he was sufficiently satisfied with the sound of the engine, took his foot off the brake.

We shot forward.  The force of the movement plastered us to the back of our seats, much like being on an accelerating roller coaster.

The car approached the wall of mud which was now clearly visible despite the continuing downpour.  My eyes must have grown huge when I saw that it was taller than our car.  In fact, it was so tall that I could not see over it and so wide that Icould not see around it.

Determined to succeed, my dad kept the gas pedal glued to the floor.  Our front tires touched the mud noticeably raising the front of the car.  My view changed from mud to blackened sky in a matter of seconds.

All of us, including my dad, whooped and hollered.  We raised our hands in the air and envisioned us cresting the hill and the victorious descent to the other side.

That didn’t happen, however, because instead of climbing the hill, we came to an abrupt halt, heads still pointing skyward, our bodies still melded into the seats.  Nothing worked to move us forward, not my dad’s cussing nor his attempts at accelerating us up and over.

Exhilaration rapidly turned to fear when there was a slight shift in our position.  We weren’t moving upward. We were sinking into the muck.

My view of sky became a view of mud. I realized that we were now even with the crest of the hill. That was not the end. Instead, our car continued to sink, more and more, until we stopped with nothing but mud in front, behind and on both sides.

My dad pounded the steering well as he swore like the sailor he had been. Eventually he turned off the engine and pushed opened the door.  Mud oozed in, covering the floor of the front of the car.  To prevent that from happening, my dad stepped out into the mud and pushed the door closed. 

He moved away by lifting his feet uncomfortably high. As he did so, mud coated his legs to slightly above his knees.

My dad slogged his way back to the men under the tree.  It must have been humiliating for him to admit defeat, but he had no choice.  His family was trapped in a car surrounded by mud.

We sat for what felt like an eternity, but was probably no more than twenty minutes.  During this time, the rain slackened.  No longer a deluge, it fell softly on the windshield, making only tiny dots. I anxiously awaited my dad’s return, not knowing what his mood would be and who he would blame for our predicament. It could be me even though I had kept quiet the whole time, but that was the way in our family: someone had to pay.

When our dad finally returned, he wasn’t smiling, but the angry look was gone. He reported that the wall of mud had stopped growing and sliding.  Because he could now see over the top, my dad had seen a tow truck that was already working on the other side.  It appeared that it was going to plow a passage through the mud and all we had to do was sit and wait.

I still remember the excitement when the flashing lights atop the tow truck became visible. Their whoosh-whoosh lit up the sky as gloriously as fireworks on the Fourth of July.  My heart pounded with barely contained excitement.

Imagine my reaction when the mud began moving.  It was hard to tell the difference first because the change was so slow, but as the revolving lights seemed to move closer, the texture of the mud hill changed well.  It bulged.  It bubbled.  It slid.  It separated like Moses dividing the Red Sea.

The plow appeared first, popping up out of the muck like a chick from an egg.  Then came the grill and in quick succession, the hood, the windshield, and eventually the rest of the truck.

The tow truck had managed to clear a good portion of the road. It didn’t stop there, but instead turned around, prepared to plow through from our side. Before it took off, my dad got out of our car and began yelling at the driver of the truck.  When the driver got out, I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. If my dad started a fight, we’d be stuck. If somehow, he could present himself as a clam, reasonable man, then maybe the driver would help.

When the two of them walked around our car as best as they could while slugging through the mud, I breathed a sigh of relief. My dad must have been calm or the driver would not be walking with my dad.

When the inspection seemed to be finished, my dad got back in the car. He told us to put a halter on the dog and get out.  All of us. In the mud! 

A normal person might have been horrified, but not me. I was excited!  To have permission to get filthy dirty was a glorious thing, even though I was a teenager. 

Stepping out into the mud was better than a birthday gift or the discovery of a dime from the Tooth Fairy or even the baskets of candy from the Easter Bunny.  If I had known about the Richter scale, I would have placed this at monstrous earthquake strength.

I didn’t step gingerly or make disgusting girlish faces.  My sister did both, but not me.  I smiled. No, I beamed brighter than the sun, which was now peeking through the clouds.

I planted a foot in the muck and then another, and another, and another, walking proudly, even as it clung to my shoes and ankles and legs.  My heart soared with joy.  A balloon never flew as high as I did that day!

Once we were safely away from the car, the tow truck maneuvered into position in front of us by pushing the mud this way and that.  Once it was lined up with the front of our car, it lowered its contraption until it fit under the front end of our car.  The driver employed a series of straps and chains, and then engaged a motor. Slowly, the car arose, like King Neptune rising out of the sea. What a glorious site that was!

Once the car was in the air the truck did what is was supposed to do: it pulled us through the muck to the other side.

There was no fanfare from the watching crowds.  Instead, for the first time, I realized that the other drivers were jeering and pointing and slapping backs.  When I looked at my dad’s face, I saw humiliation.  Arrogance no longer sat on his shoulders, replaced by a profound embarrassment.

I learned a few things from watching my dad.  Bravado has its place and time.  Self-assurance is a good thing, only when tempered by a voice of reason.  Safety of family must always be first.  Competition is healthy, when appropriate.  Keeping an eye to the prize only works when flexibility is allowed to overrule potentially stupid actions.

More than anything, I knew that I would never forget that day in the summer of 1964.  And I haven’t.

Awakening

Awakening

When my eyes closed,
Your image remained
For hours and hours
Afterward

You walked my dreams
Blessed me with love
For hours and hours
Through the night

Your arms held me
Your kisses bathed me
For hours and hours
With tenderness

When I awoke
You were at my side
For minutes and minutes
In unity

In awe I stared
Into your eyes
For seconds and seconds
Holding you  

We drift through time
In loving moments
For years and years
To eternity

Childhood Joys

  

well-loved children with sparkling eyes,

rosy cheeks, and happy smiles

glittering with unbounded joy

freely bestowing generous hugs and

warm kisses that leave cheeks glistening

with reminders of their passing.

laughter peels from hallway rooms,

giggles rising to the gloriously blue sky,

caressing souls, nourishing hearts

better than steak and potatoes

or a well-read book.

warm arms, tickling fingers

and conversations uninhibited by age.

playground games fairly played

indoors under the watchful eyes

of guardian parents, checking safety,

guarding friendships from the

ills of sibling rivalry.

growing up together in love.

meals broken and shared.

prayers offered with heartfelt sincerity.

special times protecting doors

to teenage rebellion, that tears

families apart, breaking hearts

and erasing the good times shared.

for now, though, life is good.

quiet times of reflection broken only

by stories told and songs sung.

well-love children with sparkling eyes,

rosy cheeks, and happy smiles

glittering with unbounded joy.

Normality

Keep those vampires away from me

No deadly bites to set me free

No living for eternity

 

Stop all attacks from mutant men

Whose strength and power rate a “ten”

I’ll never need to call on them

 

Goblins and ghosts can travel far

Above all creatures, without par

But my life, they need never mar

 

No superheroes in my face

No spirits hurrying my pace

No aliens crowding in my space

 

Normality is always fine

I prefer to walk on the line

To me, this is the life divine