Kitchen Disaster

            When we got married, my cooking repertoire consisted of things from boxes, cans or the freezer. I could fry an egg, but not make a hard-boiled one with any consistency. My grilled cheese sandwiches weren’t too bad as long as I stayed focused and kept it from burning.

            My specialty was a fried bologna sandwich. I used only one slice of the lunchmeat, which was cooked in a hot skillet. It had to be turned frequently to keep it from burning. While it was getting hot, in a separate skillet I fried an egg. If I was diligent, the yolk would preferably be a bit soft.

            When done, I’d layer the bologna, the egg and a slice of American cheese on two slices of cheap white bread. I loved it.

            I knew that my new husband wouldn’t want to come home from work to fried bologna, so when I found an offer for a free cookbook on a soup can label, I sent away for it before our wedding date.

            Every recipe looked easy. All relied on some flavor of soup. I had tried a few before our wedding, with mixed results. The meatloaf was excellent but most of the vegetable dishes came out overdone and soggy.

            I wanted to impress my husband with a hot meal. After turning page after page in the cookbook, I decided to make a stuffed zucchini casserole. I liked zucchini, ground beef and whatever flavor of soup required.

            I followed the recipe exactly. It looked pretty good arranged in the baking dish.

            Feeling fairly pleased with myself, when I got home from work the next night, I heated the oven while I changed clothes. When it was ready, I removed the dish from the refrigerator and slid it into the oven. Closed the door. Heard a loud cracking sound.

            Imagine my dismay when I saw the damage. The dish had separated into two pieces, evenly divided down the middle. Shards were imbedded into the squash. It was ruined.

            I broke into tears. My hopes of presenting my husband with an original homecooked meal were as shattered as the dish.

            Not knowing what I could prepare, I searched the cabinets and the freezer. I was still looking when he came home.

            Being the good person that he was and still is, when he saw what had happened, he gave me the biggest hug, then proceeded to cook dinner.

            I never attempted the stuffed squash again even though my husband had explained what I had done wrong. You see, the dish was not meant to go from refrigerator to oven. A more expensive version would have been capable of handling temperature changes. This was a cheap one. I hadn’t known the difference.

            It wasn’t the last cooking disaster, but it had a long-lasting impact.

Cooking Malfunctions

            My mother tried to teach me how to cook, but I was not interested. She made me sit next to her while she prepared the meal, but I did so with a textbook in my hands.

            When I left for college, I could fix a sandwich, and that was it. Because I lived in a dorm my first year, I had no need to cook. The next year I applied for and was accepted into a house operated by the Soroptimist League. There were ten girls in my house, ten more in the second. We took turn cooking.

            At first, I opened cans of soup and offered plain white bread and oleo. This did not go over well with my housemates who were used to more elaborate meals. I found an easy-to-use cookbook in the university book store. It became my bible.

            Even armed with recipes, however, my staple ingredient was hamburger as that was all I could afford. I served hamburgers and meatloaf. Past with ground beef. Eggs with hamburger patties. They complained so badly that I was not permitted to return the next year.

            My senior year I moved into a complex for older students. I shared a suite with three women. We ate no meals together, a huge relief. I still relied on cans of soup and vegetables, eggs and toast, jelly and hamburger.

            My brother, who attended the same university, heard about a dented can store. We became regulars. I bought boxes easy-to-fix pastas, cake mixes, pancake mix, bisquick mix and a variety of canned goods. My meal options improved considerably.

            After college, when I could afford my own apartment, my repertoire was still limited to what came out of cans and boxes. My boyfriend introduced me to frozen, battered fish. He cooked most of our dinners, thankfully, as he was great with a barbeque. All went well until after we married.

            I now had a variety of cookbooks for the cooking-impaired. Searching for something new, I came across a stuffed zucchini that seemed doable. I prepared it the night before, put it in the refrigerator. The next night I heated the oven and put in the dish. It cracked, ruining the meal. I cried.

            I fixed pancakes that weren’t done, bacon that was fried to a crisp, overcooked vegetables and dry biscuits. My husband, being a good sport, never complained.

            Over the years I continued to ruin food. We bought a house that had a pear tree in the backyard. I made a pear cake that was so bland that it was inedible. I made pear jam that was equally bad. We also had an orange tree that I used to make somewhat edible cakes and jams.

            I relied on sales and additional cookbooks that I found at thrift stores. The first time I fixed game hens, they were pink inside. Every time I cooked chicken, unless it swam in sauce, it was the same.

            I made a pretty decent meatloaf and using boxed pizza dough mix, got pretty good there, as long as you didn’t mind thin, soggy dough.

            I quit experimenting and relied on those meals that I could prepare with some degree of success. Unlike naturals cooks, I never knew if there was enough salt, seasoning, water, or too much of all of them. I could not substitute or vary the recipe in any way.

            My family almost always ate what I prepared, but the nights when my husband cooked, they devoured the meal.

            No one went hungry except by choice, even when the meal was barely edible.

            When my husband retired eighteen years ago, he took over cooking. What a relief!

Since then, I have never prepared a meal for anyone except myself. I can microwave veggie burgers and frozen lunches. I tried cutting my own mangoes, but I found it easier to buy them pre-cut.

            Prepared salads are a staple in my diet, along with yogurt, fresh fruit and microwavable oatmeal.

            I do wonder what would happen to us if something prevented my husband from fixing dinner. Most likely I’d get in the car and go buy something from a restaurant. And if I can’t drive anymore, I’d learn how to use a food-delivery app on my phone.

            My family survived my cooking disasters. If I ever have to return to cooking, we’d survive again, although relying on already prepared food.

The Invitation

            I was not a popular kid. I never received a single card on Valentine’s Day even though we were supposed to give one to every classmate. I attended no birthday parties and was never invited over on a play date.

            I don’t blame the other kids. I was a deeply unhappy, troubled girl who couldn’t hide those feelings. My face was in a perpetual frown. My lips were thin white lines. My eyes fought to restrain the tears that poured seemingly on their own accord. I never smiled, laughed or even when on the playground, ran about as joyfully as others.

            At that time, I would have been labelled a sad-sack. I was Grumpy the Dwarf from Cinderella.  I was the cartoon character who went about with storm clouds overhead. I was Eeyore.

            Later when I became a teacher, I understood how my own teachers had failed me. In today’s world a miserable student like myself would have been referred to a school nurse or the psychologist or even Child Protective Services. The stories I could have told would most likely have landed me in a foster home. But that never happened.

            Instead, I moped my way through school, the kid no one invited to anything.

            Until one day in fourth grade a girl handed me a pretty card. She watched with bright eyes as I opened it and read. She wanted me to come to her house for a sleepover!

            I didn’t want to go but my mother insisted. She took me to the store to buy new underwear and pajamas, toothbrush and toothpaste. She made me call the girl and tell her I was coming, get the details as to what time to arrive and what time my mother was to pick me up the next day.

            As time drew near, I became increasingly anxious. I’d never slept anywhere but home. I was terrified about the logistics: where would I sleep, would I have to brush my teeth in front of others and what would happen when I had to go to the bathroom.

            I feigned illness when it was time to leave. My mother made me go.

            To my surprise there were four other girls there. None of them were friends as I had none, but all were in my class. I knew their names, but had never spoken to them.

            We gathered in the girl’s bedroom, clustered on her twin bed. Because I was the last, I got the foot of the bed. I barely fit.

            I don’t remember much about what happened that night, except for the magazine. The girl brought out one of her mother’s magazines. The girls passed around the magazine, taking turns ogling the models and the fashions. All went fairly well until they decided to read the stories.

            The only one I remember was a test to see if you were a lesbian. I didn’t know the term, so had no idea what it meant. As they took turns reading the “signs”, I realized that I fell into that category.

            I had no interest in boys (although, truth be told, I had none in girls either). I was a tomboy with muscles instead of a girly figure. And, worst of all, dark hair on my arms and legs.

            The girls began teasing me, calling me names and scooting as far away from me as possible. Although no one pushed me off the bed, I somehow ended up on the floor.

            The teasing was so bad, so insistent and so cruel that I ran downstairs and told the mother that I was ill and needed to go home. She must have called my mother.

            While I feared my mother and really didn’t like being with her, when her car pulled into that driveway, I was very happy to leave.

            Looking back, I wonder if the girls hadn’t set me up. If they hadn’t planned on taunting me. If that hadn’t been the only reason that they had invited me.

            After the disastrous party, the girls returned to treating me the way they had before. They never spoke to me, played with me, invited me to parties.

            That one invitation could have opened doors for me. Instead, it solidified my place in elementary school society. How sad!

Stepping Out

            When I transferred to the University of Southern California at the end of my freshman year of college, I had no idea what to expect. I had visited no college campuses during my last year of high school, had never seen a residence hall (we called them dorms in the 1970s), and had chosen a major in math just because I found it easy.

            USC was not my first choice. I really wanted to go to Ohio State and live with my grandmother. I didn’t know if her neighborhood was safe, how far she lived from the campus and whether or not public transportation could get me there. My primary purpose was to escape my dysfunctional family. Going to Ohio was about as far away from California as I thought my parents would let me go. Plus, I figured, living with Grandma would give my parents peace of mind.

            They refused.

            Thanks to a full scholarship from the State of California, I could attend any college in the state, tuition-free. I wanted San Francisco State College because they had an excellent teacher-preparation program. I had always dreamed of being a teacher as the classroom was the one safe place where I wouldn’t be hit, spanked, or ridiculed. Teaching, was to me, an honored profession, something to aspire to.

My parents thought differently. They believed that I didn’t have it in me to teach. Intellectually, socially, psychologically. Considering had backwards I was back then, they were right. So, once again, my parents refused. The excuse they gave was that they didn’t want me living on campus and they were terrified of public transportation Their fears made no sense to me.

            My brother also received the state scholarship. He applied to and was accepted to USC as an Engineering major. Because my brother would be there, that was the only college my parents would allow me to attend.

            When September rolled around, my parents drove us down to Los Angeles. My first glimpse of USC was of towering, impressive-looking buildings. Everything was huge. So huge that I saw myself drowning. But I nodded, telling myself that I wouldn’t let that happen.

            After unloading my brother’s stuff at his dorm, I was taken to mine. My room was on the fourth floor, with a great view of what I learned was called the quad.

I wasn’t dismayed by the tiny size of the room as I had been sharing a comparably-sized room with my sister for most of my life.

There were things about it that I liked: the closet was the right width for my limited wardrobe. The bed looked like a couch until it was pulled out from the wall. It was comfortable enough, but then I was only eighteen and so thought anything that wasn’t a floor was okay.

I had a desk and shelves. Wall space to decorate. And more drawers than I’d ever had.

Everything about my new living situation pleased me except for the trek required to get to the communal bathroom. Sharing a bathroom for private affairs was a bit of a shock. But I was okay because it wasn’t home.

My roommate was a haughty, unfriendly rich girl. Her mother arrived every week with a rack of brand-new clothes with tags on and wrapped in plastic bags. A hair dresser appeared like clockwork every few weeks and cut her hair in our room! I couldn’t imagine such wealth until I’d come face-to-face with it.

Shortly after classes began, my brother decided to pledge a fraternity. I seriously doubt that he knew any more about fraternities than I did about sororities. We knew no one who had gone to college and so had no experience with pledging and all that entailed. I wasn’t going to let that stop me. I figured that if he could do it, so could I.

He got accepted into the house that later I learned was for nerds. It wasn’t his first choice. He’d yearned to be at the jock house even though he wasn’t a jock. The only fraternity that accepted my brother was the one for the smart, geeky guys that couldn’t get in anywhere else. Despite the disappointment, my brother grew to love it. For the first time in his life, he was surrounded with nonathletes whose academic goals were lofty.

Next door was a beautiful southern-style building that was home to a sorority affiliated with my brother’s fraternity. They called themselves Little Sisters.

I convinced a rather plain looking girl whom I had befriended in the dorm to go through rush with me. We spent many dinners at that sorority, hoping to be accepted. Looking back now, I bet the sisters laughed at my wide-open eyes each time I sat to eat.

It was my first experience sitting at an exquisite dinner table with rows of utensils on both sides of the plate. Tablecloth and stark white linen napkins. Getting gussied up for a meal. Surrounded by pleasant conversation swirling about. It must have shown, yet they invited me back, time after time.

I was overwhelmed each time. There was no arguing, no belittling, no being punched or kicked or smacked.

I badly wanted to be there, to be one with this wonderful group of young women. My friend was eventually dropped. I understood, even though it made me angry. Her face was covered by acne scars, so many that her skin was permanently dimpled. Her voice was nasally and her wardrobe was as inferior as mine. She was hurt when she was asked not to return. Even so, she encouraged me to continue to try to be accepted.

As time passed, in order to prove my worthiness, I had to participate in a series of activities. The first was a fashion show for a group of women donors. We had to wear our own clothes.

That’s when I noticed how badly I fit in.

The others had designer outfits. Tailored dresses for all occasions. Perfectly cut pants with matching blazers. Scarves and expensive-looking jewelry. Casual clothes that spoke of money.

Only my underwear came from a store: my mother had made every dress, skirt and blouse.

Prior to the show we practiced sashaying down a pretend runway. I was awkward to say the least. I blushed at the thought of swaying my hips. I had difficulty breathing just thinking about parading in front of anyone. (I’d never done that at home as my mother thought such behavior was vulgar.)

Two days before the show we had to submit a 3×5 card with detailed descriptions of each of our three outfits. We were supposed to name the designer, the fabric, the trims, the details so as to wow the audience.

What was I to do? Name my mother? The cheap cotton of my dress? The discount fake-lace and ribbon? I tried to “sick” my way out of the show, but was told that it was a condition of my potential acceptance into the house.

The day arrived. I carried over my arm an A-line dress made of white cotton, trimmed with fake gold around the neck, a plaid plain-looking skirt with a matching cotton blouse and the only pantsuit I had, a bright orange cotton, bell-bottom affair that probably glowed in the dark.

Behind the stage we were given racks to hang our clothes. Except for high school PE, I had never changed in front of other girls. As I watched them get dressed in their first outfits, I realized that they were skinny and I was fat. There was no way I’d fit in with these girls!

I picked up my clothes to make a hasty exit, but the house mother blocked my way. I was told that under no terms was I told I had to go out on that stage.

With tears in my eyes, I put on the dress and stood in line. Slowly it inched forward as impeccably dressed girls went before me. When only two girls were before me, I had a clear view of the stage, the walkway and the room. To my eyes, I believed there were at least one hundred richly dressed women in the room.

My turn came. I took a deep breath, squared my shoulders and walked out on that stage. As instructed, I stopped next to the emcee. As she read the description of my homemade dress, I felt my cheeks blush and my eyes fill with tears.

I knew by then that I didn’t belong there, that I would never belong and that I was foolish to think that I could. However, I couldn’t runaway, so I took a deep breath and stepped out.

I did not sashay. I did not swirl or twirl or even plant my hands on my hips. I did not stop when I got to the end, but spun around and not-quite dashed to the back of the stage.

I changed into my next outfit, knowing that it only served to show how very poor I was. When my turn came, I stepped out once again. And then did the same for my third outfit.

When the fashion show part of the luncheon ended, we found seats at the tables, surrounded by wealthy women. I don’t remember the meal, but I am willing to bet that I ate nothing. I probably only offered cursory responses if anyone bothered to speak to me. I probably sat there with tears streaming down my face.

On the way back to campus, I berated myself for being so foolish to think that I could be a part of a sorority. My poverty, my poor upbringing, my complete lack of exposure to wealth, meant that if I was invited to join, it would only be because they needed a poor girl as a token representation of their efforts to diversify.

Stepping out on that stage was one of the most difficult things I’d done, but I did it.

Being Considered

            Until recently, I’d never given much thought to how many times those words pop up.

            For many of us, it began when we were quite young. “Being considered” to acceptance into a private elementary school. In some religions, you are “considered” for participation in Holy Sacraments.

            You’re “considered” when applying for a scholarship, job or internship. Same when trying to get your first credit card as well as when purchasing a car or home.

            Admittance into the college of your choice requires a waiting period while you are “being considered”.

            Over and over throughout life we sit around, waiting impatiently, as our merits are being weighed. Are we smart enough, talented enough, skilled enough? Even though physical appearance is not supposed to be a defining characteristic, it is if your skin color isn’t right or you weigh too much or aren’t “manly” or “womanly” enough for whatever image the college/job/internship wants to project.

            At my age I thought I was well past “being considered”. I’m a retired wife, mother and grandmother. I’m not trying to join any clubs or organizations. I have my routines that are familiar and comfortable. I’m not looking for adventure. I just want to be accepted as a write.

            This week I received a welcome email from a literary magazine that I’d been longing for. A story I’d submitted was “being considered” for publication, contingent on my making the recommended edits.

            Of course, I made the changes and resubmitted the story, knowing full well that it will still fall into the category of “being considered”.

            Ever since I began sending out stories, I’ve sat, with baiting breath, hoping to “be considered”. It’s what every writer dreams of. Knowing that someone, somewhere, sees value in what you’ve written and wants to include it in some type of publication.

            So, I won’t complain about “being considered”. Instead I will count my blessings as I wait, with fingers crossed, for the next word.

Wedding Fears

            I did not grow up dreaming of my future wedding. In fact, I swore that I’d never marry. Growing up in a dysfunctional home, one where my parents seldom spoke civilly to each other and to me, my impression of marriage was quite bleak.

            On top of that, I didn’t read romance novels or buy teen magazines that offered dating advice. Wearing a fancy one-use dress didn’t appeal to me. Walking down the aisle while everyone watched terrified me.

            I didn’t want to be beholden to someone like my mom was to my dad. She had to beg him for money and then turn in receipts to show where the money went. When I got older, I understood: my mom would have spent every dime. My dad had that privilege.

            If he wanted a “new” car, he’d buy it. When stereos appeared on the market, he bought one of those. He replaced car after car, stereo system after system. Too bad if my mom needed new shoes. I was embarrassed the first time I saw her wearing shoes she’d retrieved from a dumpster.

            Arguing was a sport in my house. My mom yelled at me. My brother and sister did as well. Mom reported any behaviors she found disagreeable to my dad. When he came home from work, he’d yell at me or beat me. And then he’d lecture my mom for being such a poor parent.

            My mom chased Dad with cast iron skillets, trying to whack him on the side of the head. My brother kicked me in the stomach and squeezed my arms so tightly that he left bruises. My sister would swing her legs back and forth, over and over, striking my legs with her corrective shoes. Between them all, I had bruises over much of my body.

            Why would I marry? Why would I ever bring children into the world? It was the furthest thing from my mind.

            Until I met Mike.

            When my eyes connected with his, my world turned upside down. His face lit up, his blue eyes sparkled and his body posture, casual, not stiff, drew me in.

            We became work partners and often accompanied each other out on cases. Both of us were shy and quiet, so there wasn’t a lot of conversation. His calmness, his quietness, was a relief. Every moment spent with Mike was a joy.

            Within a month of dating, we were engaged. Six months later we married.

            In the interim I had to plan the whole thing, and not knowing anything about marriage etiquette, I was in way over my head. I also had almost no money to buy a dress, veil, flowers, rent a hall and buy food for guests.

            Mike helped, thank goodness, but he knew about as much as I did.

            I was terrified the entire time, afraid that I would make such a hug mistake that he would change his mind.

            I visited a few bridal shops and soon found out that I couldn’t afford a store-bought dress. My mom was an excellent seamstress, so off we went to the fabric store. We picked out clearance fabric and trim, then a pattern that met my requirement’s: simple in style and that covered my upper body. Not too long, not too short.

            I discovered a bridal shop in a lower-income area that had a veil that would do. I wanted nothing long and dramatic. No pins to hold it in place. No frills around my head. Pretty much a duplicate of what I wore for my First Communion.

            Finding an affordable hall was a challenge. I made call after call until one fell into my price range. It was a dismal place. Very little lighting and a million dust motes. A plain slab floor. Scarred and scuffed pretend wood walls. But it was available and affordable.

            I bought flowers; the smallest bouquets possible. Just enough for the altar. Nothing grand or glorious. Food was either made by my mom or purchased in bulk. We sliced salami and bologna, roast beef and cheeses. Made tiny meatballs and spread crackers on cheap tinfoil platters. Deviled eggs filled the refrigerator, and the day before, we diced fruit for an army.

            Plastic tablecloths and bland napkins, plates and utensils.

            During my free time, I copied songs from the radio onto Mike’s 8-track tape player. That was the music for our wedding.

            Mike’s family helped out. His brother bought watermelon to serve as fruit bowls. Jell-O salads were made by his sisters. I know that they bought more, but I was too scared to pay much attention. Oh! And our guests brought food as well.

            The reception was more like a family potluck.

            Mike and I decided which vows to memorize and attended mandatory pre-marriage classes given by the Catholic Church. He knew Bishop Cummins from his school days at Bishop O’Dowd High School, so Mike asked him to officiate. We both knew Phil Josue, a good friend with an excellent singing voice. We paid for the organist, but it was Phil who brighten our marriage.

            I forgot to mention that I didn’t know what kind of fabric bridesmaids wore, so I picked out the most god-awful green taffeta with white polka dots. At the time, I thought it was pretty, but the main reasons I chose if was because it was cheap and there was plenty of it.

            Then I made them wear white wide-brimmed bonnets with green ribbons. The best part was that Mike’s sister Pat made the bouquets. They were beautiful.

            Prior to the wedding ceremony, Mike told me repeatedly that no one would care what he wore: they’d be looking at me. So I made his side wear white tuxedos with frilly shirts. Poor guys!

            When the day arrived, I was a nervous wreck. The evening before my family had descended on the hall, decorating what little we could, and dropping the food off in the hall’s refrigerator.

            Standing in the vestibule, seeing how many had come to see us wed, my heart pounded. I grew faint and felt like I was going to topple over. The march started and off I went, fingertips brushing my dad’s arm. He had reluctantly allowed me to marry Mike despite my mother’s objections. I would have preferred to walk myself down the aisle, without the guy who’d ridiculed me and beaten me, but convention called for Dad.

            Seeing all those eyes on me, made things worse. By the time I was handed over to Mike, I was seeing spots. Breathing was hard. My mind froze. I didn’t understand a word Bishop Cummins said. When Mike recited his vows and they weren’t the ones we’d agreed on, I tried to memorize the syllables as they came out of his mouth. My turn came, I did my best. We were married. I could breathe.

            Walking with Mike down the aisle brought tears to my eyes. My fears receded. I was no longer property of the people who’d mistreated me. I was not Mike’s property either. That was something we’d discussed. I was married to a man who loved me for who I was and who I would become.

            While getting married was one of the most terrifying events of my life, when it was over, I was the happiest person on earth.

Vacation Turmoil

            When I transferred to USC at the end of my freshman year of college, I went as a math major. I enrolled in Russian language classes as that was seen as necessary for the field. It turned out that I was pretty good at it.

            Not surprising, I guess considering that I grew up reading and speaking Latin at church. My high school in Ohio offered Latin, a class that I excelled at. I would have continued the study, but when we moved to California, it was not offered.

            I switched to Spanish, a language that I found extremely easy to learn. I completed three years, then when I enrolled at the community college, chose Spanish once again. The professor told me to switch to a higher level of Spanish, which I did. I aced that course, but that was the highest level the school offered.

            I didn’t want to return to Spanish in college, so that’s how I ended up taking Russian.

            Every semester I took another Russian class, not just language, but also in literature. I fell in love with the characters and stories that opened up a whole new world to me.

            That was when my dream began to one day go to Russia.

            I would have continued my degree program in Math, but the department chair destroyed that for me. This was in the 1960s, well before women fought to study whatever subject interested them. The chair told me that no company would ever hire me no matter that I was a straight A student.

            Disheartened, I realized that I had to switch to something that would still allow me to graduate on time. My only option was Russian.

            In time I passed every class the department offered. My spoken Russian was a bit rough, but I could read and write perfectly.

            My professors encouraged me to apply to grad school. I was accepted at the University of Illinois. The professors there wanted to meet me, so I spent what little money I had to fly back there.

            When I walked into the office, I was greeted by five Russian speaking professors. My mouth froze. Nothing came out. I felt and looked like an idiot. I realized then that I would never be able to get a Masters or even a PhD.

            My next humiliation came when I interviewed to be a Resident Advisor in the residence halls, the only way I could afford to go there.

            I was humiliated when I couldn’t answer question after question.

            I flew home knowing that I had no job offer and with no money, would be forced to return to the family home. A place where I was humiliated on a daily basis.

            Back at USC, my spirits soared when a flyer appeared inviting everyone to a talk by the Peace Corps.  I excitedly went, thinking that I could get posted in Russia!

            After listening to the talk, I left full of hope that I’d get to see the country I’d be dreaming about.

            I applied. Submitted all the documents, including health reports. I was turned down. Not because I couldn’t do the job, but because I’d had major surgery on my right wrist in which a chunk of bone had been amputated. The recruiter told me that I would be a liability.

            After graduation I set my sights on being a translator. I imagined myself traveling with visitors from Russia, going with them to Disneyland and other fun places. There happened to be an office near where I lived.

            I applied. However, when I was asked to come for an interview, I quickly found out that my Russian was so formal that I couldn’t speak in informal situations.

            At that point I thought I’d never get to Russia. Until I heard about the military language school in Monterey.

            I enlisted in the Army Reserve as a language specialist. I figured I’d put in time until I could get into the language school.

            Working as a translator for the Army was harder than I’d expected. I was given piles of intelligence documents to translate. One assignment was to try to figure out how many telephone poles there were in certain areas of Russia. That proved to be nearly impossible and incredibly boring. I was the only one in my division who knew Russian, so I worked alone in a dank, stuffy cubicle.

            Meanwhile I applied to the school in Monterey. I was denied.

            Realizing at that point that I’d never make it to Russia, I requested a transfer to the photograhy lab, a place I learned to love.

            In fact, the skills I picked up there led to a part-time job as a photographer. Also a number of ribbons at the county fair. I still love taking photos today.

            I married and became a mother to three wonderful children. Times were often tough financially. Sometimes there was no money for milk. I watered down juices, bought off-label canned and boxed foods, and mixed powered milk in with the jugged. Clothes came from thrift stores and our cars were well used.

            There was no way I would ever get to Russia, although I still harbored that dream.

            And then in 2020 a deal came up with a cruise company that would achieve that dream! We paid for our tickets, applied and paid for our visas, then began thinking about all the wonderful things we’d see.

            Two months before our trip, the pandemic brought all travel to an end.

            The company cancelled the cruise, but allowed us to transfer funds to the same trip in 2021.

            That was also cancelled because of omicron. Once again we were allowed to transfer to the 2022 trip. Our visas are only good for three years, so if we didn’t go to Russia this year, we lose our money.

            Here we are less than two months away from going to Russia and Putin invades Ukraine.

            We hurt for the people of Ukraine and are sickened by what Russia is doing. How dare Putin take over a democratic country! How dare he cut off Ukraine on three sides and send in his masses of military might!

            We want to cancel the trip. We’d like to visit Russia someday, but there’s no way that I want my tourist dollars going to Putin’s country.

            However, we have to wait for the cruise company to cancel or we would take a huge financial hit. We may have to do that anyway.

            It’s sad to have held on to that dream for over fifty years only to have it dashed by a power-hungry despot.

            Maybe someday, long after this war is over, we might think about going to Russia, but I don’t think so. I don’t see us reapplying for visas and without them, we can’t go.

            My story is one of a dream denied. Not as serious as lives killed and a country overrun, but on a small scale, devasting.

My Love of Music

            I bought my first radio when I was in Middle School. It had taken a long time to save up the money as my allowance was only twenty-five cents a week, ten of which had to go to the church.

            When my brother discovered Grit magazine, a weekly newspaper, I was able to earn more money. We went door-to-door trying to get subscribers. When the papers were dropped off at our house, we loaded them up in the baskets of our bicycles and road all over the rural town of Beavercreek, Ohio making deliveries.

            That simple job allowed me to finally buy that radio. I listened to popular music and fell in love with Ricky Nelson, Glen Campbell and the Shirelles. I memorized the lyrics and when no one was around, sang along.

            Music became my refuge. It took me away from my dysfunctional family’s woes. I felt the singers’ highs and lows. Their heartaches and joys.

            When my family went on picnics, that radio came with me. I didn’t have headphones, so I could only listen when I had permission.

            When my dad bought a record player, I used my earned money to purchase 45s and 78s. I didn’t have a lot of records, but those I did have brought me great joy.

            I attended a Catholic School until the end of seventh grade. A boy, whose name I don’t recall, invited me to a dance at a neighboring Catholic school. This was my first experience with a live band. While they were just a little older than me, and to me recall, not that good, I was enthralled. And I wanted to sing.

            That boy took me to dance after dance. Some were pretty miserable affairs with maybe ten people in attendance. Others had disco balls and flashing lights with great food. It made no difference to me: I had a wonderful time.

            The next year I transferred to the public school and never saw that boy again. For some reason I was enrolled in choir. I had never sung in public except for the Gregorian chant at church. Imagine my terror when the teacher demanded that we stand up, one-by-one, and sing the National Anthem.

            I knew I couldn’t do it, but I practiced in my bedroom. I was convinced that I was off-key and my voice cracked whenever I came to a high note.

            When my turn came, I froze. My butt refused to come off my chair. I trembled so badly that I don’t think my legs would have held up my weight. (I had a lot of weight!) The teacher called on me. My eyes filled with tears and my body refused to stand.

            The teacher smiled, encouraged me to try, then moved on to the next student. She never did make me sing in front of the class. She did figure out that I was an alto, however, by standing near me during class.

            By now I had fallen in love with a variety of popular singers, including the Everly Brothers, Roger Miller, and The Temptations. I bought the teen magazines that featured stories about the artists and included the lyrics to all the top hits.

To my joy, I discovered fan clubs! With a simple letter I could request autographed photos! I sent off letter after letter and when the photos arrived, I taped them to my bedroom wall. All my favorites were there, and since I had the lyrics, I could sing with them, never missing a word.

I never took a music class in high school. I thought about it, but my focus was on getting into a university with a full scholarship. My courses were tough: lots of math and science. Spanish and Social Studies. No fun electives.

Another problem was that my younger sister had grown older and controlled what happened in our shared bedroom. It seemed as if every time I turned on my radio, she appeared and demanded that I turn it off. If I didn’t, she whined to my mother who’d then threaten to smash the radio if I didn’t comply.

My developing love of music stalled.

When I enrolled at USC sophomore year, I took my radio and a record player I’d bought with me. By then I had a fairly extensive collection of records which I played whenever my roommate wasn’t around.

My parents thought that having music on distracted me from my studies, but it was the opposite. Music calmed me. It soothed my fears. Playing favorite songs quietly in the background gave me the energy to put in long hours.

Although I thought about taking a Music Class, once again, just like in high school, it didn’t fit into my major’s requirements.

I dated a guy for a short time who loved music as much as I did. He took me to concerts at UCLA. We rode in his VW Bug with the radio blaring, screaming out the lyrics. He took me to used record shops where, with very little money, I bought tons of records. Thanks to him my collection grew.

He never took me to a school dance, though. When posters advertised a dance in my residence hall, I decided to go. Alone. It was hard for me to do this. I was still overweight and saw myself as ugly. I figured that even if no one asked me to dance, I could enjoy the music.

The cafeteria was transformed into a disco ball. Someone had hung up decorations all along the walls and streamers hung from the ceiling. I was amazed but also thrilled. The one thing I hadn’t planned on was the huge number of students who would come. The place was packed.

I grabbed some snacks. Listened to the music. Wanted to dance. But I was ignored. When OJ Simpson and his gang of football players came, I snuck out. I knew that this was not my crowd.

On campus was a Neumann Center that held Mass on Sundays. I had never heard guitars and drums at church before. There was something about the folk-style that called to me and before I knew it, I was singing. In public.

It wasn’t until many years later, when I my kids were away at college that I bolstered myself up and joined the church choir. I didn’t know how to read music, but one of the singers, Patty deRidder, who was also the First-Grade teacher at the Catholic school, taught me. She told me I had a beautiful singing voice and encouraged me to solo.

I never would have taken that leap on my own. However, one Sunday no other singers came to mass. That meant I had no choice. Oh, was I terrified! But I did it.

Next thing, I was a regular soloist. Sunday after Sunday I stood at the ambo and lead the congregation in the psalm.

I remember one time when I’d rehearsed the psalm at home, over and over until I knew it quite well. When it’s time, I climb the steps to the ambo. The pianist begins playing and I freeze. She played something different! I know that my eyes got huge as I stood there in shock.

I shook it off, then sang the psalm I’d rehearsed, forcing the pianist to adapt.

Over the years my taste in music has expanded. I love country, but I also love Christian and some contemporary pop. I am not a fan of classical unless one of my grandkids is playing it. And I definitely never thought I’d like rap until I saw the musical Hamilton.

Looking back, I can see the important role that music had played in my life. It calmed me when times were tough. It brought solace when I was down. It lifted me up when my spirits were sagging. Most importantly, it showed me that I could sing. That my voice was strong enough, sure enough that I could stand before my congregation and lead them in song.

I don’t listen to as much music now as I did in my younger years, but it’s always there in my mind, in my heart.

The journey to get here was long and at times challenging. I am grateful to the boy who took me to dances. To the teacher who saw how terrified I was. To the choir member who encouraged me. To all the various choir directors I worked with over the years who saw in me what I still struggle to see: that I could bring joy to others through my voice.

Good Intentions

            How many times, growing up, did I tell myself to keep my mouth shut, stay away from my siblings and hide in my bedroom? Not enough, for almost daily I got myself in trouble for responding to the hurtful words flung by my siblings with ones of my own.  If my sister announced that she hated me, I hated her worse. When she threw her dirty clothes on my side of the room, I’d bury them under her bed. If she refused to do chores, I’d report her. Promptly.

            Our dislike of one another was fomented by my mother. From the time my sister was born, my mother set us apart. My brother’s position in my mother’s eyes was well solidified by that time. Because my brother was smart and not athletic, he garnered my dad’s disapproval for anything and everything he did. My mother became my brother’s champion and protector.

Perhaps she felt that I didn’t need her protection and championing, or maybe she had determined that I was a hopeless cause at an early age., but she never, ever spoke up for me. In fact, when my dad returned from work, my mother would recite a list of my faults deserving of punishment and then command that he shake me or beat me until she was satisfied.

My sister was born while my mother was in the midst of a deep depression. Since she was unable to care for the infant, I had to do it. As a “unloved” seven-year-old, I resented being in that position.

When my sister developed petit mal seizures, my sister now became my mother’s primary focus. Mother still protected my brother from our father’s ire and disappointment, but my sister was elevated to princess status. She not only could do no wrong, she only declared it. She’d set up false situations and then report to our mom that I had kicked her, slapped her, beaten her. After a while, I decided that if I was going to be accused of something I hadn’t done, then I might as well do it.

It was no wonder that we had no relationship to speak of.

            When I was off in college my brother was one year ahead of me at the same college. My sister was now in middle school, getting herself suspended for dealing drugs on campus and other illegal activities. While brilliant, she refused to complete work or turn in what she had finished. Where I would have been beaten for failing classes, my mother excused it due to seizures and other such illnesses that I could not see or understand.

            However, one summer I thought that if I made an effort, I could turn dislike into an amicable relationship. I took my sister for long drives in the country. We’d eat picnic lunches in the back of the car while watching water birds play. I’d take her to movies and out to lunch. Sometimes to the mall where I’d use my limited resources to buy her an article of clothing that wasn’t revealing.

            My intentions were good, but changed nothing. Our relationship is still rocky to this day.

            We grew up poor. My mother was an excellent seamstress and sewed much of my clothes. Her choice of styles was old-fashioned and conservative. I appreciated the skirts and matching vests that she made me, but no one else in the mid-1960s wore such things. I was not a popular kid, and my clothes solidified that status.

            We moved to California at the end of my freshman year. I saw the move as a fresh start in a new school. I knew I’d never be one of the popular kids, but I hoped I could at least have a friend or two. My problems followed me. I didn’t dress like anyone else. My saving grace was that I was an excellent student. My teachers generally liked me, if they even knew I was in the room.

            After the end of sophomore year, my parents bought a house up the hill and across a major highway. It was in a different school district so I had to switch schools. I cried every day on the bus to and fro. Meanwhile my mother was trying to convince the old district that only they could meet my academic needs. I’m willing to bet that she also told them I was severely depressed. I was. But if she hadn’t done that, I would have adapted.

            The new high school wasn’t as academically challenging, the classes were smaller and the campus newer. Because I had enrolled late, I didn’t get the same classes I would have had at the other school, but the ones I did have were all acceptable for college.

            My mom’s intentions were good. She was trying to help me, something that I appreciated deeply.

            The thing is good intentions aren’t always what we need.

            My sister didn’t benefit from my good intentions. In fact, thirty years later she regaled me with how horrible I had treated her and how boring I had been. What I had seen as a chance to pull her away from drugs and the lifestyle she had chosen, she saw as an attempt to remake her into a little me. And no way did she want to be me.

            When my mother paid attention to my distress and chose to act, her intentions were good. She saw herself helping her shy, recluse of a daughter. The homely one, the lonely one.  By getting the transfer to the old school, perhaps she hoped that I would be so indebted to her that I would be forever in her grasp.

            What I learned early on was that good intentions don’t always bring about the results that the doer hopes will happen. I might hold a door open for someone who glowers at me for thinking they needed help. Perhaps I’d go out of my way to help a student who spurned any efforts at assistance and encouragement.

            Despite those early disappointments, I still believe in exercising good intentions whenever an opportunity arises. I’ve paid someone’s bridge toll knowing that they’d never do the same for me. I’ve let go of a garment that I wanted but knew the other person also wanted, hoping that they’d love it more than I did.

            When driving and someone is trying to merge, I wave them in with the understanding that when I needed to switch lanes, no one will return the favor.

            Imagine a life without good intentions. The sun won’t shine as brightly, the sky won’t be as blue and there will be far fewer smiles.

            This is why good intentions are necessary. They bring joy. Smiles. Laughter. A lighthearted wave. Good feelings all around.

Self-definition

Going back as far as my memory allows, my vision of myself was as the person I was told I was. If my parents said I was dumb, then I was. When my brother said I was fat, I was that as well. If a teacher placed me in the lowest group, then I was that as well.

I got to thinking about how we let others define ourselves. Sometimes looking back is a good thing, and in this instance, I believe that it allowed me to understand why I had such low self-esteem for much of my life.

As a young child I was called a whiner. I deserved that label for I could throw a whine-fest over just about anything. One of the few photos taken at that age shows me with fists clenched at my sides, head downcast and a huge pout.

 When I entered school, the teachers treated me as if I was stupid, although that wasn’t the term they used. I felt stupid even though there was no way for my teachers to know that no one had ever read to me, that there were no books in our house and that I’d never been to a library? I didn’t know colors, shapes, numbers or letters. I didn’t know how to cut, paste or trace lines.

While my classmates worked on reading I sat alone, tears streaming down my face doing what was probably extremely simple for everyone else.

In early elementary grades I was placed in the lowest reading group. Even there I was so far behind that I was still trying to learn letter sounds while they read out of books. I understood why I was there, but was too embarrassed to be seen with them. When the teacher called my group up, I slid down in my desk and hid.

My paperwork was filled with red. My writing was nothing but chicken scratches, strange combinations of letters that sometimes turned out to be words. I had no idea about capitals or punctuation. The sad thing was that my teacher didn’t help me.

I felt stupid and ashamed, so during recesses I found the darkest parts of campus and hid.

Add to that the unkind words coming from my parents and siblings that solidified that feeling of being dumber than everyone else.

Somewhere along that time continuum fat-shaming began. I accepted that definition even though it hurt. Classmates taunted me. My brother humiliated me. My dad insulted me. My mother fed me.

So now not only was I dumb but I was fat to go along with it.

In fourth grade I took things into my own hands and began teaching myself. I asked the teacher for extra work and night after night I went over the lessons. I’d fill in the blanks, erase, then do it again and again until I mastered the work. I forced myself to read even though it made me cry. I began with small words that I could memorize. I made flash cards with old paper so that I could add more and more words to my reading vocabulary.

My grades improved. My confidence grew. But I was still fat and getting fatter.

When we moved, I scored high enough on a placement test that I was no longer in the lowest groups. That giant step helped me to change my perception of myself.  I knew that I wasn’t stupid because I had taught myself to read, write and do math.

As time passed my academic accomplishments increased. I was placed in more difficult classes which I mastered. By the time I was in high school my entire class load was at the college prep level.

But I was still fat.

I joined the freshman basketball team. Now I was seen as an athlete. I was too short to score, but my hands were fast. I could strip a ball away any player that got near. I was feeling quite proud of myself. When the JV season ended I was moved to Varsity. I never got to play. Game after game I sat on the bench. I no longer felt like an athlete.

It was amazing how quickly my definition of myself changed. Athlete one week, not the next.

My dad told me I was ugly and I believed him. He said that no man would ever marry me and so I grew into an adult who felt unlovable. I was told that men would only want one thing of me and once they had that, they’d dump me.

When I began dating in college I felt somewhat better about myself, but nothing changed at home. My self-esteem was so low that when my brother’s friend attempted to rape me, I believed that I was only good for the one thing my dad had said. Men would only wanted sex from me, nothing more.

The man belonged to my brother’s fraternity. He must have told them what he’d done, for after that I had a date every weekend. I didn’t consider myself promiscuous, but others might have.

When my wonderful husband proposed, I was thrilled and flabbergasted. The unlovable person, the fat, stupid person was going to get married. So the next definition of myself was as a lovable wife.

I knew enough about marriage, from watching my mother, that I was the one who had to cook, clean and perform all those womanly duties. I hated them. I wanted to continue to work, read and write.Even so, I fulfilled the definition as best as I could.

Our house was clean enough. The laundry was done. Meals were cooked.

When children were born, I read magazines to learn how to parent.The knowledge I gained there helped me understand what I should be doing. Babies were not my thing, but once I could teach them things, I reveled in the definition of mother.

I had always dreamed of being a teacher despite how my instructors treated me. Sharing knowledge with my kids helped me see that I had the skills to be a teacher. I took classes at the community college to learn how to be a preschool teacher. When I was hired for the first job I applied for, my self-esteem shot up. I was a teacher! And I loved it.

But I saw myself as being something more than a snot-wiper and piss-cleaner.

I applied to a credential program, was interviewed and accepted. I was only able to take night and weekend classes, so it took years to finish my credential program. I was hired for the first t full time position that I applied for, a pleasant surprise.

I was a third-grade teacher at a Catholic elementary school. I offered my students the most educational program that I could do while still teaching the required curriculum. My students and parents loved me. I loved that definition of me.

In time, however, my principal’s idea of who I was changed. At first I was innovative and inspiring. But I kept getting older. She saw herself as a beloved principal, surrounded by young, cute teachers. She actually said that at a faculty meeting!

With that in mind, she chased away the older teachers, starting with Yvonne.After she left the principal hounded Marie until she resigned as well. She turned her focus on me, just as she had done them. I was told that my lessons weren’t good enough. She told me how to improve, then wrote negative evaluations when I did as she had said.

I began to believe that she was right, that I wasn’t a good teacher. I left.

It took me two years of working as a substitute to get another job. During that time period I applied for job after job. With each rejection I felt more and more incompetent. I was told that I didn’t know how to teach students of different cultures. They were right, so I enrolled in workshops, at my expense, to learn.

Next I was told I couldn’t teach in public schools because I didn’t know how to teach students who learned differently. They were right. Once again I sought out information on disabilities.

During those years I believed that I couldn’t teach those students even though I had had students like them in my classes at the Catholic school. But, the administrators who rejected me were right, or so I thought, because they knew better than I who I was and what I could do.

My weight soared. I kept buying clothes at larger sizes, then outgrew them. I pretended to diet, but failed at that. In my mind those failures reinforced the earliest definitions of myself: I was dumb. Too dumb to eat less, too dumb to understand dieting.

I didn’t want to be fat and hid it the best way I knew how. No matter where I was going or what I was doing I dressed to hide my body’s faults. I knew that it didn’t work, but my clothes were stylish and clean.

What was interesting is that my husband continued to see me as the slender woman that he married.

During that same time period I was a soccer coach, referee and player. At church I was a reader and singer. At work I was a great teacher, nominated several times for Teacher of the Year.

All these positive definitions were reassuring, but never completely erased the years and years of being told that I was less-than.

When health forced me to change my behavior, I lost the weight. I had to buy smaller and smaller sized clothing. Even when I needed less fabric to cover me, I still saw an obese woman whenever I dared look in a mirror.

Today I know that I look awesome, that I am intelligent, that I am a good wife, friend, mother and grandmother.

I no longer allow others to define me. That power belongs to me and me alone.

Sometimes I slip and cower in self-doubt when another story gets rejected or something goes wrong in a friendship. Back in the early days I would have carried that like a mantle, weighing down my shoulders. Today I brush it off and move on, a smile on my face.

I had to turn sixty-eight before I seized that power. Better late than never, right?

Perhaps someone who reads my story will take charge right now. They’ll say, I get to define myself, not you or you or you.

 What a marvelous thing that would be.