Looking Back

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

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

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

            Sitting in church one morning during the mandatory Mass, the girl next to me poked me in the thigh.  She then made her hand bounce high in the air, over and over, mimicking playing on a trampoline.  That was bad enough, but she wasn’t finished mocking me.

After making sure that the other girls nearby could see, the girl She tucked her skirt down tight over her six-inch wide thigh, measured with both hands, and then held those same hands over my much larger thigh.  The difference was startling enough to cause a riot of giggles up and down the pew.

Several days later I went into the girls’ bathroom during recess, something I tried to avoid for I knew that some of the more popular girls chose to hang out there.  But, when you have to go, you go, hoping that it won’t be too bad.

As expected, there were several sixth graders inside, lounging against a wall or checking themselves out in the mirror.  When I entered, almost in unison, their eyes focused entirely on me, seeming to scan my plump body. A look of pure disgust erupted on what I saw as rather sophisticated faces.  I froze in place as I hesitated: should I leave when I really needed to use the bathroom or stay?

I chose to bustle into the nearest stall, lock the door behind me and cry. I didn’t use the facilities right away because I didn’t want them to hear me pee. But I could hear every word they said.

            One girl whose voice I recognized said, “Fat people stink.  Don’t you agree?”

            “It’s because they pee their pants,” Mary Beth Saunders said.

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

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

            “If I was fat, I wouldn’t eat anything until I got skinny,” Mary Beth said.

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

            “Not me,” added Wanda.  “I’d ask my mother to tape my mouth shut so I couldn’t eat and then I’d stay home until I lost weight.”

            When the bell rang to end recess, they left. Taking advantage of the quiet, I took care of business. My eyes were watery the rest of the day.

That night, I took a long look at myself in the bathroom mirror.  I realized that I truly was fat.  When I wiggled my arms, my rolls of fat quivered. I assumed that my thighs did the same even though I couldn’t see them in the mirror.

When I bent over, I couldn’t see my toes, let alone touch them.  I did examine my legs for streaks, which I thought I did see. My image repulsed me so much that I went into my bedroom and cried for hours.

            I had little control over what I ate for whatever my mother fixed, I was expected to consume. I could give myself smaller portions, which I did do, therefore beginning my first diet at the age of ten.

Dieting, for me, became a life-long pursuit. I didn’t understand nutrition and there was no one to advise me, so I grew older as the fat me.

As a teen, I wanted to be the voluptuous woman I saw in magazines, but had no idea how to get there. I was an active teen, playing kickball with the neighbors, whiffle ball with my brother, riding bikes for miles around our neighborhood and bowling in a league.

All that activity made no difference. I continued to be overweight.

The “inside” me was quite demanding.  She made me feel guilty if I ate the cookies and candy that I loved, but even “her” guilt didn’t change what I did.  At one point I believed that the “inside” me got tired and simply gave up.

            When I graduated from college and finally had my own money, I became a confirmed shopaholic.  There was nothing that charged my battery like a mall.  It was as if there was a competition to find the best bargain, and I rose to the occasion.  As I strolled in and out of stores, I admired the svelte garments on display on the ultra-slim mannequins, imagining myself as one of them.  Sometimes I touched the fabric, pretending that I was considering buying whatever they were wearing.  But then reality would slam my forehead, crimson colored my neck and cheeks, and I would dash away, off to the fat ladies’ department where I belonged.

            One time. Against my better judgement, I went shopping with a bunch of relatives.  My husband’s sister was getting married, and everyone was in search of a dress to wear to the wedding.  We went in and out of a mass of stores, pawed through racks and racks of clothes, and spoke about how well the colors of different fabrics blended together. 

They all found things to try on.  They all bought perfect outfits.  But not me. I never once pulled a dress over my head.  Why?  We never got close to the fat ladies’ clothes.

            I preferred to shop alone.  That way I could go into Catherine’s or Lane Bryant or the Women’s section of Penneys and not die of embarrassment.  There was no way I was going to drag the relatives into one of those stores, so I found a nice, empty bench and sat there, watching the crowds as I waited for them to finish.

Years later a truly great friend invited me to go shopping with her. She understood what it was like, because she was also overweight.  When we were together we forgot about size because we saw the real person underneath.  When we went shopping, we tried on clothes, helped each other make decisions and shared our good finds. Unfortunately she lives hundreds of miles away.

            There were days when I convinced myself that I looked pretty darn good.  If I was wearing an attractive outfit that hid the lumps and bumps, I felt sure that no one could see the lumps and bumps underneath.  I would head off to work feeling happy and proud.  I knew that it was a myth, but when not one person sent even a tiny compliment my way, even I understood that I was fooling no one.

Fat people are invisible except in stores that cater to fat people. Otherwise slim people seem to have the ability to not see obese persons.  In fact, even if there is an accidental contact, one shoulder brushing against another, the slim people pretend as if nothing has happened.

I have heard thin people say that the obese choose to be that way because they gorge on cupcakes and chocolate.  That may or may not be true.  Genetics and simple physiology play a part in how easily a person gains and sheds pounds.  Another consideration is that an overweight child is extremely likely to remain overweight into adulthood. 

If you are born into a family of obese individuals, the odds are that you will also be obese. This is what I felt caused my problems. My paternal grandmother stood a little over five feet tall, but hit the scales at well over two hundred pounds.  I am built just like her. 

My mother believed that a fat baby was a healthy baby. Every picture taken of me at those early ages showed me with rolls of fat down my arms and legs. My mother fed the cellulite, which plumped me up like a marshmallow.  I’ve spent years trying to reverse the damage.

I have tried a number of weight-loss programs.  I would lose some, then put it back on. One time I lost a grand total of twenty-nine pounds, then after an operation that kept me inactive, put them all back on.

This was disappointing as I had gone down four sizes in pants and three sizes in tops.  Even then, however, I was still obese.  That was the frustrating part.  I worked so hard to lose those pounds, and yet I continued to be trapped in a body that I disliked.

If I could go back in time and change just one thing, one thing that would forever alter the events in my life, I would appear as a thin person.  That child would be popular.  Kids would choose me first when dividing up for teams.  I would be invited to birthday parties and get tons of Valentine’s cards.  When my birthday came around, everyone would beg to come to my party.

As a teenager I would go to school dances always with a handsome beau on my arm.  Cheerleading would be my passion, and as a dancer I would reign supreme.  When I went shopping, it would be with a gaggle of friends, giggling as we strolled through the mall.  Fun would be my middle name.  I would never be lonely.

No longer trapped in an obese body, I would have an opportunity to be a flight attendant, the career of my dreams.  Think how different my life would have been:  Zipping here, there, everywhere, always surrounded by friends!

Even if I had been thinner at that time, there are some things that I would not change.  I have a husband who loves me, no matter how puffy my thighs or how many rolls fell across my stomach.  My children are my pride and joy, and I had a job I loved. I have had a good life, and despite my weight, I was relatively healthy.

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

Thankfully I am no longer that person on the outside, but the “inside” me still thinks I am obese. Whenever I take a look at myself in a full-length mirror, I don’t believer that the person looking back at me is truly me.

One thing I will never do is look at an overweight person with disdain. I felt it most of my life and didn’t like how it affected me. I wish that everyone would feel the same.

The History of a Struggle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food Memories

            When I moved into the graduate student housing at USC, for the first time, I no longer had a meal plan. I was now on my own for all three meals, frightening for someone who didn’t know how to cook.

            I quickly figured out how to fry an egg, so fired egg sandwiches with American cheese and mustard became a staple along with cold cereal, toast and jam. Lunches were often bologna sandwiches with pickles, more American cheese, mustard and mayonnaise. On occasion I had the fried egg sandwich for lunch as well.

            Dinners usually came out of a can. Soups were the most prevalent choice.

            My brother also attended USC. He had a car and so would drive us to second-hand food stores where we could buy damaged goods for a fraction of the normal price. I learned to cook things out of boxes, greatly expanding my repertoire.

            I relied on these foods until I got married, when I felt an obligation to become the food provider. By saving and redeeming wrappers from Campbell’s Soup cans I was able to get a cookbook that used some flavor of soup in every meal. The recipes were easy to follow and required simple ingredients. My confidence grew with each recipe I tried.

            I bought more cookbooks, some of which are still in our cabinet today. Even with increased options, I tendered to stay with the tried and true.

            As a parent I tried to fix a hot breakfast almost every day, reserving cereal for rare occasions. I got good at pancakes and French toast, but I failed at oatmeal. Mine was always a lumpy mess.

            My mother canned fruits and vegetables and made jams that were quite delicious. I felt compelled to do the same. I poured through cookbooks until I’d find a recipe that looked doable.

My specialty became applesauce cooked in a crock pot. I’d add cinnamon because my kids liked it that way, and stop the cooking when there were still chunks. We went through lots and lots of applesauce.

I still relied on boxed and packaged foods such as macaroni and cheese, Hamburger Helper and noodles. Lots and lots of noodles. Canned vegetables were preferable over frozen, probably because I’d turn frozen into mush.
            In time I attempted pork roasts, pot roasts, meatloaf and homemade soup. The soup tasted like dishwater, so no more of that. Using soup as an ingredient, I could make tougher, cheaper cuts of meat edible.

What I prepared provided sustenance, but was not creative or even things of beauty. Our family didn’t go hungry unless a child refused to eat.

Considering how my weight skyrocketed over these years, one would have thought that I was an amazing cook. I was not. My skills had improved since college, but I never added an ingredient that wasn’t in the recipe, never altered preparation or cook time. The basics got us by.

So, why did I become obese? I have a love affair with cookies and candy. I was pretty darn good at making cookies, plus they were often on sale, so there was almost always a package or two in the house. I failed at fudge-making: mine came out as soup. Fudge became a special treat, one that I could not resist.

I could make a moist cake from a box mix, so there were lots and lots of cakes. I didn’t need a special occasion such as a birthday: I made a cake because I wanted one.

My mom had made a tapioca pudding that I loved. I bought a box of tapioca and cooked it up. It came out pretty good, so now we had pudding. Jello as well.

A pattern emerged. I could make sweets better than I could provide healthy dinners.

About twenty years ago my husband took on the job of cooking dinner. Things improved greatly with one caveat: he loved sauces and gravies. Almost every meal he made contained at least one of those two. He was also not a fan of most vegetables, so they were often missing from our plates. We never went hungry, I was relived of cooking duty, and so I was happy.

My relationship with food is mixed. As a child I was often punished for not cleaning off my plate. I spent hours crammed into an old high chair in front of the stove, condemned to be there until I ate every last remnant of cold food.

I knew the old sayings about starving children, but I didn’t care. If I didn’t like something, I wasn’t going to eat it. Period.

My childhood diet was carb-heavy. My mother believed that a fat child was a healthy child and so she worked hard to keep me fat. I was doomed from the start. Years of putting on weight created a situation in which it would take years to get it off. Over and over and over again.

When I first decided to end the cycle I enrolled in a course at Kaiser. I learned about nutrition, about balance, about control. I lost thirty pounds over twelve months. When they told me I couldn’t repeat the course for a fourth time, I forgot what I had learned and the weight returned.

I joined a gym. I exercised almost every day, after work, and both days on weekends. I lost some weight. It came back when I had a knee replaced.

Walking in water was supposed to be good for my knee, so I found an indoor pool a twenty-minute drive away. Every morning I was there, bright and early at six in the morning. When I got the okay from my doctor I switched to lap swimming. I had put on weight after the surgery: I lost a bit of it.

After seeing commercials on television I turned to Weight Watchers. I returned to the practices I’d learned at Kaiser. I lost some weight, put it back on, over and over.

My obsession with food, with sweets, was powerful and pulled me down. I’d swear I wouldn’t eat a cookie and then I’d consume three or four. I wasn’t going to have ice cream, but then I’d have a bowlful.

As time passed health issues derailed efforts to lose weight. Another knee replacement kept me from the gym. Then I fell and broke my ankle. I chipped my elbow removing my laptop from the trunk. I fell going down steps and fractured the bone below my knee replacement. Another six months of limited exercise put on the pounds.

Mu love affair with sweets was hard to tamp down. I tried, really I did, but the call was too great and my willpower too weak. I loved food, loved to eat, loved the socialization around eating, loved sitting at a table waiting for food to arrive. Much of my childhood had been spent being hungry, so it was as if I was making up for it, over and over again. No amount of self-ridicule or negative self-talk curbed the appeal of food.

I am grateful that my husband learned to prepare low-calorie foods. He changed the way he cooked in order to help me. No more were serving dishes set on the table. No more were meats drowned in sauces.

Meals now included fruits and vegetables. Carbs were limited in frequency and size of serving. He grilled more, stewed less. He still prepares food that I don’t like, but less often.

I’d like to report that food no longer takes center stage: it doesn’t. I can be satisfied with a tiny bit of rice, a scoop of mashed potatoes or a half-cup of noodles. There are a lot of meats that I prefer not eating, but I make sure I have the correct portion anyway.

I discovered a love of fresh fruits and vegetables, two things we seldom had growing up. No longer do I drink hot chocolate or egg nog when it’s in season. Instead I consume water and other calorie-free drinks.

All the changes I’ve made, all the miles I’ve walked, all the obsessions I still struggle with, continue to be a burden. I understand that sweets will always call my name, so when I hear a cookie speaking, I reach for a banana. When I yearn for ice cream, I turn to grapes.

It’s interesting to me how child who hated eating as much as I did, managed to get as fat as I was. Because of this I understand that the same child is still here, still dreaming of sweets, still hearing their call. And if I succumb, that obese me will make a comeback.

A Thanksgiving Lesson

            I am not a particularly good cook. In fact, I am a pathetic cook because I have no interest in cooking except for the simple act of putting food on the table. I can usually follow a recipe, but there’s no guarantee that the finished product will look or taste as advertised.

            The problem goes back to my teen years when my mom insisted I learn to cook. She’d make me stand next to her and watch every move she made. It was incredibly boring. I needed to study. If I didn’t earn straight As I’d be punished. My allegiance went to books, so I’d stand next to her with book in hand.

            That meant I wasn’t paying attention. So when I was told to replicate her concoction, I couldn’t. My mom cooked from memory, not from books. Unless she wrote it down, there was no way I could produce the item. When she did record her recipes, she often left out an ingredient or a crucial step.

            One year my family decided that my husband and I should host Thanksgiving dinner. Mike is a good cook, so he took charge of the turkey and gravy, leaving me to handle the rest. I pulled out every cookbook I owned to find recipes for dressing, green beans and pumpkin and mince meat pies. I chose the easiest options.

            Things were in the oven or on the stove when my family arrived. Altogether there were fourteen hungry people crowded into our house. Fortunately we had planned snacks of cheese and crackers for that kept the kids happy and held the adults at bay while they downed mixed drinks.

            There was only about thirty minutes to go before the turkey would be done, the gravy could be made, the potatoes mashed and the green bean casserole put in the oven.

            The adults were getting restless. They had arrived with a preconceived notion of when the meal would be ready and we were not meeting their mental deadline. I was anxious. While everything looked okay, what if my concoctions didn’t meet their approval? My family could be obnoxious when disappointed, so as time ticked by and tempers began to flare, I knew things were going horribly wrong.

            Then the power went out. One moment the stove was working, the next it wasn’t. Was the turkey done? The beans? Potatoes? Everything appeared to be mostly done, but what if it wasn’t? You can eat the side dishes even if they aren’t quite finished, but you can’t serve an undercooked turkey.

            We waited for the power to return, but after thirty minutes it was obvious that it wasn’t happening. My dad and brother offered advice laced with sarcasm, almost as if it was something we had done to switch off the power.

            My husband is a calm, easy-going man. He moved the barbeque into the backyard and lit the coals. When it was ready, he placed the turkey outside. Everything else went into the still-warm oven.

            The troops, however, were impatient, frustrated and hungry. They had allotted only a certain amount of time to be at our home and that time was ending. Either food would be served or they would leave. The options were not politely phrased.

            I hung out in the kitchen pretending that I knew what I was doing and that things were in hand. Mike monitored the turkey, which meant he was outside leaving me inside getting the brunt of the criticism.

            When the turkey was finally done, I was able to breathe a tiny sigh of relief. As he cut and placed meat on a platter, I pulled everything out and got it on the table. He made the gravy and poured it into the bowl.

            Dinner was served. People sat. Grace was said. The food was edible even though most things weren’t hot. Tempers settled. A bit of peace entered the house.

            Just as the last of the dishes were being rinsed off, the power returned.

            People left, some bearing leftovers.

            The meal worked out, but never again would I host a family meal. The stakes were too high and I refused to bear the brunt of their anger when the fault lay not in something I had done, but in the failure of the power to stay on.

            Later on Mike helped me understand that things had worked out despite my nervousness and fears. After all, food had been served. No one left hungry unless by choice.

            That Thanksgiving was over thirty years ago, but it left an indelible mark. Never again, I told myself, would I host a family gathering.

            Little did I know that when my mother-in-law died that my husband’s family would decide that we would host a brunch for sixty people. I announced that I would cook nothing. I would take care of paper goods, but that was it. The family would have to prepare every dish and clean up afterwards.

            Guess what? I held to my pronouncement. When cooking was happening, I stayed out of the kitchen. I picked up no dirty dishes, washed not a single thing, refilled no snack bowls and did not monitor the ice chests of drinks. I found myself a quiet place away from the crowds and stayed there for the five hours that people were in my home.

            One failure was sufficient to keep me from ever cooking for a crowd. Even though I had had not control over the power going out, blame was still laid at my feet. If my husband’s family wanted a party, they would have to shoulder the effort. Never again would I shoulder the mantle of responsibility.

            It’s amazing how liberating it is to refuse, to loudly proclaim that I would not be in charge. If only I had applied that motto to other areas in my life, things might have been different. But that’s another story for another time.

The Shell

Walking along the beach

I found a shell,

An ordinary shell.

Perfectly formed.

Six rows of ridges

Ruffles

Completely round

Except for where it joined

Its twin when still whole.

It felt surprisingly cool

And light

As it its soul’s mate

Disappeared long ago.

As I stare out at the Pacific Ocean

I wonder where this clam

Might have lived

And how it got to this spot

On this day

In time for me to pick it up.

Years ago my family moved

To California

A long journey.

I felt the hollowness

Of forced abandonment.

Like the clam

I was not in charge of my destiny

That power lay in my parent’s hands.

I was an ordinary teen

No great beauty

Smart, but lacking common sense

Or so I had been told,

So I had no say in the decision-making.

My parents picked the city,

The house, even the school

All I did was move in

Confined by their overarching rules

Until I went away to college.

For years I drifted through life

Swept by the tides

Working at one job, then another

Until marriage grounded me.

Now I stand with feet deep in sand

Rejoicing in the gifts given me.

Much like this simple shell

Held in my hand.

Memorable Doctor’s Visits

            When I was quite young I needed some type of surgery. My mom took me to the hospital and stayed with me while I waited to go in. I remember being in a large crib that had a plastic top. I was too old for a crib and that upset me.

            At some point someone put a mask over my mouth and told me to start counting. A beautiful kaleidoscope swirl of rainbow colors filled my brain. The swirl continued for some time, but I didn’t mind because I found it intriguing.

            When I woke up, the nurse asked me what I wanted to drink and then proceeded to name a number of choices. As soon as chocolate milk came out of her mouth, I smiled. Milk was rarely served in our house and chocolate milk, almost never. Oh, I was happy when she brought me a container with a straw.

            Unfortunately in the process of sitting down, the milk spilled. Tears immediately streamed down my face because I knew, rightly so, that I was in trouble. My mother took away my milk and chastised me for being so clumsy. She told me that the nurse would be angry.

            When the nurse returned, she smiled, got a towel, and cleaned the spill. She then brought me a new carton of milk, followed by a bowl of ice cream. This was all new to me: not being punished, but being rewarded! I even got a second bowl of ice cream.

            When it was time to leave, I was very sad.

            My mom loved taking me to the doctor’s. She brought me if I had a rash, bumps or cuts. Sore throats were a cause to celebrate. I complied by contracting measles several times, primarily because each was a very light case. I had mumps which I then gave to my siblings.

            When I was fourteen I discovered lumps in my tiny breasts. My mother wasted no time dragging me to the doctor. Undressing and then having him touch me was embarrassing. Then, to make matters worse, I had to have a mammogram. I undressed once again before a different man. He had me sit in front of a large table, then he touched my breasts, trying to get them to lie flat on the table. Over and over he manipulated my breasts until I think he simply gave up or decided that was the best he was going to get.

My mother sat at my side the whole time. That might have reassured some girls, but not me. She peered over my shoulder looking at my breasts, watching every move the man made, insisting that he take images over and over. She manipulated the situation, making it last longer than it should. That was a horrible experience, made even worse when there was nothing wrong.

At some point my dad put a stop to running to the doctor’s for every little thing. I recall a huge argument about bills and how expensive it was. I was relieved as it meant no more humiliating experiences.

My mom turned to homeopathic treatments. Cod liver oil dispersed nightly. A special tool that removed blackheads from my face. (It was actually a torture device.) A variety of cough medicines, cold medicine’s, rubs and steams. Vitamins and tablets of all kinds.

She bought a guide to conditions that became her bible. She read it faithfully and self-diagnosed illnesses of all depress of severity. In fact, that guide remained on her shelf even after she lost the ability to read.

When I was in college I played flag football. Our teams were coached by the football players. I loved it. I always felt I would be a good football player, and it turned out that I was right. I was built like a rock, and even though I am short, I could hold back linesmen or push them aside to allow my players to get through. Unfortunately I broke two fingers and seriously sprained my wrist toward the end of the season.  

The fingers healed, but my wrist did not. My mom found a new doctor to torture me. He x-rayed my wrist over and over. He put it in a splint. He wrapped it with bandages. It didn’t heal.

Pain became a constant. My mom insisted he do something. His solution was to amputate the ulna where it contacted the hand. He was surprisingly excited to operate which should have sent warning signals to my mom. He told her he would use my surgery as a model for other physicians. She loved the idea so much that she gave him the okay.

The surgery did take away the pain but it changed my life in many ways. I was quite the bowler. My scores often fell in the 200s, which is excellent. I also played badminton for my college. I could no longer do either. Instead I taught myself how to play sports left-handed.

For a long time I had to write with my left hand. Considering that we did not have computers back then, all assignments were handwritten, except for major papers which were typed on manual typewriters. It took me longer than my peers to complete in-class assignments. No allowance was given me. When I had time, I practiced writing until my speed and readability rose.

I reached an age where my mother no longer controlled when and if I went to the doctor. This was a blessing even though it was also terrifying. Each time I had a bump or rash or ailment I had to decide if it merited a visit to the doctor’s office. At first I chose to abstain, but in time I learned how to distinguish between minor injuries and serious conditions.

One would think that my earlier experiences would make me fearful of seeking medical advice. Thankfully, it did not. I have found that when needed, doctors can be reliable dispensers of advice. They have diagnosed and treated my asthma, helped save my youngest son’s hearing, and set broken bones for myself and my children.

I liked some doctors more than others, primarily due to their ability to look at me as a person, not as an obese blob of worthless flesh. When I felt disabused, I switched doctors. When I found one that treated me as an intelligent being, I stayed with him or her.

I can look back now on those times with a modicum of interest. I am not the hypochondriac my mother was. I do not live in fear that something might befall me. I am not afraid of contacting a doctor when it is necessary.

Going to the doctor’s might have been something I would have avoided considering my earlier experiences, but I forced myself to brush the past aside. There is a time and a reason to call on the doctor and to trust their diagnosis. I am old enough to now the difference.

Favorite Holidays

            As a child with a vivid imagination, I loved all holidays. The Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny and Santa were all real to me. Even when I should have been well past the age of belief, there was something about beings that would drop into my house and leave me gifts that kept me transfixed.

            The Tooth Fairy was a cheapskate as she only left a dime or nickel. Even back in the early 1950s that wouldn’t have bought much of anything. On top of that my father exacted a toll, a donation to the church on Sunday: a dime every week. So if the fairy left a dime, the entire amount became a tithe. I hated it.

            I figured out fairly early that there was no Easter Bunny, but I kept up the act, hoping that if I pretended to believe my parents would still hide baskets of candy about the house. Because I have a younger sister, the “Bunny” continued to come well into my teens.

            Christmas was always a special time. Tension in the house eased. There were fewer fights and punishments exacted. Perhaps it was the effect of the colorful decorations, the anticipation of opening gifts or knowing that the reason we celebrated was because of Christ’s birth. No matter the reason, the house was a bit happier and therefore easier to live in.

            We lived in Beavercreek, Ohio when I was in fourth grade. I still believed that Santa flew all over the world leaving gifts for good little girls and boys. I wasn’t the best child as I often fought with my siblings, usually over stupid stuff like who should pick up all the army men or who was responsible for cleaning my sister’s half of the room. I sulked a lot and found solace in the outdoors, away from family and all the troubles that came with them.

            On the last day of school before Christmas break, my class had a party. I don’t remember the details, but because I was not well liked, I doubt that I received any cards or gifts. However, sometime during the course of the party the subject of Santa came up. When my classmates insisted he was imaginary, for some reason, me, the normally mute child, spoke up defending him. I still recall the guffaws, the humiliation.

            I cried all the way home. My mother attempted to console me, but she only confirmed what my classmates had said. She was an impatient woman, so by the time we got home, she was angry at my inability to accept reality. I was sent to my room.

            When my dad got home from work, he tried talking to me. He explained that the Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny and Santa were all imaginary beings created to entertain little kids. And that I was no longer a little kid. Nothing he said could change my mind.

            After dinner reports of Santa’s journey came on the television. Ah, ha! I was right. There was his sleigh, over Russia. Europe. The Atlantic Ocean. He flew over the eastern United States and was heading toward Ohio. By this time was siblings had gone to bed. My mom as well.

            My dad stayed up with me, watching the night sky for Santa. Somewhere around midnight, when the television went off the air, my dad told me to go to bed. I refused, insisting I needed to stay up so I could catch Santa coming in our house. We had no chimney, but that didn’t dissuade me.

            Eventually I was told to go to bed, and when my dad commanded, you had to obey or face the consequences. I don’t remember much else of that night, but when I got in in the morning and saw gifts under the tree, I tried to believe, but when I was shown store receipts, I was shattered.

            Christmas never held the same joy for me until I had kids of my own. We hid gifts, I’d sneak out the back window and creep around the side of the house so I could go shopping without the kids knowing. I’d pretend to be ill and lock myself in my bedroom, turn on a radio and wrap as many gifts as I could.

            After the kids were asleep, Mike and I would haul everything out. I loved the multicolor packages, the glittering lights, the homemade and store-bought ornaments, the tinsel on the tree. I loved the music, the decorations that Mike spread around, the nativity scene that took center stage in our front room.

            I loved the suspense, waiting until morning when the kids would creep out into the front room and shout, “Santa’s been here.” Mike would get up first to get a fire going in our wood-burning stove. Once it was a bit more comfortable, I’d join the family. We took turns opening gifts, a tradition from Mike’s family. It was wonderful. The looks of joy when it was something they wanted, the disappointment when it was socks or underwear. All the while Christmas music played in the background., reminding us over and over that we were celebrating the Lord’s birth.

            After opening a few gifts each we’d get dressed and go to church. Oh! The church would be so beautiful! Bright colors and poinsettia plants everywhere. Music of joy and comfort and redemption throughout the Mass. A homily seeking peace. Prayers lifted in community. It was, and still is, marvelous.

            Mike’s family has a traditional breakfast, so after church we’d go to his parent’s house for sausage, eggs, and something they called sticky rolls. There’d be gifts to open there as well. Eventually we’d return home, open the rest of the gifts, then watch a new movie.

            In the late afternoon we’d go to my parent’s house for more gifts and dinner. Most of the time my siblings came, filling the house with conversation.

            It made for a long day, but because everyone was on good behavior, (most of the time), things were quite nice.

            The one tradition that we kept up until our kids went off to college was the hiding of the Easter baskets. Mike always found the best spots, but the kids were clever and so didn’t take long to find their baskets under a blanket or stuffed behind a cabinet. The kids hid their candy, making sure that their stash was kept private. Even now as empty-nesters Mike and I love our Easter baskets.

            I think what I like most about those holidays was the good cheer. My family was not peaceful. It was all too easy to do something that angered one parent or the other. I lived in fear of the spankings that followed any incursion, no matter how inconsequential. The discord, the anger, was often put aside when we were expecting the arrival of an imaginary being.

            Perhaps this is why I clung to belief long after my peers. I wanted peace, comfort and joy, just like in many a Christmas song.

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.

Crimes of Passion

            When I was a child, my family was poor. We always had food, clothes and a place to live, so we weren’t destitute. Much of what we did have came from relatives. This included everything from furniture to food.

            I don’t recall ever being extremely hungry, but I was never full. Apply this to not just the physical sense of lacking food, but to the emotional. I missed something that was wholly mine. Yearned for something that had never been owned, worn, felt by someone before coming to me.

            At the time I lacked the words to describe the feeling. There was an emptiness that was never filled. As a consequence, my eyes sought objects that were small, so insignificant that they would not be missed.

            My mom frequented the Five and Dime, a general merchandise store that catered to people like us. My mom loved to roam the aisles, feeling this, holding that, occasionally buying the things she came there for: a spool of thread, buttons, a swath of fabric.

            Perhaps I learned from her that it was okay to pick up and hold things that you weren’t going to buy. Maybe I was taught to slip things in your purse when the owner wasn’t looking. In later years I learned that my mom often left stores with hidden items. If that was true, then I was an observant understudy.

            My sister’s birthday was approaching and on this trip to the Five and Dime my mom needed candles for the cake. In that section there were tiny pink dolls, plastic cribs to match, and paper umbrellas on thin sticks. I wanted them all. One of each size, shape and color.

            Something inside of me must have known that it was not okay to pocket too many items, at least not on one trip. My hand reached for a plastic baby on its own accord. It felt smooth and easy to touch. It weighed nothing. It fit perfectly in my small hand and even better in the pocket of my jacket.

            I wanted more. The crib, the umbrellas. I trembled and sweat broke out on my forehead. I couldn’t talk. When we approached the register I knew I was going to get caught. My eyes looked down. I feared that the owner could see guilt, could see the inside of my pocket. He said nothing.

            On the way home my fingers held that baby, still inside the pocket. At home I buried it in the backyard, hiding the evidence.

            One plastic baby didn’t satisfy the want inside me.

            The next visit to the store I pocketed a box of six crayons. The problem, I realized once home, was that I couldn’t use them without my mm knowing that she had not paid for them. The crayons joined the plastic baby in the backyard.

            By now I was a seasoned thief. I planned my outfit, making sure I had at least one pocket. I knew I had to roam the aisles like my mother did, feeling this, picking up that, examining something else. When mom led us to the trinket aisle I knew what I was going to take: an umbrella. The problem was, which one. I chose the blue. It slid into my pocket just as the other things had done.

            By now I wasn’t afraid of looking at the owner. After all, I had stolen before and not gotten caught. With the umbrella secure, I accompanied my mom to the register, stood complacently while she paid, then walked out. Except something different happened.

            The owner asked my mom to wait, but not until after I was outside. I don’t know what was said, but when my mom stormed outside and grabbed me by the sleeve, I knew I was in trouble. She dug in my pocket and produced the umbrella. With it held aloft, she pulled me back inside the store. She handed over the umbrella which was now broken thanks to her tight grip.

            I was told to apologize. I refused. I had done nothing wrong in my mind. I had seen my mom slip things in her purse over and over. If I had to apologize, then so should she. I didn’t say it, thankfully.

            After much prodding I mumbled an apology. The owner then forbade me from ever entering his store again. I thought his punishment was excessive considering it was only a tiny umbrella.

            My parents decided I need moral guidance so they enrolled me in a Brownie troop that was being formed at the Catholic School I attended. I didn’t know anyone and had no intentions of making friends with them.

            I don’t know how I knew, but I understood that the girls and mothers who ran the troop came from wealthier families. It might have been the newness of the girls’ uniforms versus my faded one from a thrift store. Perhaps it was because the mothers wore necklaces and earrings, something my mother didn’t have. Maybe it was the way they treated me: like an idiot who didn’t understand English.

            It wasn’t on the first meeting, but maybe the third, that the mothers had planned a craft activity. It involved the use of colorful rubber bands. I don’t remember what I made, if I made anything at all. What I do recall in vivid clarity was the desire to own the bag of rubber bands.

            My palms began to sweat. My heart beat wildly. I couldn’t take my eyes off the bag. Whenever a girl took a rubber band from the bag I cringed inside. I wanted that bag so badly that my stomach hurt.

            I had to have it. I had to take it home. But how? How could I sneak it home without being caught?

            The solution came when it was time to clean up. The bag still sat on the table, all alone. It called my name. I moved closer to it. The desire intensified. I checked to see where the others were. The girls were giggling off to the side. The mothers were in a circle, talking. No one was near me. No one was watching.

            The entire bag of rubber bands slid into my school bag. I latched it shut then hurriedly left without saying goodbye.

            My mom was waiting outside. We drove the long way home in silence. At home I took my school bag into my bedroom as I always did. I removed the rubber bands and hid them in my underwear drawer. Moved them to under my mattress. Stuffed them in a shoe. Found a hole in the back of my closet and stuck them in there.

            When my mom finally asked how the Brownie meeting went, I told her it was dumb and I never wanted to go back. That was a lie. I had had fun. The mothers were kind. I felt safe there, at a time when I needed safety. I feared that the girls and mothers knew I had taken the rubber bands. That was the reason I couldn’t return.

            My crime of passion ruined what might have been a good thing.

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.