The Great Inventor

            When I was a kid I learned about famous inventors in school. I was so intrigued that whenever I could get to the library, I’d check out the books that detailed their accomplishments. Many of them grew up poor, like me. Their discoveries lifted them out of poverty, giving them a financial cushion for a comfortable life.

            I wanted to join their ranks.

            The problem was that everything I thought of already existed.

            For example, I hated my clamp-on skates that I tightened with a key. They worked, but not well. They also frequently fell off, at inopportune times. Unbeknownst to me, shoe skates already existed. The first time I went to an indoor skating rink, my dreams were shattered.

            Like many kids back then, and even those today, my shoe strings refused to stay tied. Walking around with dangling laces led to severe punishment as well as a public dressing-down. I thought that if I could invent a string that stayed put, my name would find a place amongst the world’s greatest inventors.

            I put some time trying to think of different designs, but I was too young to come up with anything. Add to my inexperience was a lack of drawing skills that made it impossible for me to sketch anything workable.

            Imagine my surprise when, as an adult, spiral laces appeared on the market. They required no tying skills, only a twist or two and they’d stay put all day long.

            Just think, if I had had the skills and acumen back then, I would have achieved my goal. Not only would my name be added to the list of inventors, but I’d probably be wealthy today.

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.

Writer’s Block Woes

            I developed a love of writing as a young teen. There was plenty of fodder since my family was not exactly pleasant to live with. My characters were all girls my age who felt unloved. All believed that they had either been kidnapped or adopted and yearned for escape. Some of them tried, actually made it one night away thanks to finding a culvert in which to shelter, but none of them got away.

            After awhile these stories only depressed me, so I quit writing.

            High school academics were so demanding that there was no time or energy for creative writing. I toyed with poetry, but nothing substantial developed. My poems were the same angst-filled “stories” dealing with feelings of abandonment, anger, frustration and sorrow.

            My college had a literary newspaper that accepted submissions. After reading the poetry of my peers, I believed that mine was as good, if not better. After revising a few, I bravely walked them over to the newspaper office. When the next edition of the paper came out, I was disappointed that none of my poems made the cut.

            I quit writing anything except for class reports.

            Years late I found myself teaching high school English to a variety of students. I had College Prep students in one class and then students with learning disabilities in all the others. I didn’t know what I was doing, so leaned into curriculum suggestions I found in books and at workshops.

            Before my students entered the room, I wrote a detailed prompt on the board. As soon as the bell rang, I reviewed the prompt with the class, then made them work quietly for about ten minutes.

At first, I used the time to deal with administrative tasks. Until I realized that I was not setting a good example. The next day, when my students wrote, so did I. After a few students shared what they had written, I’d share mine if there was time.

After about a week of this, I began to look forward to writing time. A particular character appeared in most of the stories. At that time her name was Mattie, short for Matilda.

Poor Mattie believed that she was unloved by her parents due to being obese, a topic familiar to my heart. She had a brilliant brother who could do no wrong, something I understood.

When I learned about NaNoWriMo, a month of writing in November, I realized that I could string together the Mattie stories into a novel.

I wrote her story during the day, then after work, added those bits to the novel. By the time November was over, I had a 40,000-word rough draft.

Over the next several years I revised and rewrote much of Mattie’s story, when I didn’t have classwork for the classes I was now taking at the university.

I also wrote my memories, painful reminders of what my life had been like growing up.

One professor loved my writing so much that she encouraged me to turn memories into a story. That work became the life of Marie Ray, a woman facing old age after a tumultuous life.

Periodically nothing inspirational came to me. I’d get stuck, no ideas springing forth. That’s called writer’s block, something I understood, knew how to move on, but still allowed it to steal words from my mind.

Sometimes after rather productive periods of writing stories, poems and essays, there’s be nothing. It was like trekking across the desert after being in a fertile valley.

Unless you’ve experienced writer’s block, you have no idea how devastating it is. You sit in front of your computer, waiting for inspiration. Perhaps you like to sit at a coffee shop and hand-write your stories. Picture yourself surrounded by busy people, a cup of your favorite brew before you, pen in hand, but there’s nothing.

Writer’s block makes you feel stupid, worthless, a reject. The longer it lasts, the deeper those feelings grow.

What makes it even more devastating is if you belong to a group of prolific writers who share work week after week. You enjoy reading their work, but it just makes you sadder and sadder when you are stuck.

The most important thing you can do when writer’s block steals your words is read. Read everything you can get your hands on. Not audio books, but actual books on paper. Savor the feel of the pages. Rejoice in the words. Think about the stories, the characters, the settings.

Soon something will come to you. It will be a germ of an idea at first, but if you allow it to dwell in your mind, it will blossom into a story, poem or essay.

The important thing it to not give up.

That’s what works for me.

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.

A Special Pet

            My mother hated cats and didn’t really like dogs. She believed that cats sucked air from babies, killing them and that dogs would bite the face off children. When a parakeet arrived after a vicious storm, she allowed us to keep it. In fact, she called friends and relatives until she found someone willing to give us a cage. That was our first pet.

            Petey was an incredibly smart bird. I taught him to say a few words. When out of the cage, he’d sit on top on the structure until he wanted to go back inside. He played with toys and sat on your shoulder. That is until my dad and brother built a giant Ferris wheel out of the erector set.

Petey liked to sit in one of the buckets as it went around. It was fun to watch him. I’d lay on my stomach next to the contraption and watch the bird go around and around. My brother got bored of something so sublime and turned up the juice.

Within seconds the speed increased. Not just marginally, but significantly. Petey got scared and flew off. From then on we could never get him to sit on our fingers. Petey would still open the door to his cage and sit on top, but never again could a person touch him.

Not too long after that my dad brought home a beagle puppy. His intention was to teach it to hunt rabbits. He had gone out with friends who had dogs and decided that he would like to take up the sport.

My mom was so angry that she refused to talk to my dad. She would not allow the dog in the house, so my dad built a dog house which he placed at the edge of our backyard and chained the dog to the structure.

The poor thing whined and howled all day and night. My mother finally gave in after three straight days of incessant misery and allowed the dog in the house, for only an hour. That hour turned into fulltime. She named that dog Lady Coco and spoiled her rotten.

Mom warmed canned dog food in a special skillet. She felt that the congealed mass that came from the can was unhealthy.

When we moved from Ohio to California the dog rode in the car with us. During the trip Lady Coco laid next to me in the back seat. My hand was constantly on her, stroking her and cooing softly to her. By the time we had a residence, the dog was mine.

In the early years of my parent’s marriage, my dad had several tanks of tropical fish. No one other than him was allowed to care for them. Every night when he got home from work he’d feed the fish and clean at least one tank. He sold them all when we moved.

Not too long after he bought our first California home, he brought home two large fish tanks. Once again, they were his to care for.

For some reason I decided to get into the fish care business as well. I began with goldfish because they were pretty, hardy and cheap. I kept the tanks in my bedroom. I loved the comforting sound of the filters bubbling away. Watching the fish swim about comforted me and lessoned my anxiety.

When I left for college, I gave my fish and tanks to my dad. It saddened me to let them go, but since I was attending a college many miles from home, there was no way I could keep them.

After graduation I was forced to return home since I had no job. I bought new tanks and started over, first with goldfish and then some tropical ones. Once again, they made me happy.

I got a job, saved money, bought a car, then rented an apartment. My tanks came with me. Of course fish died and new ones took their places, but I was still happy.

When I married, my tanks moved to our apartment, and then later, to our house. By now I was working full time. I was exhausted when I came home from work. It became a chore to scrub tanks, so much so that as fish died, I didn’t get new ones. When the last one was gone, I got rid of all the tanks and paraphernalia.

As a couple, our first dog was a Dalmatian puppy that was not show quality. She didn’t have enough spots and her tail had a funny bump. She was an awesome dog. She loved our son and kept an eye on him to make sure he was safe. If we were working in our front yard, she made sure our son didn’t crawl away.

She trained easily, but was jittery around men. We took her camping with us and she loved it. The one problem was that she got car sick. That was a serious problem until the vet sold us some expensive pills.

After her there were a series of pets, including guinea pigs, hamsters, cats and birds. We borrowed a rat and a bunny from an animal sanctuary. I didn’t love having them around. Eventually I returned to being a bird keeper, beginning with a pair of love birds.

One time a friend invited me to visit animal shelters with her as she searched for the perfect dog. One of the last shelters we entered had a mother and two pups. They were incredibly cute.

I fell in love with the brown puppy and requested to adopt it when it was of age. We called him MacTavish, a name much bigger than he was. Mac, or Mackey, was seriously ill when we brought him home, something we quickly discovered when he couldn’t take more than a few steps without falling.

My friend taught us how to make a special gruel that we squirted into his mouth with a syringe. Because of force-feeding, he got stronger and better. When Mac was able, we taught him to walk on a leash. He could catch frisbees, but not in his mouth, but with his front paws.

He’d chased a ball and bring it to you, but not let go. He loved riding in cars so much that if he was ever out front, you’d have to take him for a ride around the neighborhood before he’d get out of the car.

His early days of illness must have killed some brain cells because he was so quirky. He was quick to housebreak but slow to respond to commands. We never knew where to put down his food bowl. He was supposed to eat in the kitchen, but sometimes he just couldn’t. We’d follow him around, bowl in hand, until he found the right spot.

Mac loved our large backyard. There was plenty of room for him to run and play. If any of us went out back, he had to come. His favorite activity was when my husband yelled, “Squirrel,” and then Mac would go sit under different trees while squirrels chirped at him high overhead.

Mac’s other favorite activity was going to the shed at the end of our yard. My husband would say, “To the shed,” and Mac would take off, loping like and antelope.

Mac was kind and gentle, warm and loving. He brought great joy to our lives. I really miss him.

My First Paying Jobs

As a fourteen-year-old, back in the mid-sixties, I was expected to babysit. Considering that we lived out in the country, there were few options for any young person, let alone a girl. It wasn’t what I wanted to do, but when my parents told me to do something, I had no choice.

My parents found me my first job. A family up the street from us had a baby. They needed a babysitter and I was volunteered. It made no difference that I knew nothing about babies: they hired me anyway. After a quick tour of the boy’s room, the parents left. As instructed, I fed him a bottle. Thankfully that went okay. Shortly, thereafter, however, things went wrong.

The stink began accompanied by a series of ominous-sounding gurgles. I understood that I had to change his diaper, so I toted him into his room and placed him on the changing table. When I undid the diaper, urine shot into the air. I covered him up, waited, then pulled the diaper away. More urine! And more. When I figured he was finished, I tackled the bigger issue, the poop.

It was awful. And, like the urine, just as I got him cleaned up and a new diaper in place, he squirted out more. And more and more until I’d used up every diaper.

Those parents never hired me again.

My next job had a much better beginning. The kids were in bed when I arrived. I was allowed to watch the color TV, something we didn’t have at home. The one problem was that the only programs I could find were horror shows. Every little creak of the house and scrape of a branch terrified me. I called home and begged my dad to come rescue me. They never asked me to come back.

I met a mother when out delivering papers who asked me tie sit her three boys. Her regular sitter wasn’t available. I was too inexperienced to understand the coded message. The boys were perfect angels until the parents left. All hell broke loose! They refused to comply with anything I told them to do. They threw food, stripped, then ran around the house. When I finally got them into the bath, they splashed water all over the floor, making huge puddles that later I had to sop up. The boys were still up, well past bedtime, when the parents returned. I refused any future job offers.

My last assignment was with a sweet toddler. She was easy to take care of and did everything I asked. She fell asleep almost as soon as I got her in bed. The parents had given me another job: ironing. They had an entire basket full of clothes that were badly wrinkled. I finished around eleven, the time the parents were supposed to have returned.

I turned on the TV and tried to stay awake, but I was exhausted. I woke up with the father looming over me with a scowl on his face. He drove me home without a word until it was time to pay. Instead of giving me the agreed-upon amount, his shorted me by about five dollars, a huge difference in those days. And he never said thanks, even though I had done everything they asked.

That ended my career as a babysitter.

My Story

            The concluding song in the musical Hamilton asks the question, who will tell my story. It got me to thinking about my own story. Certainly, my grown children know me, at last the mother-me that raised them. But do they truly know the adult me that I am now?

            In recent years our oldest son has been including tidbits of praise for who we are and what we have done over our lives. He praises us for being active, for traveling and doing things even as we age. His words touch me where it brings tears and feelings of joy.

            But I wasn’t just a mother. I was a wife, a teacher, an administrator, a writer, a friend and a person who kept busy doing a variety of things. I belong to three writers’ groups and two book clubs. I hike with a friend two days a week. I love movies and the theater. I love how technology has opened my world.

            I am a sucker for sad animal videos. If I had given a dollar to every charity that featured beaten and starved animals in their ads, I’d be broke.

            Books call my name. I will never have the time to read every book in my pile, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting more.

            While I am not into fashion, I love to shop for clothes especially after losing eighty pounds. Certain textures and styles speak my name. Colors and patterns as well. If after buying and wearing something it doesn’t make me feel good, then I put it in a giveaway bag.

            I won’t wear torn or stained clothing. That’s because of my younger years when all I had were old clothes an aunt had given my mom.

            I love spending time with friends. Going for a walk or eating out makes me very happy. While I am more of a listener than a talker, hearing someone else’s story keeps me connected to their lives. That means a lot to me.

            When I do get to spend time with my kids, I don’t have to do fancy things. I am content being in their presence. I love sharing a meal with them, strolling through a fair or even a big-box store, taking dogs for a walk, watching their favorite shows or sports teams. Seeing the responsible adults that they have become fills me with joy.

            As a teacher I worked hard. I’d visit my classroom on weekends to change bulletin boards, grade writing journals, correct spelling workbooks and rewrap books whose covers had torn. Before the year began, I’d hit every sale and buy all the supplies my students would need for the year. Even when money was tight, I’d spend mine to make sure my students didn’t have to go without.

            In my early years of teaching, I had to wear conservatively-styled dresses. I was a large woman and found it difficult to find anything in a store, so I made my own. I also sewed my kids’ shorts and a suit for my husband.

            I overcame my years growing up in a dysfunctional and overly critical family. I fought against the stereotypes that women couldn’t study college-level math. I persisted when others gave up.

            Understanding the learning never ended, I returned to college over and over, all in the hopes of increasing my ability to better serve the needs of my students.

            Recently a friend told me that she chooses to focus on the positive things that had happened to her. That simple comment made me reexamine how I remembered my early years. Perhaps instead of focusing on how I was mistreated and misunderstood by my parents, I should recall family trips to a cabin by a lake, playing badminton in the backyard,  eating my mom’s apple dumplings and building tents in the family room with my brother.

            It’s easy to talk about the beatings and foul words directed my way, harder to search for the happy days that I’d conveniently pushed into the back.

            This is my story. This is how I want to be remembered. I just hope that someone will be kind enough to share it after I am gone.

Wished-for Treasure

            My family didn’t have a lot of money when I was growing up. We always had a clean place to live, even if it wasn’t in the best of neighborhoods. We always had a car, although never a new one. My mom was a frugal cook, so there was food on the table and while you might feel a bit hungry, you never starved.

            When we got our first television when I was twelve, I was exposed to commercials for the first time. That’s when I became aware of all that I was missing. There were dolls and soldiers, board games and sports equipment. Sweets of all kinds and varieties of cold cereals that made my mouth water just dreaming about that first bite.

            We watched about an hour of television a day, but it was enough for me to notice what people wore and didn’t wear. They didn’t dress like me in hand-me-down threadbare clothes. They didn’t wear conservative clothes that covered a body from head to foot.

            When a commercial came on for a Barbie doll, I salivated. Oh, how I wanted one! The girl across the street who sometimes played with me had one. It was so beautiful! So fashionable! So desirable!

            One time when we were going to the local five-and-dime, I brought my saved allowance. The store sold Barbie dolls! But they were too expensive. There was a cheap replica which I could afford, so I bought that one. I understood that it was a fake, but it looked enough like a Barbie that I could use the patterns for the real thing to make clothes for this one.

            Every afternoon I carried my sewing supplies out to the backyard where there was a shady place along the back fence. I made my doll skirts, blouses, pants and dresses. When I had what could have been considered an ensemble, I worked up the courage to carry it across the street to the girl’s house.

            I was pretty proud of what I had done. She destroyed me when she laughed at my cheap plastic replica.

            When Christmas rolled around a few months later, all I asked for was a real Barbie. I didn’t get one. But my younger sister did. My parents explained, as I wiped away the tears of disappointment that streamed down my cheeks, that I was too old for a doll.

            I didn’t dream of owning anything else again for a long time.

            A television program came on with a doctor in the lead role. It was a good show, one that was popular with not just my parents, but with my peers.

            One time when we went shopping, a “doctor” blouse hung on a rack. Oh, how I wanted one! School had started by now and many of my peers had them. I knew that I had almost enough saved up to buy one for myself. My mom wouldn’t buy it then even though I promised to pay her back when we returned home. Instead she made me wait until the next trip to the store.

            I don’t recall how much time passed between trips, but when we did return to the store, the blouses had been marked down. I was so happy! I finally got my “doctor” blouse.

            Imagine how proud I was to wear it to school! I pictured my peers recognizing that I was finally wearing something that was popular. But, oh, that did not happen. You see, styles had changed. The other girls had moved on to whatever the newest fad was. That’s when I discovered that things on a clearance rack were there for a reason.

            Around that same time my dad learned of a bargain store a good hour’s drive from home. I had little expectations of finding anything there of interest. I was right. There were car and bike tires, car parts, miscellaneous household goods and clothing that a worker would wear, such as overalls and jumpsuits.

            We returned several weeks later. I remember that it had snowed but the roads were clear. Mounds of snow were piled along the sides of roads and along the perimeter of the store’s parking lot. Once again I knew there would be nothing there that I would want.

            Imagine my surprise when just inside the doors of the store was a circular rack holding a variety of white and black “leather” coats. When I touched the sleeve of one, it felt so soft that I found myself salivating at the thought of wearing it.

            When I showed them to my mom, she informed me that they were not made of real leather. They were fakes. I didn’t care. I still wanted one.

            She told me that I’d only get it dirty, that I’d ruin it by spilling something on it and it was be a complete and total waste of money.

            I didn’t care. I still wanted one.

            My mom refused to buy it for me even when I begged. I promised to work jobs around the house to earn enough money to reimburse her if she bought it right then. She refused.

            I cried all the way home.

            I had never had a new coat or one that mirrored what other girls wore. I had seen girls wearing similar coats, so in my mind I pictured myself walking the halls of my high school wearing that jacket, feeling proud as all eyes smiled with appreciation.

            No matter how much I begged or tried to finagle a way to pay for it, my parents refused to take me back to the store.

            Dreams of that coat haunted me. It was all that I cold think of, all I wanted. My hopes for popularity depended upon having that coat. I sensed its power deep inside.

            The next time we went to the store, the coats were still on the same circular rack, but there were none left in my size. I walked about the store with tear-filled eyes.

            Christmas arrived a few weeks later. My gifts were needed, but boring: underwear, socks, a toothbrush and toothpaste, a new comb and other necessities. Nothing frivolous. Nothing fun.

            After all gifts had been unwrapped, my family gathered around the television to watch a Christmas show. I don’t recall what it was because I was heartbroken.

            We ate dinner. Don’t ask me what it was.

            It was time for bed. I changed into my pajamas, brushed my teeth and came out to tell my parents goodnight.

            My parents demanded hugs, which by then I felt too old for. I hated being wrapped in my mother’s arms, but it was even worse being hugged by my dad. He had a way of giving me the creeps.

            This time, when I approached my dad, he pulled a large present out from behind his chair. He said he’d found it in his closet.

            I sat on the floor, wishing upon wish that it was that which I most wanted. I wanted to rip the paper to shreds, but that would have been a sin. Every bow, every piece of ribbon and paper had to be saved for the next Christmas.

            I carefully slid my fingers under the ribbon until it came undone. I rolled the ribbon up into a ball, an expected action that had to happen before moving on. I used a pair of scissors to cut the tape on the paper. When it fell off the plain white box, I folded the paper along its creases.

            The box was taped shut. Once again the scissors broke the tape.

            I slowly removed the lid. Pulled aside the tissue paper.

            It was there! The coat of my dreams was inside that box. I didn’t believe my eyes at first, thinking it was a mirage.

            When reality hit, I pulled the coat out of the box and put it on. It fit over my fat body! I could button it all the way from top to bottom. The sleeves were the right length. It was as soft as I remembered. I was speechless.

            I wore that coat until bedtime. When it was time to take it off, I hung it in my half of the closet.

            Every day I wore that coat, even if we never left the house. I stood taller, held my shoulders squarer and my head higher. I knew that when school began, people would see me for the first time. Instead of being the fat girl who wore hand-me-downs and homemade clothes, I’d be the girl in the white leather (fake leather) coat.

            When school began in January, I wore that coat even though it was well below zero and too cold for a thin jacket. I didn’t care even though I was shivering when the school bus finally arrived.

            I smiled as I climbed the three steps into the bus. I nodded to the students already on board. No one returned my smile.

            At school when I walked the halls, I was still smiling. Not a single student or teacher acknowledged my new coat. As each class ended with no change in my status, I seemed to shrink a little bit more.

            By the time I boarded the bus to go home, my new-found confidence was shattered.

            To make things worse, sometime during the course of the day I had encountered something that left a mark on the sleeve of my coat. My mom was right: I wouldn’t be able to keep it clean.

            I had learned important lessons: don’t ask for things, don’t dream of having things, don’t think that owning something would improve my social status.

My Enduring Phobias

            I have always hated spiders. Going way back into my earliest memories, I cannot recall a time when I was ever intrigued by spiders or wanted to observe them or even yearned to know anything about them. To put it simply, they terrify me.

            A scientist might be able to explain all the beneficiary things spiders do to enrich our earth, which is good, but it would not change my mind.

            Spiders, unlike dogs, creep about. They make no sound as the crawl across my ceiling or up my walls. Sometimes when I am sitting on the couch one appears and crawls across my book or, even worse, up my arm. Or maybe on my neck.

            They have the ability to drop on you without any kind of fanfare. One minute there is no spider, next thing you know, there it is.

            My reaction is swift and certain. I sit up in horror as I attempt to brush it away. I might leap (as best as this aging body can do) while brushing away the offensive creature. If it’s anywhere near my husband’s shoes, I will use deadly force by slapping or squishing. Only with his shoe: never mine.

            Some kids are intrigued by spiders and like to make temporary pets out of them. This gives me the willies. I get the same feeling when I visit an animal sanctuary and see spiders of various sizes and shapes in aquarium environments. I want to look yet can’t get away fast enough.

            I have had negative encounters with spiders.

            There was a time when I was a young teen and was taking a bath. I was just about finished when I felt something land between my shoulders. I screamed so loudly that both my parents stormed into the room, assuming that some terrible thing had occurred. I was embarrassed to have them in the room while I was completely naked, but I put that aside in order to be rescued.

            They didn’t save me. They made fun of me.

            Thankfully my dad left while I dried off, but my mother lingered. Perhaps that was a good thing because she discovered a small, round, red spot on my back. And when the tub was drained, a spider remained. My dad was summoned to witness that I had not imagined it, then terminate it.

            There was no lasting damage and I didn’t become ill, but the event solidified my fear of spiders. This was proof that they were out to get me. I knew that this was not the last attack, but rather the first of many to come.

            Many years later, after I was married, I was taking a shower to get ready for work. Suddenly an intense pain began in the little toe of my left foot. I looked down and spotted a brown spider sitting there. It was probably seeking refuge from the water, much like a swimmer finding higher ground during a deluge. I panicked, to say the least.

            There was nothing I could use to smash it, so I shook my foot until the spider fell off. I turned off the water and got out as quickly as I could. I would have gone for my husband’s shoe, but then I realized that it was, in fact, a brown spider. By this time I’d heard of recluse spiders whose bite could make a person quite ill. Thinking that this might just be a recluse, I wrapped myself in a towel, went into the kitchen and retrieved a glass jar.

            The spider was still in the shower when I returned, so I trapped it. I screwed on the lid and was going to leave it on my husband’s dresser as evidence in case he came home and found me dead. But then I remembered that there would be no air in that jar. Granted I would have smashed the spider if it hadn’t bitten me, but now I wanted to preserve it just in case.

            I carried the jar into the garage and using a hammer and nail punctured several holes in the lid. I kept the spider trapped all day, sitting on the dresser.

            Because I began feeling ill almost immediately, I called in for a sub (I was a teacher) and stayed home. My toe did become a bit inflamed and I thought I saw a red streak going up my leg. I spent the good part of the day with my leg hanging down, trying to prevent poison from getting to my heart.

            This was before the Internet so I had no way to research what type of spider it was nor any side effects of its bite. I acted on impulse, not on fact.

            By the time my husband returned home from work, I was feeling fine and embarrassed. It turned out that it was a common brown spider, it was not poisonous and I had wasted a day of sick leave for nothing.

The next major encounter with a spider was when my husband decided we would head south to the Grand Canyon. I was excited about the trip as I had never been there. After finding a camping spot and setting up the tent, we went to the Visitor’s Center.

            As we followed the path to the entrance, I trailed my hand along the top of a brick wall. Thankfully my hand was on the top and not gracing the side and that my eyes caught something in time for me to withdraw my hand. Nestled in a depression in the wall was a large tarantula. Imagine if I had touched its hairy legs! Imagine if I had brushed its abdomen! The horrors!

            I felt ill just thinking of all the things that might have happened. My young son, however, was intrigued. He wanted to pick it up and let it sit in the palm of his hand. My husband seemed to agree that it would be a great thing to do, but I refused. Even after another visitor did just that. He let the spider sit on his arm and offered it to my son. I shivered as I shook my head. I grabbed my son’s arm and pulled him away, enticing him with the air-conditioned center.

            My first teaching job was at a city-run preschool. Every session I took my classes to the local nature center. I was brave enough to touch the snakes (in order to reassure my students that it was okay to do so) but never the tarantulas. I tried, I really did, but just the thought of doing so made me ill.

            Over the next several years no major spider encounters happened. Yes, one would appear in the bathroom where it would be smashed to death. Yes, one would walk on my arm while I sat on the couch. Yes, sometimes one would have gotten inside my car and have to be dealt with before I could continue driving. But no bites.

            Then my daughter’s family bought a house in Utah that had a serious spider problem. These were not tiny brown spiders or even medium-size spiders. They were gargantuan. They had long legs and thick, round bodies. And they were everywhere.

            You’d spot them walking down the hall or front room. They’d be above your head on the ceilings or coming down a wall. They clustered in windows inside and out. They seemed to be wherever I was.

            One time I was downstairs brushing my teeth, getting ready for the morning. I heard a loud thump behind me, turned around, and discovered that one of them was now sitting on the edge of the tub. The sound I’d heard was it dropping from the ceiling. Put that thought in your mind: a spider so heavy that when it landed it made a thumping noise.

            Add to that the sheer size of the spiders. You couldn’t smash it with a piece of toilet paper or a tissue. It would have needed something the size of a shoe with plenty of applied pressure.

            I had my own shoe handy, but there was no way I’d have spider guts on the bottom of my own shoe. I seem to recall going into the hallway and finding a magazine that had seen better days. I’m pretty sure that I used the magazine to smash that spider so it could never drop down and terrify me again.

            On another visit I was getting ready for bed when a spider came from the ceiling and landed in my open suitcase. I felt nauseous as a shiver shook my body. At first I couldn’t move, couldn’t think. When some degree of rationality returned, I began flinging my clothes, one article at a time, out of the suitcase. As each piece of clothing fell to the floor, I stared to see if the spider emerged.

            I threw socks, t-shirts, pants and underwear, not caring what it was. The spider had to be gone and the only way that was going to happen was if I lifted it out inside my clothes. I got down to the layer on the bottom. I picked up the last pair of panties, shook them, and out fell the spider.

            Relieved that it was gone, I was able to breathe easier. However, it was there, in the hallway, inches from my room. I had to act. Had to do something so that it could never return. The only thing I could find was that same magazine from before. I dropped it on top of the spider then stomped over and over until I was sure it was dead. I didn’t look.

            After my clothes were back in the suitcase, I zipped it up and kept it that way.

            But now I couldn’t sleep. My bed was a foot away from where the spider had dropped from the ceiling. Knowing that the house was infested, I couldn’t sleep. At least with the lights off. So I kept them on. But every time I closed my eyes I imagined spiders dropping. Even though it was warm, I pulled the sheet up over my head, encasing me in cotton. That’s how I got through the night.

            It’s not just spiders that scare me. I am terrified of heights. Back when I was in college in Los Angeles my parents insisted the I fly home every other week. This was back when it cost $14 round trip.

            I hated it. Take offs were terrible, but landings were worse. One time I was waiting to board and so nervous that my entire body was trembling. A man sitting next to me noticed and began talking to me. He told me to keep in mind that the pilots wanted to take off and land as safely as I wanted them to. Just as I wanted to go home, so did they.

            Those calming words spoken over fifty years ago still resound with me today. Because of one kind man I have flown to many different states and countries.

            But I won’t climb ladders. When we first bought our house, my husband needed help cleaning the gutters. He knew I was afraid of heights, so he asked me to just climb high enough to be able to hand him tools. I did it even though it scared me.

            When our kids were young, we bought a blow-up boat. One camping trip we were near the Truckee River. It was peaceful looking, so he decided we would float down the river. As long as the river was smooth, I was happy. When it began getting choppy, I got scared. I rode down the first set of rapids, but from then on, I insisted on getting out just before the rapids began.

            I’d walk back to the truck, drive to the end, pick them up, return to the starting point. While my fear kept me from enjoying the ride, there was a plus: they didn’t have to carry the boat.

            Recently we were on a vacation trip in Colorado. The only excursion option was a raft ride down a class three river. Just thinking about it scared me.

            I can swim. In fact, I am a lap swimmer. So why does the thought of floating in rapids scare me? Because it’s the unknown.

            That’s the way it is with most phobias. We fear the unknown.

            Movies have taught us to be scared of sounds in the night. To be wary of strangers. To not go into the unknown. Bad things happen to characters who break those taboos. They die or come perilously close to death.

            We’ve seen people slide off roofs, fall out of planes, drown in lakes. Boats explode, snakes escape their tanks, lions eat the unaware. Fires consume houses, gasoline bursts into flame and water turns into floods that sweep people away.

            There are infinite possibilities for things to fear. It’s no wonder that we develop long-lasting phobias.

            While I do fly and I did learn to swim, I am still terrified of spiders. I did conquer the river in Colorado and would have gone a second time if the opportunity had arisen. I don’t like ladders of any height, but if my husband needed me, I’d do it for him.

            My phobias will always be there. It’s whether or not I allow them to control my life that makes the difference. And I am determined to live the fullest life possible.

Dreaming of a Different Life

            Do you know what’s like to be trapped in a body that you dislike?  I do.  I had been “fat” my entire life.  My outer body was covered with pudgy layers of rolling fat, while my inner body yearned to be thin, luscious, and downright sexy.

            When I was in fourth grade I attended a Catholic elementary school in Dayton, Ohio.  We were poor, and so I wore hand-me-down uniforms and carried the dog-eared books belonging to a previous student.  Before the school year began, my mother drove me into town for the annual used uniform giveaway.  I hated this ritual.  Because of my weight, we dug through the small pile of plus-size jumpers, most of which had seen better days.  No longer navy blue except where food stains darkened the fabric, these uniforms marked me as “poor” and fat. 

            Fourth grade was a year of becoming aware.  This was the year when my older brother explained that there was no Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, or Santa Claus.  This was also when I discovered that others saw me as a fat little girl.

            Sitting in church one morning, a girl next to me reached over and poked me in the thigh.  Her hand “bounced” high in the air, over and over, mimicking playing on a trampoline.  She pulled her skirt down tight over her six-inch wide thigh, measured with both hands, and then held her hands over my much larger thigh.  The difference was startling enough to cause a riot of giggles up and down the pew.

            Not too long after that, one day I had no choice but to go into the girls’ bathroom, something I tried really hard to avoid.  A group of popular sixth graders were lounging against one wall.  En masse, their eyes scanned my plump body as a look of pure disgust erupted on their sophisticated faces.  I quickly locked myself into the nearest stall so as to hide my tears. 

            “Fat people stink.  Don’t you agree?”

            “It’s because they leak urine,” Mary Beth Saunders said.

            “It runs down their legs when they walk,” Sue Anne Watson added.  “It leaves streaks that won’t wash off.”

            “I hate fat people.  They’re disgusting,” Wanda Belter said.

            “If I was fat, I’d hide in my closet and not eat anything until I got skinny,” Mary Beth said.

            “I’d kill myself,” said Sue Anne.

            “Not me,” added Wanda.  “I’d ask my mother to tape my mouth shut and then I’d stay home until I looked better.”

            Eventually they took their comments outside.  Only then did I emerge from my stall sanctuary.  When I got home that night, for what was not the first nor last time I took a long look at myself.  I really, truly was fat.  There was no denying it. Rolls of fat enveloped my abdomen and my thighs quivered with the tiniest of movement.  When I looked down, I couldn’t see my toes, let alone touch them.And because of the horrific things those girls had said, I even thought I saw urine streaks.

Repulsed by what I finally admitted to myself, I fell into my bed and cried for hours.

            I began dieting at the age of ten and have never quit. 

I convinced myself that trapped inside my obese body was a voluptuous woman yearning to be set free.  That woman wanted to be active and energetic.  That woman made me feel guilty about the cookies and candy that I so loved.

I think she got tired of the struggle and simply gave up for many, many yeaas.

            Because I wore rags and hand-me-downs, I dreamt of being able to go into a store and buy tons of new clothes. When I began working and earning enough to take myself shopping, I felt something stir inside me that has never gone away.

I am a shopaholic.  There is nothing that charges my battery like a mall.  It’s as if a competition is on to find the best bargains, and without fail, I rise to the occasion. 

As I stroll in and out of stores I admire the svelte garments displayed on ultra-slim mannequins.  Sometimes I touch the fabric, pretending that I am seriously considering taking one home. 

Back in my fat days, just as I imagined myself wearing the outfit, reality slammed my forehead and crimson colored my neck and cheeks. At that point I would dash away, off to the fat ladies’ department where I belonged.

            One time I went shopping with a bunch of relatives.  My husband’s sister was getting married, and everyone was in search of a dress to wear.  I trailed along as we went into masses of stores. I watched as they pawed through racks and racks of clothes. I drooled as they spoke about how well the colors of the different fabrics blended together.

            They all found things to try on.  They all believed that they had found the perfect outfit. 

But not me. I never carried a garment into a dressing room.  Why?  We never got close to the fat ladies’ clothes.

            For years I shopped alone.  Without prying eyes I could go into Catherine’s or Lane Bryant or the Women’s section of JCPenneys and not die of embarrassment. 

Except on the rare occasions when I visited a truly great friend who understands what it’s like, because she is also “fat.”  When we were together we forgot about size. We saw the beautiful person underneath. 

When we went shopping, we would try on clothes, and purchase our finds, sharing our good luck.

            There were days when I convinced myself that I looked pretty darn good.  I would be wearing an attractive outfit that hid the lumps under layers of fabric.  I would head off to work feeling happy and proud.  No one noticed.  No one sent even a tiny compliment my way.  It was as if I were invisible.

Most overweight people will tell you that being is not unusual. 

A slim person can walk past an obese person without once glancing her way.  In fact, there can even be accidental contact, one shoulder brushing another, with no apologies offered.  It’s almost as if the skinny individual had touched a ghost.

I have heard thin people say that the obese choose to be that way. That if they simply stopped binging on eating cupcakes and chocolate. They’d lose weight.

What critics don’t process if that genetics and physiology play a part in how easily a person gains and sheds unwanted pounds.  An overweight child is extremely likely to remain overweight into adulthood. 

If you are born into a family of obese individuals, the odds are that you will also be obese.  My paternal grandmother stood a little over five feet tall, but hit the scales at well over two hundred pounds.  I was built just like her.  Added to the familial tendency to put on the pounds was my mother’s belief that a fat baby was a healthy baby. Because she fed me until I had fat wrinkles on my arms and legs, I was doomed from the start.      My mother fed the cellulite, which plumped me up like a marshmallow. I spent years trying to reverse the damage.

Over and over I embarked on one weight-loss program after another. Two years ago I developed a serious health issue that required surgery. Because of being obese, the surgeon wouldn’t operate. That was my motivation.

Over a period of a month, the doctor’s deadline, I lost twenty-nine pounds, plus a few that keep recycling off and then back on again.  After that my motivation skyrocketed. If I could do that, then why not more?

It took ma almost a year, but I lost just under eighty pounds and dropped four sizes in pants and three sizes in tops.   

If I could go back in time and change just one thing, one thing that could forever alter the events in my life, I would have been a skinny child. In my mind, skinny children were happy children. Skinny children had friends. Skinny children were invited to birthday parties and given cards on Valentine’s Day. Skinny children did somersaults and laughed and played.

I would have been one of them. Because I was athletic even when obese, as a skinny kid I would have been chosen first when dividing up teams. I would have attended every birthday party and been invited to sleepovers.

As a teenager I would have goon to school dances with a different handsome beau on my arm.  Cheerleading would have been my passion, and as a dancer I would have reigned supreme. 

Whenever I went shopping, it would have been with friends, giggling as we strolled through the mall.  Fun would have been my middle name.

I would have been hired as a flight attendant, the career of my dreams.  Or maybe the receptionist in the front office. Or the statistician in a major think-tank.

Think how different my life would have been!  Zipping here, there, everywhere, always surrounded by friends.

There are some things that I would never change, no matter what I looked like.  I have a husband who loves me, my children are my pride and joy, and I loved my job.  I have been blesses with grandchildren and significant others in my children’s lives.

I have had a good life.

I wish that society did not disdain the obese.  Unless you have worn that body, you do not know what “trapped” truly means.