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.

 

Memories of Life in the Projects

I first became aware of home when I was about four years old. Our house had a front porch that stretched across the width, the front door right smack-dab in the middle. There were no chairs out there, no toys, no swing, but it was my preferred place because it got me out from under the watchful eyes of my mother.

I remember getting splinters every time I was out there, and although I hated the Mercurochrome that my mother applied after each extraction, I returned time after time. Maybe this is why my parents thought I was slow: I never seemed to learn from my errors.

My older brother was really into cowboys, so therefor I was as well. He had a hat, chaps, and a holster. I had a hat and a skirt. When he wanted to play cowboy, he’d get dressed and go out on the porch. He was five, big enough to climb the railings and straddle the top. I couldn’t do it no matter how hard I tried. He’d tease: I’d cry.

I wasn’t aware of appliances at that age, but I was mesmerized by the washing machine. It was a huge tub with two tight rollers, which my mom called ringers, on the top. Mom would stir the clothes in the tub, then push them through the ringers one at a time. She was afraid that her hands would get stuck. I sensed her fear, so I tried to stay back far enough, but because I wanted to see, I’d slowly move closer and closer.

One warm day Mom sat on the side steps smoking. I wasn’t supposed to be out there, but I went anyway and sat next to Mom. She wasn’t good at snuggling, so I maintained distance between us. A steady stream of kids came by, each dressed nicely and carrying a metal box. I knew about those boxes because my dad took one to work everyday.

Those kids seemed so happy on their journey, so I stood to join in. Mom pulled me back to the steps. I cried because I wanted to hear what they were laughing about, to be a part of their silliness, to run and hop and skip with them as they passed along the path. But more than anything, I wanted my own lunch box.

Mom told me that the kids were going to school, that I wasn’t old enough, and that my brother would go to school next year. I didn’t know what school was, but I felt that I would love it.

I begged over and over to go, to have a box, but Mom always said no. Eventually she yelled at me, something I earned often, scolded me and sent me away. I was told never to mention those two things again.

One night when my dad came home from work, he brought me a gift. This was an unusual occurrence as we only got gifts at Christmas. Guess what it was? A beat-up blue metal lunch box that someone had left at work. My mom washed it out, my dad gave it a fresh coat of paint, and then it was mine, all mine. My brother stole it from me, but dad forced him to give it back.

For several weeks someone packed a lunch in it for me. Eventually that person must have grown tired because one morning it was empty. After throwing a wonderful temper tantrum I was told it was never going to happen again. I got to keep the box, but I turned it into a keepsake collector where I stored pretty rocks and other such things.

We were seldom allowed off the porch by ourselves. One day Mom was busy doing something and my brother and I snuck around the side of the house. There was a hose on the ground. My brother picked it up and waved it about, telling me it was a snake out to get me. He grew tired of that so moved on to something that would get me in trouble: he turned on the waer.

Because the sun was shining, when he waived the hose up and down, it created a spray that took on the hues of a rainbow. He repeated the action over and over, amazing us both. Of course he grew tired of that and decided to soak me through and through. However, when I ran next to the neighbor’s’ house, the spray hit the window before it got to me.

My brother was old enough to understand that something terrible had happened, so he handed me the hose and disappeared. I was thrilled to be in charge, but only until the neighbor arrived. I was the obvious culprit. I was the one that he dragged to the front door and who was shown to my mother. Even though I pleaded innocence and blamed my brother, I was the one who was punished.

One last memory comes to mind. Someone gave my brother a tricycle that was no longer needed. To celebrate, we all went outside to watch my dad teach him how to ride. It was great fun. My brother learned quickly enough that he could pedal all around the house without falling over. My parents went off to do something important.

My brother, seizing the opportunity to torment me, chased me with the trike. He’d pedal as fast as he could then crash into me, knocking me over. I’d brush off the dirt just in time to be hit again. Over and over he did this. You’d think I would have been smart enough to leave, but I had been told to stay with him for fear of punishment.

Even after me knees, hands and elbows were scratched and my dress filthy, he continued. At some point he got off the trike, so I got on. The problem was that my legs weren’t quite long enough and strong enough to make it move. My brother returned and pushed me. At first it was great fun, but he pushed faster and faster. I must have hit a bump because I toppled over, hurting myself even worse.

My brother didn’t get in trouble but I did.

Much later when I was older and we had moved away I learned that we had been living in the projects, low income housing. Once I understood that, my mother’s protests made sense. She was miserable there and let her displeasure be known whenever my dad was around.

As a kid I saw nothing wrong with the projects. We were on the path to school, we had a wonderful porch and there was a path around the house perfect for riding. We had food, beds and clothes. While I was a whiner and crier, I was comfortable there, sharing space with Mom, Dad and my brother.

My memories are all a mixture of happy and sad, a perfect combination for life in the projects.

Being Me

For the longest time, I really didn’t like myself. I knew, intrinsically, that somehow I was not the child that my parents wanted. That’s a hard cross to bear.

I was not pretty. I was not talented in any way. I took a long time to learn things. My memory was not the best, so I repeated the same mistakes over and over.

I was not girly. I wore dresses only because that’s what my mother gave me to wear. I wanted to wear pants and shorts and t-shirts because that’s what my brother wore.

I hated long hair. It took too much time to brush it, and then what I got older, it was difficult to style it because I had no skill in that area. I wanted short hair cut in a “boy” style. When I finally did get it sheared off at shoulder length, it angered my father so much that he called me foul names.

In terms of academics I was not my brilliant brother. He excelled in science. I excelled in nothing. No, there was one thing that I could do better than him! I could write beautiful cursive.

I was so slow to learn that I spent most lunches in a tutoring room, supervised by a strict nun who offered no support. I hated the room in the summer as it was sweltering. In the winter, however, it was shelter from the cold.

In high school I discovered that I was good at math and languages. I was still awkward. I was still not pretty. I was still not girly. I was now able to wear shorts and jeans at home, but had to wear dresses to school and church. I felt fat and dumpy. When I sat, the width of a single one of my thighs matched the width of both of anyone else’s combined.

I discovered that I had a talent for bowling and badminton, so played on my high school teams. I was not the best, but I held my own. This gave me something to crow about. I held my head higher and walked prouder.

When a young man asked me out, I felt desired. Not at first, but as he continued to date me, I accepted his amorous fumblings with positive regard. Because of him I began to understand that beauty is not defined by what you see on television or in magazines, but what others see when you walk by.

Once I was in college I realized that my skills in math and languages were appreciated by my professors. My heart swelled with pride.

When contacts came on the market, I entered a trial program on my campus to wear them. Without my glasses I didn’t feel as old-fashioned or as clumsy. I dated several men at the same time! Wow! Imagine how it felt to be popular for the first time!

I smiled when I walked about campus. I greeted casual acquaintances and sat with people I barely knew. I worked in the bookstore and found myself a valued employee. I was a good roommate and a good friend.

As my circle of friends grew, so did my self-esteem. By the time I graduated, I must have had at least fifteen friends! A record number for me.

After college I had no choice but to return home, back to the environment in which I was less-than my siblings. I was subjected to cooking lessons which I never mastered. I was forced to clean house every day, including my sibling’s rooms which I felt was grossly unfair. I was little more than a servant.

To make matters worse, I could not find employment. I applied wherever I could. I was rejected over and over because potential employers didn’t like that I was a college graduate with no office skills. I wasn’t even hired to distribute cards from store to store! What skills would that require?

The longer unemployment went on, the lower my self-esteem plummeted. At home I was that unhappy, unfeminine little girl. I was worthless because I lacked domestic skills and had no desire to learn. My activities were monitored, so I was not allowed to be social. I could only go out when my activities were chaperoned by an adult.

I was an adult! I was twenty-one. I could drive and vote and drink legally.

When I finally got hired at a now defunct furniture store, I was out of the house forty hours a week. I bought a car. I rented a studio apartment. I was free! And once again I began to like myself.

From there I slowly became who I am today. It was not an easy road. I spent hours alone, but I also went skiing, saw movies, ate out with colleagues. I saw Joan Baez in concert. I went camping in the Santa Cruz mountains. I took a class in hiking and went with the group. It was tough! My backpack was canvas on a metal frame. By the time it was packed and on my shoulders, I feel over backwards! But I went.

The rest of my story, my story of learning to like myself, was like climbing a ladder. Each rung up taught me that I could do things, that I could succeed, that I had value.

When I look back and I realize how long I struggled to overcome those early restrictive years, it’s amazing that I emerged as me. I wish I could spare all girls the struggle. What I can offer is my life as example.

No matter where you are in life, never give up on yourself. Fight against whatever forces hold you back. Find something that you do well. Anything. It doesn’t have to be academics. It doesn’t have to lead to career, but it could.

Believe in yourself. No matter how others treat you, no matter those who try to hold you back, know that in you, there is value. You have much to offer the world.

Like yourself. Be you.

 

Transformations

If you remove the normal transformations that we experience as we change from child to adult, I believe that I have been many different people.

I have always been shy. Put me in a crowd and I become a silent member of any group. However, when I am with trusted friends, I can find plenty to say. I love listening to my friends talk and then responding to whatever they bring up.

When I was a field officer for the IRS I had to knock on doors and enter businesses where I knew no one. It was terrifying. I knew that no one wanted to see me, but somehow I had to communicate how much they owed and establish a payment system. I learned a lot in that job.

First, I discovered that I had a voice. I had something important to say even if the message was not a pleasant one. This came in handy when I became a teacher. Conferences are tough. Parents show up hoping to hear that their child is a genius with hidden talents. Nice if that’s the truth, but not always the case. Imagine telling a parent that her child has a learning disability that will make reading/writing/math challenging? Imagine the looks on faces at that news. Then imagine yourself as the bearer of that news.

That’s what I did for 23 years. That’s who I was. The teacher who wanted to offer hope, to say that one day their child would wake up and the disability would be gone, but I couldn’t in good faith do that. So the person that I was at that time was the giver of negative gifts. It hurt.

Second, as a Revenue Officer I discovered that I could navigate myself around San Francisco, Walnut Creek, San Mateo, just about anywhere around the Bay Area. Not such a big deal now with all the technology we have, but it was then. I relied on a book of maps and directional instinct. This was a real confidence booster. Without my dad driving, I could get from point A to point B and then on to point C.

I used that planning skill when I began teaching. I read helpful books, but then I had to implement a curriculum that I had planned, from beginning to end. When finished, I evaluated the relative success of a lesson and then adjusted. I still got from point A to point B, but upon reflection often a divergent path was taken.

I relied on my IRS skills throughout my career, no matter the job title. While presenting at meetings still make me nervous, I knew I had the wherewithal to plan and execute.

As a wife and parent I used the same skills to run our household. Having never been much of a cook, now I was responsible for three meals a day for a growing family. Cookbooks became my new best friends. Some of those early recipes are still in use today, now prepared by my husband or kids for their families. I learned that I could follow directions and usually end up with something edible. That’s a real confidence booster.

For a while I was involved with our church’s women’s guild. At first I was an observer, but in time I was pressured to begin organizing things. At first it was Santa at a bake sale. Then it was as treasurer and eventually president. I didn’t like any of these roles, but because I knew how to plan, organize and implement, I pulled them off.

When we began traveling as a family I once again tested those skills. I created a checklist that included necessary camping gear that constantly had to be revamped when we discovered that key items had been left home. Like the time our tent poles were left in the garage or when we tailgated without the grill to the BBQ. But as organizer I learned how to make reservations, buy tickets and pay fees, all when the internet was a baby. It meant phone calls. Lots of phone calls.

All this organizational practice takes me to who I am today. I can do all kinds of things that my parents would have thought impossible. From the shy Kindergarten kid who never opened her mouth I have become a singer, a friend, a member of an extended family, a person who leads book talks and who reads stories in public. I do these things with much more grace than I did earlier in my life. I know how to ask questions that get people talking. I know how to respond with appropriate comments.

I treasure those fleeting moments when I realize how life has transformed me into the older woman I am now. Looking back, I would never have pictured me doing all the things that I now do; if I had stayed the course set all those years ago, I would be a lonely spinster with ten cats and five dogs clamoring for attention. They would have been my family, my companions.

Because I have been transformed, I am pleased with who I am.