A Change in Pace

Life takes on unexpected turns when you move from one state to another. Imagine growing up in the rural Midwest, then one summer finding yourself in fast-paced California! Not only is the weather drastically different, but the style in which people speak and think is faster than you are used to. You are lost and a bit confused by all the changes.

I made the move from slow-paced life in Beavercreek, Ohio to fast-paced life in the San Francisco Bay Area at the end of my freshman year in high school. It was not an easy adjustment.

            Beavercreek was a primarily rural community. While our home was in a planned ranch-style neighborhood, we were surrounded by family-run farms. Country roads meandered from one farm to another, often not revealing the new farm until going around a turn or climbing up what passed for hills.

Two-lane highways connected country roads to the bigger cities. The closest to us was Dayton, a confusing metropolis of tall buildings and tons of cars. Many of the streets were much wider than in our tiny community, so wide that cars could park on each side and still leave four lanes for travelers.

The one thing that we didn’t have there was freeways except for when you got far enough away from town.

            Because of the rural lifestyle, things moved slowly. There was an understood etiquette to conversations.  All conversations had to be nurtured, just like a farmer watching her tomatoes grow.

You began with a discussion about the weather, then moved on to price of goods. After that you could bring up current events and the health of both families. Along with the pace of conversation, there were rules about food and drink.

When someone entered a home, drinks were offered and chairs provided. Food was often given, but not always. If a tray of cookies came out, for example, you could take just one. No more even when the tray was put in front of you a second time.

Once company was comfortable, legs were crossed and everyone relaxed. Nods and smiles occurred at appropriate times.

Those were the rules. Only after all that could you get to the actual point, the real reason for the visit.

            I grew up believing that this was the way everywhere. That it was rude to simply state the primary concern without the initial song and dance. Relationships had to be nurtured to be valued, and friendships were maintained by following the prescribed course of affairs.

Talking slow was imperative. This was how I grew up and so this was how I spoke. I politely listened to what was said, internally pondered my response, and only after taking time to construct well-chosen phrases did I respond. No need to rush.

            I was comfortable in that life. There was never a reason to hurry. Things would get done in their own time and place. So what if the lawn didn’t get watered today. There was always tomorrow. You didn’t see the neighbor in the morning? Go visit in the afternoon.

When you did visit, plan on staying for an hour or two. Play games. Build forts. Climb on the swing sets. Play a game of kickball or softball or toss a football around. Hang outside in the shade in the summer or gather together under a blanket in the winter.

            Race from one place to another? Unheard of, even as kids. Sure we rode bikes up and down the country roads, but always with caution, looking out for tractors, trucks and random pieces of rock. Besides, we really had nowhere to go except to the corner market and it was a long way away, so why hurry? The candy would still be there.

Life moved at a scheduled pace that almost nothing could disrupt.

            In the summer of 1964, my parents sold our house and most of our belongings, packed up the station wagon with what little we were allowed to keep and hit the road. Even though money was short, we took a leisurely drive, stopping to admire roadside memorials, hanging bridges, canyons and mountains. We hurried through the desert until some flaw in the engine slowed us down.

            Imagine the shock upon arrival in California. Smog enveloped the freeway and filled the care with a nasty smell. Traffic was miserable. Most of the time going north we looked at brake lights that came on then went off, on then off as we crept along.

When we finally got to our uncle’s home in Orange County then an earthquake rocked the world. Literally. Trees swayed. Roads buckled. We knew about tornadoes, but had never felt anything quite so terrifying. Almost as one, my family fell to our knees and cried while my cousins laughed.

In a way it was appropriate to begin life in California with an earthquake as it symbolized a dramatic beginning to a huge change in life.

            We left southern California and rented a home near Sacramento. It was miserably hot, the house was not air-conditioned and we knew no one.

There was a strip mall a short walk away along an extremely busy road. If we had the money, my mom would walk there with us and buy us each a cone. It was so hot, however, that the ice cream would melt before we could finish it off.

California was a bustling place in which it seemed as if everyone was in a hurry. There were places to go and things to do and no time to think about it. Make up your mind and act. It didn’t matter what decision you made, just make one. No leisurely discussions. No warming up to the topic. No weighing your options. Choose now without sitting back and reflecting on it.

            I was not prepared for this life and so adjusted poorly. I made no friends up in Sacramento, so it made no difference to me when we moved to the flats of South San Francisco. This rental was a miniature house. The bedroom I shared with my sister was so narrow that we had to have bunk beds and share one small dresser. Turned sideways, if you extended your arms, one touched the bed, the other the dresser.

I enrolled in high school expecting to take the same types of classes that I had taken in Beavercreek.  Back there it was easy to choose classes: there were two tracks, occupational and academic. There was limited list of options. I’d write down what I wanted without bothering to peruse course descriptions. I simply complete the bloody form and was done with it.

In California I had many options to choose from. Several kinds of English and math. A variety of science and history classes. Lots of languages to choose from, but not the Latin which I had taken in Ohio.

            In Ohio we had no lockers except in the gym. In California we had to walk up and down the rows until we found an unclaimed locker. With the counselor tagging along. There was no time to walk up and down and weigh the benefits of this one over that one. Pick one and move on to the next task.

In Ohio the teachers handed out the textbooks. In California we had to stand in line at the bookroom with our class schedules in hand. The needed books were handed to you in one huge pile. You weren’t allowed to flip through the pages to make sure you got books that weren’t ragged or marked up.

Next we had to buy gym clothes. Back “home” as we said for many years, gym clothes were purchased at a store. Not here. We stood at another window and gave the sizes needed. Handed over the money. No thinking about room for growth or checking to make sure there were no holes or loose threads. Just do it and get out of the way.

            I thought enrolling in school was hurried, but nothing compared to how conversations moved. People talked so fast that I seldom understood what they were saying. They didn’t wait for a response, either. If you said, nothing, they’d move on.

More than once I was left standing with my mouth hanging open and words still wanting to come out…with no one there to hear.

It didn’t take me long to internalize that conversational niceties were unnecessary in California. You said what was most important and then moved on. It was difficult for me to do because my social mind doesn’t work that way, so I made very few friends. Not just that first year, but over my many years of living here.

            The fast pace affected all areas of life. When looking for a rental home, we found that if we dallied in order to find the absolutely best home, the first one would be gone when we went back. Once my parents figured this out, they chose the next decent home at first sight.

While it made do, it was an old, smelly cramped house on a narrow dead-end street. One benefit was that it was within walking distance to school. Another was that it had a big backyard, big enough for us to toss a ball around. Thankfully we only lived there about a year.

            I missed the meandering country roads. In California people drove fast all the time, even in neighborhoods where children were playing in the street. They’d slow at stop signs, but just barely. When making a turn, they’d creep to the intersection, appear to take a quick look, then be off.

Lane changes required tremendous skill, timing and guts. Thankfully most streets were laid out in straight paths and led logically from one place to another. If they hadn’t been, I’m not sure my parents would ever have let me learn how to drive.

            There were positives about our new home.

In Ohio we had to drive miles to get to a movie theater. In California we had several theaters close to home. In Ohio we worried about snow and ice, tornadoes in the summer and torrential downpours in the spring and fall. Here we had sunny days practically all year long.

In Ohio the nearest store was four miles away, and it was just a little country market. To get to a supermarket, we had to drive into Dayton, which meant making it a day trip. Here we could go north or south, east or west and within a few blocks find a shopping area.

In Ohio, our little Beavercreek did not have a downtown. South San Francisco did. In Beavercreek there were few sidewalks and lots of dirt lots for parking. In California you parked along the side of the street or in huge lots. In Ohio you drove from store to store, but here you walked.

            I missed Ohio. The open fields, the rambling roads, my few friends. But life in California had so much to offer that I quickly let go of all that tied me to my country roots. I fell in love with California’s natural beauty, quick access to beaches, and the nearly endless stretch of hills and cities. In less than a year I was so in love with the Golden State that I realized that I would never go back to that slow pace of life.

I had become a California girl.

Thoughts About Life Before Death

            This morning an author was sharing her work on the radio. She’d thought a lot about death and dying, but especially about the steps between independence and reliance on others.

            She said that the idea of moving on to an afterlife didn’t scare her: it was what came before.

            Her words hit home.

            I am a person of faith. I believe in a heaven in which God is waiting for me. He will welcome me with open arms, bring me into His fold where I will live with all kinds of angels. It will be a place of intense colors, smells, and sites. It will be warm day and night and while walking the paths I will encounter family, friends and others that have been waiting for my arrival.

            Heavenly, right?

            The author being interviewed had treated her body well over the years. She’d watched what she ate, consumed very little alcohol, and early on incorporated exercise into her daily routine. She’d run marathons and belonged to a gym for many years.

            She hoped, believed, that treating her body well gave her the opportunity to live long without being a burden to loved ones.

            Her comments made me think about my past. I did not exercise regularly until well into my forties. I learned the game of soccer by watching my own kids play. My daughter’s coach was so horrible that the parents “fired” her, then made me coach. I knew nothing about the game, but I loved research. I read book after book on rules, conditioning and game play.

            I did not sit on the sidelines and shout: I ran, dribbled, passed and thought up new and different “games” to keep my players interested.

            I signed up for coaching classes and learned to be a referee. Once I was licensed, I “reffed” an average of four games a weekend while still coaching a girls’ team and rushing to see my sons play as often as possible.

            To understand more, I joined two adult teams: one co-ed, the other women only. I practiced with both and played one game a weekend on each team.

            As time passed, I felt my overall conditioning improve. I had never been a runner and still wasn’t, but I never stopped moving whether on or off the field.

            My kids swam in a competitive summer league. I took them to morning practices and stayed for their lessons. Watching them taught me how to swim. From barely being able to swim freestyle, I learned backstroke and breaststroke. From not being to complete a lap without stopping, I became a lap swimmer.

            At one point we sold our membership to the pool. For years I had no place to swim while at the same time injuries had kept me off the soccer field. The lack of exercise, combined with a series of surgeries, prevented me from taking up new forms of exercise, and so the weight piled on.

            Well into my fifties I heard of a community indoor pool near my place of work. I could get up early, drive the thirty minutes to get there, get a little exercise, shower and arrive at work on time. At first I only walked, back and forth, back and forth, while in the other lanes swimmers swam in “circles”. I so wanted to join them, but it had been years since I’d done anything like lap swimming.

            Bored with walking, one morning I slipped under the lane lines and joined the moving crowd. I was not the fastest, but not the slowest either. My asthma kicked up, meaning that I’d have to pause after every two laps to rest. I’d go on, each week pushing myself to do more and more.

            Then something happened and the pool had to close for repairs. I had no place to go.

            During this same time I had joined a neighborhood gym. I dropped in almost every afternoon and most weekends. I fell in love with the elliptical and stationary bike. Many of the machines didn’t work for me, but I used those that did. Wanting more, I hired a physical trainer. Big mistake. I don’t believe he’d ever worked with an old lady with double knee replacements. No matter how many times I told him I couldn’t jump or run upstairs, he didn’t believe me. He browbeat me into doing things I didn’t think I could do. He brought me to tears. But I kept paying him for three months before I finally walked away.

            About three years ago a new gym was built not far from my home. It had an indoor three-lane pool and tons of machines. After touring a nearby affiliate of the same company, I signed up. Why? The clientele looked like me: old, out-of-shape women and men. None of the burly, sweaty jocks of my old gym. This looked like a place where I’d fit in.

            When the gym opened I began working with a new trainer. He was gentle and kind. He understood senior citizens and listened to me when I said I couldn’t do something. He gave me exercises and routines that I could do on my own.

            My confidence grew. I lost a little weight, just enough to get brave enough to swim. It felt great to be back in the water, but I was moving much more weight than before. I was slow, slow, slow. But persistent. Each few days I added two more laps. In time I was able to swim a full mile!

            I still go to the gym, still swim, still use the machines.

            About two years ago I ran into a friend from my soccer days. We began hiking two days a week. It was hard at first. Some hills nearly killed me. I’d have to give up and turn around, embarrassed that I couldn’t keep up with my friend.

            Now we are equal partners, routinely hiking 8-10 miles tow to three days a week.

            What all this is about is that right now, I am in the best shape of my life. Like the author mentioned earlier, I take care of my body. I eat healthy, exercise regularly and keep my mind sharp.

            I hope, I believe, that all this will pay off as I add on more years. In three months I will turn seventy-two, but I don’t feel that old.

            At that age my mom looked and acted old. She was the epitome of the wizened old lady. Her face was pitted with wrinkles and her back and legs were weak. She couldn’t walk through her flat neighborhood or meander through a store without frequent stops. Her mind was failing, a precursor to the dementia that eventually took her life.

            I’ve read, just as the author has, that mental and physical exercise keeps us vibrant longer. I hope that she’s right. I want to be alert and independent as long as possible. I don’t want to be a burden to my family. I want to die with grace and dignity intact.

            There are things I don’t know the answer to. For example, will my years of inactivity impact how long I can function independently? I’ve heard that smokers lose years of life, but can gain some time back by quitting.

            Does this work for exercise? Because I’ve been working out seven days a week for years now make up for thirty years of no exercise?

            I certainly hope so.

            While I am not afraid of death, I am doing everything I can to stave off the effects of mental and physical decline. I pray, attend church, read, write, meet with various groups of friends, follow a weight-loss path, watch television, go out for meals and attend movies and plays. I talk to my adult children and my grandchildren. I do things. All kinds of things. And love my life, live my life, to the fullest.

            Perhaps this will make the difference. I certainly hope so.

Opening My Eyes

When you have very little, even the smallest thing can change your life. It often doesn’t matter what it is, it’s the ownership that allows us to see ourselves in a different light.

For most of my growing up years living with my family I felt inferior to my siblings. My brother Bill, who was a little more that a year older, seemed to bask in my mother’s attention. I understood that my father didn’t often see the good in my brother, no matter how hard he tried to gain approval.

My dad was a natural athlete: my brother was not. Bill signed up for Little League. He wasn’t good enough to get on a team. My dad was so angry that he lashed out at league officials, but no matter how obnoxious my dad was, Bill didn’t get placed on a team. My dad found out that he could pick up all the boys (yes, only boys could play back then!) that had been rejected and set up practice times with them.

My dad got busy, spending night after night making calls. When he had called every boy and got enough to make a team, practices began. I was allowed to tag along. Every time a ball went wild, it was my responsibility to retrieve it. Because theses boys had terrible skills, I spent almost the entire practice time, day after day, wading through thigh-high weeds gathering all the stray balls.

 I ended up with a such a severe case of poison ivy that I couldn’t bend my legs without being in pain. It did not deter me.

After weeks of practice, my dad arranged preseason games with organized, uniformed teams. His boys did not lose every game. When they did lose, it was not by the huge margin that the other coaches expected.

My brother was not the best player nor the worst, but he had an unusual style for running the bases. He never slid, but always arrived bent over with his butt facing the crowd. People snickered. My mom and I laughed.  My dad was embarrassed. He tried to teach my brother how “normal” boys ran the bases, but it didn’t change a thing.

What was important was that my dad took a group of players that no one wanted and made them into something valuable. In fact, two of his players made it onto the all-star team at the end of the season.

About the same time doctor shows were popular on television. Every doctor appeared in the typical “doctor” shirt, a white, short-sleeved button-up the shoulder shirt.

On a shopping trip to the nearest five-and-dime, I saw a display of doctor-shirts on a rack just inside the door. To my surprise, they had one in my size. Something I did not expect due to being quite overweight. It was marked down, but still too expensive, so my mom wouldn’t buy it for me. When my mom registered my dismay, she agreed that I could earn the money to buy one.

I set to work pulling weeds in the vegetable garden, picking blackberries along the border between our house and the woods, which gave me an outbreak of poison ivy, and cleaning my brother’s room which meant picking up dirty underwear off the floor.

As the days passed, I kept my fingers crossed that the shirt would still be there.

When I finally had enough saved, on the next trip into town, I was allowed to accompany my mother. With money safely stored in a little pouch tucked in y shorts pocket, I prayed for the entire thirty-minute trip.

I was so anxious that I could hardly breathe as we opened the doors to the store and walked in. The rack was still there. The shirt in my size was still there, now marked down even more. With joy I pulled it off the rack and carried it through the store, cradled against my chest. I refused to put it in the cart no matter how much my mom insisted.

As soon as I got home, I tried on the shirt. It was perfect! It fit just right. It made me look like the television doctors. It was a tad thin. This was before I started wearing bras, so my nipples showed through.

After washing I hung the shirt in my closet and saved it for special occasions. I took it off it food was involved. When school began several weeks later it was the first thing I wore. Picture me getting out of our car and striding across the playground. See my squared shoulders and confident step. Watch me as I approach classmates, expecting glowing comments about my wonderful shirt.

Now erase all that from your mind. The shirt was so out-of-style that everyone laughed. It was an awakening to me. The shirts were on the clearance rack for a reason: no one wanted them. Add to that my humiliation when I was teased about not wearing a bra.

That was the last time I wore the shirt.

I share the two different stories for an important reason: growing up means not just physical growth. Our bodies change, yes, but so must we change our awareness of ourselves in the world.

My brother might not have been a great baseball player, but later in life he discovered a love of swimming. He enjoyed it so much that he put in a backyard pool so he could swim every day. He taught his daughters how to swim and supported them through lessons and team practices. Like Bill, they were all excellent swimmers. At one time the girls were featured on the cover of a magazine as Olympic potentials. None of them did make it on a Olympic team, but they did swim for their respective colleges.

My shirt did not win me the admiration and acceptance of my peers, but it did teach me that theme-related items have a shelf-life. As a parent I never made the mistake of dressing my kids in no-longer-popular cartoon characters or out-of-favor styled clothing. As a mother I couldn’t afford the latest styles for myself but I could sew something similar.

As a child my clothes were usually hand-me-downs that were often stained. My kids never wore stained or torn clothes. My teenage clothes were sometimes too tight or too long or made from the wrong fabrics or designs. While my kids’ clothes might have come from thrift stores, they dressed like everyone else their age.

We learn a lot of things growing up if we keep our eyes and ears open. Chasing baseballs taught me the element of the game, something I still appreciate today. Watching my dad coach taught me what it takes to teach a sport, something I carried with me when I became a soccer coach.

Listening to my teachers exposed me to the good and bad of education. I admired and respected the teachers who saw me as the awkward, insecure child that I was masking the intelligent capable student who could go on to college and excel. They showed me what good teachers do, skills that I took into my own classrooms.

Throughout my adult life I have tried to keep my eyes open. Each time I experienced something for the first time, I lodged it in my mind, sorted by what worked and what didn’t. Those things that worked, I tried to repeat; the ones that didn’t I put away.

Imagine what kind of world we would have if everyone opened their eyes to what’s happening around them. Imagine the difference it would make in people’s lives.

Valentine’s Day Lessons

            I still remember my first Valentine’s Day party. I was five years old attending a private Kindergarten, not because my parents were wealthy, but because free Kinder programs didn’t yet exist. My parents enrolled me because I was painfully shy and well behind academically.

            My clothes were hand-me-downs or homemade while my classmates were well-dressed. Even at that age I knew there was a difference. I stood out because of appearance, sociability and academic struggles (I didn’t know my shapes, letter sounds and the basics of math).

            However, when my teachers spoke of there being a party on Valentine’s Day, I was quite excited. With wide-open eyes, I chose the cards that I thought my classmates might like and then dutifully addressed each one. I believed that I would receive an equal number of cards. After all, the teachers said one for each student in the class.

            The big day comes. We’ve had sweets made or purchased by parents. We’re given a lunch bag to put on the front of our desks. One by one we get up and walk about the room, dropping cards in each bag. As time passes, my eyes pool with tears: over and over I was being skipped. Not one student put a card in my bag.

            When my turn came to distribute cards, I hid them in my lap and pretended as if I had none. I understood that I was beneath consideration; my standing was such that I didn’t warrant a cheap paper card.

            Perhaps it was an anomaly, perhaps it was intentional. What was important was that my teachers did nothing to address the discrepancy.

            When Valentine’s neared the next school year, my mom insisted that I prepare cards. Once again I chose the ones that I thought were the best, addressed each, then brought them to school. I was now in a Catholic elementary, so I figured things would be different.

            My teacher told us to put the bag we’d brought on the front of our desks. I’d decorated mine in bright colors and happy symbols. I was proud of the effort I’d put in and hopeful that it would be filled with cards.

            As the rows of students were told to distribute cards, I leaned forward, excited to watch cards drop in my bag. But something went horribly wrong. Just like in Kindergarten, my bag remained empty.

            The same thing happened in second grade, third grade, fourth grade and fifth. Every year my mom insisted in buying cards, having me address them, and forcing me to bring them to school. Every year my bag remained empty. Every year my eyes filled with tears.

            By this time I hated the day and wished it had never been created. Obviously Valentine’s Day was for special people, not everyone. It was a happy day for kids who had friends, but for loners like myself it was just one more reminder of how isolated we were.

            Thankfully when I moved into middle school, the day took on less importance and was essentially ignored for the rest of my school years.

            When I became an elementary school teacher I distributed written instructions before the day. All students must give cards to all students. Period. Cards could be homemade or store-bought, but there must be one for each student in the class.

            To decrease the chance of embarrassment, students did not roam the class giving out their cards. Instead my instructional assistant collected the cards, sorted them, counted them, and filled in any gaps when the numbers were not equal. She was the one who carried the cards to the desks and placed them in the bags. All students got the same number of cards. No one was made to feel less-than.

            Lessons learned when we are small are quite powerful. I learned that it hurt to feel excluded and that when my teachers did nothing, I understood that I was truly alone. Not wanting my students to experience what I had drove me to be a better teacher.

            With Valentine’s approaching in this year of COVID-19, each of us needs to ensure that everyone feels cherished even if cards are distributed online or through drop-offs at school. Children who are different-than average must not experience a harsher exclusion or differentiation then they already know.

            Find ways to show love that encompass all those in your social circle. Be kind to even the most difficult person in the group. That’s a hard challenge: forcing yourself to put aside angry or hurt feelings in order to be inclusive.

            This is my Valentine’s Day lesson: how we treat others at a young age affects how they see themselves later in life. Children who are ignored or isolated grow up feeling ignored and isolated. Addressing cards to children who are not your children’s friends might make the lonely kid’s day. The smile on that child’s face might change her way of looking at herself, leading to a life of successes.

            Be thoughtful. Be mindful. Be inclusive.  

Incomplete Information

            How many opinions have we formed based upon something we’ve heard? Unfortunately in this technological age when, with typing a few words, we can find resources that are trusted, based on researched facts, too many cement their beliefs in place, closing off polite discourse.

            The past four years serve as a good example of how anyone can throw out ideas that quickly become firm beliefs even though the person held no credentials, had done no research and was not a member of a reliable organization or college, yet spoke as if he was all those things and more. Divisiveness resulted, creating deeper caverns as time passed.

            I have to admit that I am sometimes quick to form opinions. Without evidence I would decide that a certain individual wouldn’t like me and so walked away. What if she could have been my new best friend? What if he could have helped me solve a problem? I will never know because I made my decision based on incomplete information.

            I’ve also chosen potential friends based on that same lack of  information. During my senior year of college two of my roommates seemed to be friendly. They greeted me politely and would stop and talk before heading off. I can’t recall ever doing anything with them outside of our shared suite which should have sent a message, but it didn’t.

            After graduation, since the three of us lived in the Bay Area, we thought we’d get together. One lived in Marin County. She had money and a car. I had neither. She invited me to her family home, which was nice, but it would have required me getting permission to borrow the family car and driving somewhere I knew nothing about. This was before GPS systems so paper maps were all we had. I was a fairly inexperienced driver, so the thought of driving over the Golden Gate Bridge was terrifying. I backed out, giving her a feeble excuse.

            She got married a few months later and sent an invitation. I had little money to buy a gift, but I chose the nicest thing I could afford, some soft, pretty towels. I intended to go to her wedding, but as it got closer to the date to respond and confirm, I backed out. When I called her to tell her, I suggested meeting somewhere in San Francisco so I could give her the gift. She refused.

            That’s when I realized that I had used incomplete information when deciding that she was my friend. I was not in her social class and so could never mingle in her circles. It made me terribly sad.

            After a disastrous event during my college years, I was terrified of men for quite some time. I assumed that all men were like the one who abused me. He had seemed like a friend, had acted like a friend, and was, in fact, my brother’s friend. I trusted him. When he invited me to the apartment he shared with his wife, I felt no fear. However, when he bolted the door behind me I questioned his intent, but didn’t ask.       

Allowing myself to be in that situation was a reliance on incomplete information. I had heard of women being attacked, but knew no one personally who had been a victim. I assumed that my university was a safe place. That no one there would take advantage of me. When it happened I was shaken. My trust was shattered.

I did not know how precarious of a position I had walked into until it happened. My ignorance caused me to form an opinion that all men would treat me in the same way. It was years before I could trust a man again.

            As a child of a dysfunctional family I assumed that all families were like mine. Because I had not been permitted to enter others’ homes, I had incomplete information. I thought that all families were like min, where insults and ridicule, threats and punishment were every day events.

My eyes were opened when my parents allowed me to spend a night at a classmate’s house. Until the visit, I did not know that a family could gather around the table for a meal and share jokes and stories without criticism. I didn’t know that families could sit in front of the television and laugh at the antics of characters without being ridiculed if I found something funny that they did not. I also discovered that children could be sent to bed with hugs and kisses as opposed to spankings and other threats of punishment.

My information base shifted. I now knew that something was wrong with the way I lived. There was nothing I could do to escape as I was too young and had no one I could turn to. The one thing that I did do was begin gathering information using my eyes and ears.

Several years later I fell ill when away at college. A friend’s family took me home and nursed me back to health. They were kind, gentle and patient. They were quiet people who never spoke loudly. There was no hate, no mean comments, no divisiveness. They didn’t monitor my activities but gave me space to heal.

I had never experienced such kindness before. This rattled my opinions about what constituted family and how families behaved toward one another. I was surprised at how they spoke to each other and listened to what each of them said. One evening when I was feeling better, they took me to a play. Their son had a lead role. He was a good actor for someone so young. What struck me was that after the play, no one teased him or made fun of him. Instead they congratulated him and praised his performance. I was pleasantly shocked.

My experience of family changed based on gathering information. There was nothing I could do to change my own family, but I could hold the lessons dear for future reference.

I could go on and on, but it isn’t necessary. Thanks to the Internet it’s now possible to conduct research by checking out a variety of sources. Some are to be trusted while others are not. A discerning individual can ferret out which are reliable and which are not. Through this process a person can gather sufficient information to make an opinion based on fact.

Relying on incomplete information is no longer acceptable. Look about, read, investigate, ask questions of yourself and others. Peruse a variety of articles. Figure out who the sources are and what their credentials are, whether or not they are qualified to be dispensing information.

Once you are convinced that a piece of information is accurate, then formulate an opinion, but be open to challenges from outside sources. As time passes often foundations are rattled. New evidence appears or the source goes off on an unsubstantiated rant, making you question whether or not that person is a reliable source anymore.

The important thing to remember is that incomplete information is misinformation, plain and simple.

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.

Anything Goes

            The first time I heard this expression I didn’t think it applied to me. I was a follower of rules. Because of my home environment, I understood that straying resulted in physical punishment, ranging from being beaten with a belt, shaken, slapped and humiliated.

            The concept of anything goes was as foreign to me a Greek. There was nothing in my lexicon that allowed me to process the meaning.

            When I left home to attend college, for the first time in my life, no one hovered over me telling me what to do or ridiculing the decisions I made. It was terrifying and rejuvenating at the same time. If I wanted to skip a meal, I could. If I felt like sleeping in and not making my bed, my mother was not there to chastise.

            In essences, I could do whatever I wanted. The caveat was that I had to attend classes and earn grades good enough to graduate with a degree.

            When the Vietnam War protests began, I could march and carry signs expressing my opinion, knowing that my parents would be horrified. There was nothing they could do to stop me. It was only when smartly dressed me in tight fitting expensive suits with ear pieces arrived on campus, did I retreat from the movement. At that moment I couldn’t do whatever I wanted because I knew they were keeping track and most likely taking pictures.

            Once I was an adult, anything goes ceased to have meaning. I had to be present for my kids. I had to forsake my own wishes to teach in order to make sure the kids had food, opportunities to learn and explore, clean clothes and a responsible adult overseeing them. I did haul them to pottery classes, preschool, parks, parties, sports practices and games. I made sure they got to school on time with clean clothes.

            In other words, I was back to being a follower of rules.

            One advantage of getting old is that once again, rules disappear. Anything Goes is truly my motto. I can do whatever I want, whenever I want. I can choose to not do something as well. My life is my own to monitor. I can go hiking with a friend or walk with my husband. I can write or read a book. I can send cards to family and friends or laze in front of the television. Laundry can stack up in the hamper until I feel like washing it.

            The only monitor I have is me.

            I hope that sometime during a person’s life they can fall under the umbrella of Anything Goes. It’s a powerfully liberating concept. Enjoy!

Life’s Journey

            My friend and I have been sharing the various paths our lives have taken.  Neither of us had an easy time along the way. Both of us have disappointments. No matter where our journeys took us, we agree that the steps we traveled made us who we are today.

            When I was in Kindergarten I decided to become a teacher. It wasn’t that my teacher was kind to me; in fact, she barely spoke to me or recognized me in any way. She’d drop a bunch of worksheets on my desk and then move on to the next student. She did know what skills I was deficient in, however, because I worked on the name of colors, shapes, the alphabet and recognizing basic numbers.

            The one positive thing that the teacher offered was calm and safety. She never yelled at me or anyone else. She never slapped or threatened me in any way.

            Because I felt safer in Kindergarten than I did at home, I liked it there and soon chose teaching as a career.

            My first job was keeping score at a local bowling alley. I was only fourteen, but I had spent much of my early years in bowling alleys. My dad was a semi-professional bowler who traveled to competitions. He taught me to bowl when I was twelve. Keeping score was a logical choice.

            In college I began working for aa fast food restaurant. At first I only took orders and then handed them over when filled. As my confidence grew I learned to make coleslaw. I had to stick my hands into deep vats and stir the ingredients around. My hands and arms would get so cold that I couldn’t feel them.

When strawberry season arrived, I took over the pie-making enterprise.  I was the best at trimming the berries. I could cut off the stem so quickly and neatly that no one could match my efforts.

That was a major turning point on my life’s journey. Knowing that there was something I could do better than anyone else boosted my ego. Ironically, although I had been a good student out of fear of physical punishment, now my grades stayed high because my confidence had improved.

When I transferred to USC I found a job at the university book store. I was so happy! I begged for more hours but was refused because students were restricted to how many hours they could work in a week.

Books called my name. Sometimes while shelving new books, I had to stop and read the cover. If it appealed to me, I put one aside. Often I bought them even though my earnings were supposed to supplement the grants that paid my housing.

I returned to writing when I realized the university published a literary newspaper. I submitted poems, but never had any accepted. Despite those rejections, my confidence as a writer grew.

I got a job working the front desk in a residence hall. It was my responsibility to screen anyone entering. It forced me to talk to people, something I was wont in doing. I discovered that people often wanted to know what I was thinking. They would stand and listen, then share a bit of their story. I met some awesome people who remained friends until graduation.

Another step on my journey checked off.

I applied to be a resident advisor during the summer. The residents were not students, but an ever-changing group of conference attendees. Oh, my, they were a lot of fun! There were social events almost every evening. I was invited to attend, but understood that I was not to abandon my post. Often food was delivered to me. The person making the delivery would stand and talk.

I learned that I could talk to strangers, fulfilling another step on my journey.

My first full-time job was as a customer service representative in a furniture store. That was horrendous. All day long I was bombarded by unhappy, sometimes angry people. All found fault with the furniture or the delivery. I wanted money refunded. I didn’t know what to do and no one bothered to train me.

This was a step backward. My confidence took a hit.

The office had a switchboard for the telephone service. I applied when a position opened and got it. I loved connecting calls. It was fun and something I learned quickly. All I had to do was match the plug to the right hole.

Check one off for confidence!

When I took that job I knew it would never become a career: it was the first job offered.

The government needed employees, so I took the test and scored high enough to be hired by the infamous IRS. This was a huge step on my life’s journey, benefitted by the government’s need to hire women.

I hated seizing property to pay tax debts. I was terrible at calculating interest and penalties despite mat being a strength for me. I hated walking into dark bars and going into strangers’ homes.

Most people were respectful even though I represented a hated agency. One time I was threatened by the owner of an automobile tire shop. The next day I returned with gun-toting agents. Even though nothing happened, I tremble for days.

One positive that moved me along my journey was that I learned to speak to strangers. Another momentous event was meeting my future husband in the office. If I hadn’t met him, who knows were my journey would have gone?

In the past 46 years I’ve had three amazing children who are all successes in their own way. Add in seven talented grandchildren who fill me with joy.

I got to become that teacher 38 years ago, and taught for 34. In my college classes to earn my credentials and certificates, I garnered information that allowed me to mentor peers, lead workshops and participate in district-wide trainings.

My favorite part of the job was being a mentor. It filled my heart with joy when someone came to me for suggestions and advice.

Another step along the way.

Now that I am retired, you might think that my journey was nearly over. Wrong.

I listen to the news, read newspapers and magazines and talk with friends. I gather information from all those sources that develop my opinions and beliefs. I read books that take me into worlds and situations I met never see. I travel to countries I’d never thought about visiting.

Everything I’ve done, whether there were positive or negative outcomes, have made me who I am today. Because I am always learning, I know that I will continue to progress.

My life’s journey isn’t yet over and that’s a wonderful thing.

One Man’s Trash

Shiny penny

Left behind like somebody’s

Old candy wrapper

Dropped, forgotten

As the owner moved on

 

Too busy, too proud

To bend down and pick up

Something so small,

So insignificant

Relatively meaningless

 

Until someone, down on luck,

Sees an opportunity

Contrasted against the gloom

Of the blacktop

And smiles

 

A chance for improvement

A sliver of hope

Calling for redemption, as it

Glitters in the darkness

Of lonely despair

 

So cool to the touch

So small in the palm

Yet, when combined

With other shiny coins

Can mean a meal

 

A hot cup of coffee

A night’s rest in safety

Clean clothes

A bar of soap and

Long, refreshing shower

 

Someone’s forgotten coin

Left behind like a chewed up

Piece of gum

Brings redemption

To the finder

Open Arms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay.”

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

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

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

“How do you know that?”

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

“I feel like that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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