The Teacher Who Changed My Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Lucky Lady

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learning to Cook as a Metaphor for Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The History of a Struggle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

More Than Just Surviving

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

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

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

How do you survive in these changed circumstances?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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