My Place in History

Today I visited a historical museum with my family. It was an interesting experience.

in almost every room I found something from my past.

For example, in the school room was a reader that I had used and desks with inkwells like I once sat in.

In the military room was a WWII Army uniform like my mom wore, which became my Halloween costume in ninth grade.

The tech room was full of memories. An old Brownie box camera, the first camera my family owned. A Kodak camera with a silver flash. Manual typewriters in metal carriages that you had to move in order to stop from typing off the end of the page.

A plastic-bodied beige dial phone and the first wall phone we got when we moved to California.

Down in the clothing room were dresses that I remember my Grandma Reiske wearing when she got dressed up and another dress similar to the one my mother wore on her wedding day.

The most shocking clothes, however, were the ones from my twenties. What were we thinking? Bold geometric designs, mini skirts, long tunics over matching wide leg pants. Loose, flowing tops that were really dresses.

my favorite hallway featured Native American artifacts similar to what I have at home.

The museum took me on a welcome journey back to the past. The best part was sharing those memories with my grandkids.

Fall from Grace

I don’t know why my first skiing trip came to mind in the middle of July, but it did. It’s not like it snows here, which it doesn’t, and unfortunately we’re in the middle of a heat wave, so it’s not even raining.

The interesting thing is that I’d never thought about skiing. I’d seen it on television, but never pictured myself with boards strapped to my feet barreling down a snow-covered slope. And to get there? I’d have to swing on a questionable-looking chair as it steadily climbed up the mountain. Not for me with my fear of heights.

The closest I had gotten was after I had graduated from college and, on a lark, took a class at the local community college about skiing. At the conclusion was an outing. Because I lived in the SF Bay Area, I owned no clothing that would keep a person warm in freezing temperatures.

I went shopping and quickly discovered that, with my limited funds, I could not purchase a suitable coat or pants or boots. I did buy a pair of supposedly insulated rubber boots, but that was it. I would have to make do with what I had.

One Saturday morning I climbed on a yellow school bus, excited, yet at the same time terrified. I knew no one, so I had no way to spend the time other than drifting over whatever passed through my mind.

I did notice the cold. About the time that snow began to appear along the side of the highway, my feet became uncomfortable and my fingers ached. We took a bathroom break. I was miserable! Nothing I wore was sufficient for the trip.

The rest of that trip went by in a mind-numbing haze. I had no money to rent skis or a toboggan, so I spent the time I braved the outdoors walking about. Most of the time I hung out in the lodge, dreaming over the hot chocolate I saw others drinking.

So, after that adventure, why would I ever go skiing? Because young adults don’t often remember misery.

A couple of friends from work convinced me that I’d really like to learn to ski. By now I had enough money to buy a decent coat and gloves and warm socks. I figured I’d rent equipment and so had saved what I hoped would be enough.

The drive was uneventful. We talked and laughed and so the miles sped by. According to my friends, it was a beautiful day for skiing. The sky was blue, there was plenty of snow and it wasn’t too cold. They were right.

Except for one small thing: I didn’t know how to ski.

They gave me some basic instructions. They showed me how to grab the rope to go up the bunny slope. Once there, they demonstrated how to put my skis into a V-shape in order to turn, slow down, and stop. They went down with me, once. Then set me free.

I did pretty well. I am not an idiot, so I learn quickly. I am fairly coordinated, so I thought I had mastered the basics.

I moved on to the easiest chair lift. Getting on a chair while wearing skis is not easy. There’s a lot of timing involved. You’ve got to get into position as soon as the chair gets to the post. Then look over your shoulder while reaching for the bar. Then sit while the chair is still moving.

The first time my butt barely touched the seat and I had to hang on for dear life all the way to the top. The next time I did better, and each time after that it was a little bit easier.

No one had explained how to get off before I hopped on at the bottom. While the chair is moving, as it gets lower to the ground, you’ve got to jump off and ski out of the way before the seat bumps you in the back. I watched those in front of me, so when my turn came, I managed, but felt the chair brush the back of my legs.

The first few trips down I succeeded. I turned, I slowed, and I stopped as I approached the line waiting to go back up. I felt proud.

I went back up. Handled getting on and off. Successfully went down. As I approached the line, however, something went wrong.

I put my skis in a V-shaped and dug in my inner blades. I didn’t slow down. I got closer and closer to the kid at the end of the line. I dug in even harder. I kept sliding forward. Closer and closer I got.

I know that my eyes opened wider and wider in shock and preparation for the inevitable.

I was helpless to prevent myself from hitting the kid. I bumped into his back, nearly knocking him down, as I fell onto my skis, landing on my tailbone with an excruciatingly painful crack.

I felt my cheeks redden. The kid turned to me, all eight years of him, and said as he put his skis into that elusive V, “Lady, you stop like this.”

I was both humiliated and in such deep pain that I found it difficult to get up. Thankfully a woman came up behind me, reached down and pulled me up. She brushed the snow off my back and asked if I was okay.

I wasn’t. I skied over to a log and sat. Bad idea. I took off my skis and walked them back to the rental shop, mincing my steps. I struggled up the steps to the lodge. I found a chair, but, oh, that hurt!

The drive home was terrible. Because my tailbone hurt so bad, I had to lay down in the backseat of a VW bug. Not comfortable.

That night I couldn’t sleep. Between the intense pain and the recalled embarrassment, there was no chance of sleep.

The next day I went to work, but had to go see a doctor at the end of my shift. Nothing was broken, but I was badly bruised. I was given a blow-up pillow to sit on until it healed.

Despite that disaster, I did eventually go skiing again. I was never good at it, but I never crashed into anyone, either.

The lesson that I learned is that sometimes it’s better to fall before you think you are going to hit someone.

This applies to all facets of life. Fall while you still have the strength of character to pull yourself, brush yourself off and try again.

 

Bringing Christmas Home

Stan Ellis stuffed the last of his purchases into his camper shell.  Smiling proudly, he strode to the driver’s door, unlocked it, and climbed behind the wheel.  The engine started immediately, and so after giving it an extra shot of gas, Stan threw the truck into reverse.

Careful not to hit anyone, he backed out of his spot.  He cranked up the volume on his favorite country station just in time to hear a Christmas tune by George Strait.  Smiling, Stan sang along, tapping his hands on the wheel to the rollicking beat.

On Main Street he merged into the slow-moving traffic.  It seemed as if the whole town was out shopping.  With just three days before Christmas, it came as no surprise.  Stan didn’t care how long it took to get through town, as he was full of the holiday spirit.  He was going to give his grandpa a special Christmas surprise.

It had been many years since they had decorated the house.  His grandmother loved to hang lights, put ornaments on the tree, and bake cookies that filled the house with the sweet smell of vanilla.  Christmas music soared throughout the house, his grandma’s golden voice blending with the singers on her favorite records.

Every meal was special, with at least one holiday favorite on the table: stuffing with raisins, carrots covered with a glaze, ham and pineapple, sweet potatoes drowning in a marshmallow topping.

After her death, Grandpa refused to celebrate.  No decorations were permitted, no music, no special foods.  It was hard on Stan, for he loved Christmas.  He missed the gaily-decorated packages, the tinsel on the tree, and the joyous feeling that permeated life day and night.  Among his friends, he was the only one who did not celebrate the holidays.  Sometimes one of them invited him over during winter break, and Stan would drop in for a brief visit, but each time his soul sank like a rock in water.

Determined to bring cheer into their lives, Stan had driven into town.  The ads shouted deep discounts on everything needed to brighten a home. He never knew there were so many kinds of lights, nor variety of ornaments.  He was surprised that garland came in the form of plastic candy canes, neon M & M’s and strings of imitation popcorn.  Looking for the sales, Stan chose the best items.

Home Depot had a few trees left, so Stan bought one of them as well.  It wasn’t as much fun as climbing the hills on the ranch and cutting down a live tree, but he made the most of the experience.  He remembered that Grandpa loved Noble firs, elegant with their evenly spaced branches, so that’s what he got.

Once home, Stan took the tree to the barn, got down a saw and cut off a good chunk of the trunk.  He removed the lowest branches to prevent them from dragging on the hard wood floor.  The trunk fit perfectly into the new, sturdy stand.  With pride he carried the tree into the house.

His grandmother placed the tree in the front window so that the lights could be seen shining on the darkest of nights.  To her, they were a beacon, calling her family home.  Wanting to recreate the last Christmas he recalled, Stan would have to move a lamp and table that sat in the designated spot.  He carried them upstairs, into an unused bedroom, and then returned to move the tree into place.

Keeping an eye on the time, for his grandfather was expected back before dinner, Stan carried in his bags of decorations.  He opened boxes of lights and strung them on the tree, around the windows, and over the mantle.  He hung ornaments, strategically placing them so as to balance color and design.  Garland went on last, a sparkling silver stole gracing the tree.

One box left.  Stan opened the lid and pulled out a figurine.  He gently unwrapped the Virgin Mary.  Next Joseph and the Baby Jesus, followed by Wise men, a shepherd, two sheep, a donkey, and a cow.  Lastly the crèche, a wooden structure with hay glued to the roof.

Stan staged the scene on the credenza in the front room.    He kept out Baby Jesus, just as his grandmother did when he was young.

Brushing off his hands, he admired his work.  Bursts of color filled the room, and the smell of pine tree tingled his nose.  The crèche filled his eyes with unexpected tears.  For some reason, Stan felt compelled to fall to his knees.

He gave thanks for his grandfather who loved him, his girlfriend, his teachers, and his life.  Stan crossed himself, as taught, then stood in time to hear his grandfather’s truck rumble up the road.

He went outside to help carry in the groceries that would be in the back.

“How did it go, Grandpa?  Were you the high bidder on the stallion?”

“Naw.  Josiah Turner beat me by fifty bucks.  I did get a pretty filly, though.  She’ll produce beautiful colts when mated with Silk.”

Both men grabbed handfuls of bags.  Walking side by side they strode up the wide steps and onto the porch.

“What the heck have you done, boy?”

Stan fought hard to hold back a grin.  “I thought it was time that we got back to celebrating Christmas.”

“Take it down!  Take it all down!” Grandpa dropped his bags and literally ran down the steps, across the yard, and into the barn.

Disappointed, Stan carried put the groceries away.  He turned on the radio, and after finding a station that played Christmas music, prepared dinner.  He peeled, sliced and fried potatoes, browned a couple of pork chops, opened a jar of applesauce and placed it on the table, all the while singing along to joyous tunes.  When everything was ready, Stan opened the back door and rang the bell, the call to dinner.  He stared at the barn, hoping to see his grandfather emerge.

When the door did not open, Stan sat at the table.  He said grace and then dished out his meal.  He ate alone, the only other voice that of the radio commentator.   When finished, he cleaned up.  Leftovers went into the fridge, pots and pans scrubbed, rinsed, and dried.

Heartbroken, Stan stepped into the front room to enjoy the bright lights by himself.  He walked over to the tree and fingered the needles.  He loved the firm, rubbery feel.

“Watcha doing, boy?”

Stan’s heart flew into this throat.  Turning, he saw his grandfather’s figure seated in a recliner on the far side of the room, half-hidden in darkness.  “I…I was just checking to see if it needed more water.”

“Have a seat.  We need to talk.”

Stan sat on the floor at his grandfather’s feet.  This is where he always sat when there was a story to be told.

“Do you know why I was angry?”

“I think so.  You miss Grandma.  So do I.  I miss her terribly.  But we have to live, Grandpa.  She wouldn’t like us to live in sadness.”

“You should have asked me first, Stan.  That’s why I was angry.”

“You wouldn’t have let me go shopping.”

“You’re right about that.  That’s not what made me angry, though.  It’s the shock of seeing all this.”  His hand swept around the room, indicating the tree, crèche, and lights.  “Your grandmother was a very religious person.  She loved Christmas, as it made her feel close to God.  She worked hard to bring His love into our lives.  Nightingale was my Christmas gift, the best one I ever got.  There is no way that Christmas will ever be the same without her.”

“I know that, but I miss the lights.  Can’t we enjoy Christmas like everyone else does?”  Stan’s tear-filled eyes reflected the disappointment that was dragging him down.

“I don’t know, boy.  I just don’t know.  Looking at all this makes me miss her all the more.  Can you understand that?”

Stan’s chin hit his chest and sobs shook his shoulders.  His large, calloused hands covered his face.  “I’m sorry, Grandpa.  I’ll take it all down,” he said as he wiped the tears away with the tail of his gray flannel shirt.

“No. Let it be,” his grandpa said as he strode into the kitchen.

Stan moved into the newly vacated chair.  He looked at the tree with its lights, ornaments, and garland.  Nothing seemed as beautiful as it had earlier.  In fact, it all seemed garish, even the cheap wood crèche with its plaster figurines. What was I thinking?

While Christmas tunes continued to float through the house, they didn’t seem so gay anymore.  The words spoke of gifts, Santa, snowmen, and kissing under the mistletoe.  There was little mention of the Christ child or of God’s love for His people.  Christ is missing.  That’s what’s wrong.  That’s why Grandpa’s upset.

Stan stood, walked over to the tree, and pulled the plug.  He turned off the stereo.  An eerie stillness came over the house.  I’ll take it down in the morning, Stan told himself as he climbed the stairs to his bedroom.

Sleep did not come easy.  Most of the night Stan’s eyes stared at the darkened ceiling.  Memories of his grandmother came unbidden. Even the smiling faces of his parents, dead for many years now, floated in a mist-like cloud above his bed.

When dawn turned the sky a dusty gray, Stan arose and dressed. He walked to the head of the stairs and stopped.  What the heck?  Stan’s eyes opened dinner-plate wide, for before him was an amazing sight.

Teddy bears covered every flat surface.  Tinsel dangled from ropes of garland that stretched from one side of the room to the other.  A toddler-sized Santa and sleigh sat near the door, and a Rudolph with blinking nose stood guard.  Stan’s crèche was gone, and in its place sat a hand-carved Nativity scene, created by his grandfather, long ago, as a gift for his grandmother.  On one wall hung a tree-filled picture frame that his grandmother had filled with old jewelry that she had gathered from relatives.

Dazed, Stan slowly went down the stairs.  His store-bought ornaments were gone.  In their place hung homemade ones.  He fingered lace snowflakes, felt stockings, cloth-covered Styrofoam balls, reindeer made from clothespins.  Everything was beautiful.  Everything was just as he remembered.

Even though he knew his grandfather was in the room, Stan did not turn to face him, for embarrassing tears poured down his face.  “It’s wonderful, Grandpa.  Why did you do this?”

“To make you happy, boy.  While I ate my dinner last night, all I thought of was that unhappy face of yours.”

“Thanks, Grandpa.  This means a lot to me,” Stan said as he wiped the tears from his eyes.

“Next time you get an idea to surprise me, will you talk to me first?”

“Yes.  I promise,” he said.  Stan stood behind his grandfather and draped his right arm over his shoulders.

“I used to love Christmas, too,” his grandfather said.  “Nightingale filled the days with so much love that her happiness filled me as well.  When she died, I thought I would never feel that way again.  I swore that no Christmas decorations would ever come in this house again, to protect and honor her memory.  It wasn’t fair to you, Stan.”

Stan patted the muscle-bound shoulders of his grandfather.

“When I saw the tree, my heart broke into a thousand pieces.  The only thought that came to mind was to run away and hide.  Then I snuck inside while you ate.  Looking at the tree reminded me of Nightingale.  After you went to bed I did some thinking.  That’s when it came to me.  I’ve been wrong all these years.   I wasn’t honoring your grandmother’s memory at all.  She would have wanted us to continue her traditions.  So I went out to the barn and got out her things.  It’s funny, but as I unpacked the old decorations, I felt as if Nightingale was helping me.  I swear I even heard her singing.”

Stan planted a kiss on his grandfather’s rough cheek.  “That’s the way I felt.  It was as if Grandma was with me at the store, helping me decide what to buy.  All I wanted was to bring Christmas back into the house.  I’ve missed it, Grandpa.”

“So have I, boy.  So have I.”

Stan sat in the chair that used to be his grandmother’s and watched, with his grandfather, as the rising sun filled the sky with a golden color.  There was no more need for words.

 

 

Earthquake!

 

When I was a senior in college I lived in an apartment suite with three other girls, one of them from Japan. Three of us were used to earthquakes as we all lived in northern California. The fourth girl, who was my roommate, had never experienced an earthquake and so had no idea what to expect.

I was quite seasoned in that department, for when I arrived in California in June of 1964 there was a rollicking earthquake that sent me sprawling on the floor. I watched in horrified amazement as telephone poles swayed back and forth, leaning so far as to give the impression that they were soon to fall. Nothing so dramatic happened, but that quake left a lasting impression.

Over the next several years as I lived in various houses around the Bay Area, I had felt many small quakes that made me a bit nervous, but not as terrified as the first one. In fact, it seemed that the more quakes I felt, the less they disturbed me.

In September of 1979 I transferred to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. The first year I lived in a towering residence hall. From my seventh floor room, I often felt the building sway. Each time it upset me, thinking that at any moment the whole thing would crumble to the ground with me trapped inside. To defray some of my fears, I stood at my window and watched nearby buildings sway along with mine, thinking that if they didn’t fall, my building wouldn’t either. Afterward I never saw any evidence of destruction.

One beautiful spring day I was up on the roof sunbathing. I had lathered myself up and gotten comfortable with one of my textbooks. I grew sleepy and just as I began to drift away, a rolling quake hit that brought me to my feet. From my lofty perch, close to the railing, yet far enough that I wouldn’t fall off, I watched neighboring buildings sway. Sirens went off, fire engines zoomed past and a series of ambulances raced down the streets.

To the best of my knowledge, no one got seriously hurt, but a few older folks supposedly suffered heart attacks.

The following year I moved into a large multi-bedroom house that was sponsored by the Soroptimist Organization. All the girls in my building were low income like myself. The organization allowed us to live rent-free as long as we maintained excellent grades and were never in academic difficulty. We also had to keep the facility spotless and host the organization whenever they chose to hold fundraisers.

Over a period of several months earthquakes regularly shook the house. One time I was sitting on the toilet. I imagined myself being found in the ruble with my pants down. That frightened me so much that from then on I tried not to stay in the bathroom for any longer than absolutely necessary.

The number and intensity of the quakes intensified as the year went on. Because the building was old and shook in a frightening way, I was afraid to live there, so for the next school year I applied to the senior dorm across campus and was accepted.

I had not visited the building before move-in day, so I was surprised to find that it was about the same age as the Soroptimist House. It was also located near to train tracks which caused the building to shake and sway whenever a train went by.

I convinced myself that it didn’t matter the age of the building or the periodic shaking for I was happy to live with other seniors and to be free from the overarching demands of the Soroptimists.

Unfortunately that year was a particularly fertile one for earthquakes. We were shaken regularly, but seldom while we were in the dorm.

When one hit whenever I was in class we were evacuated into the quad, a grassy area in the center of campus. It became an expected ritual. Earthquake, evacuation, sitting under the shade of a tree. It was almost bucolic and definitely lured me into a false sense of security.

Early one February morning in 1971, around six, the building shook with such ferocity that my three suitemates were all awakened. At first we gathered in the kitchen which separated our rooms, when as the shaking intensified, we split apart so we could stand under a door frame, supposedly the safest place.

My roommate was so terrified that she fell at my feet, grabbed my ankles, and begged me to save her. I uttered as comforting words as I could, but I was scared that I was going to die. The shaking seemed to go on forever.

When it finally stopped, my roommates and I discovered huge cracks running down our walls and chunks of plaster that had fallen in our showers and on our beds. We were evacuated to the street, where we stood in our nightgowns, clustered in groups of equally frightened students.

When we were allowed inside, we dressed for class and headed off. Later on we heard on the news that the quake registered 6.5 and caused heavy damage to buildings, highways and bridges. It threatened a reservoir in the San Fernando Valley, which leaked a steady stream of water that, thankfully, did not flood low-lying valleys.

Our building survived. While we were at class, maintenance came in and cleaned up the mess. When we returned to our suite, fresh plaster covered the cracks.

For days afterward our building shook. There were a series of mini-quakes that hit at all times of the day and night, but even after they stopped, we were sure that each passing train was another quake.

Years went by when only periodic mild quakes rattled us in the San Francisco area. None of them rattled me like the one in 1971. Each time one hit, I’d stop what I was doing, look around for cracks, decide whether to get up and look for a safe place in which to be, but then when things stopped shaking, I continued doing whatever it was that I had been working on.

Things changed in October of 1989. I had just picked my kids up from a friend’s house when the sidewalk moved like waves. The surge was so strong that my friend and I were thrown to the ground. My eight-passenger van rocked and rolled. My kids, who were inside, looked at me through the back windows and screamed.

It was terrifying. Not only did the sidewalk buckle, but telephone poles swayed back and forth with such ferocity that it was surprising that they didn’t bend over and crack apart. We were all so shaken that we didn’t move for several minutes after things settled down.

My first thoughts were to call my husband, but I had to wait until I got home to do so.

Later we learned that it was a 6.9 quake that caused substantial damage and killed 67 people and over $5 billion in damages.

I am grateful that we have been blessed with calm years since then, but I am ever alert for the next one.

I’d also like to report that I have an emergency bag packed and ready to go, but that would be a lie. It’s almost as if I don’t prepare, it won’t happen, but that’s a stupid way of thinking.

Meanwhile I’ll think about that bag and hopefully, act on it soon.

 

 

 

 

 

A Halloween Memory

The only part of Halloween that I ever liked was the endless pursuit of free candy. From the time my brother and I were in middle school, we would roam miles from home knocking on doors on streets that we barely knew. It took us hours, and at times our pillow cases would become so heavy that we’d go home, empty them out, then head out again.

I hated wearing costumes. I disliked having my sight blocked by masks, I detested makeup, and despised trying to come up with something to wear that resembled a costume. My most frequent costume was that of a hobo as all I had to do was put on overalls.

When I was thirteen my middle school decided that it would celebrate Halloween and that all students were expected to dress in costume. I panicked when I heard the announcement. It was bad enough to walk about my neighborhood under cover of darkness. This would mean parading about campus under fluorescent lighting!

I worried about this for days. I was a painfully shy girl who never raised a hand to ask or answer a question in class, and now I was going to have to expose myself to potential ridicule if I chose to dress in an unpopular or outmoded outfit.

When time ran out, the only thing I could come up with was my mother’s WAC (Women’s Army Corp) uniform from World War II.

What seemed like a good idea when I got dressed in the morning, quickly became a terrifying experience once I arrived at school.

My teacher, thrilled to see the old uniform, made me stand in front of the class and share my mother’s story.

To make matters worse, much to my dismay, she sent me up and down the hall, dropping into every single classroom to share. At times I barely got out a few words as this required me to speak before students I did not know.

It was such a horrible experience that I did not go out trick-or-treating that night and for several years after.

Resurrecting Memories

 

I was afraid of you from the very beginning.

As far back as I can remember, I cannot recall

A single incident in which you held me in your arms,

Consoled me when I was sad,

Comforted me when I was ill,

Or sheltered me when I was distressed.

I cannot remember any words of encouragement,

But rather the tone of disappointment

When once again I failed to be the girly girl

That you expected. Demanded.

You did complete forms when I wanted to go to college

And when I bought my first car,

But beyond that I only sensed frustration

And anger and rage

Expressed with almost demonic glee

Whenever I slighted your sensibilities,

Causing you to discipline me with hand or belt

Or word, the most painful of all for those hurts never ceased.

I feared your homecoming after a day of work,

For I never knew what your mood might be and

How it would affect me.

If you were angry, I’d be the recipient of your anger.

If you were frustrated, I’d be the outlet.

It got so that I hid away in my room

Whenever you were around

For I never knew when you’d explode

And I’d be the nearest target for your hands.

I’d dream of living in a different family.

One filled with love. Soft voices.

Encouragement. Joy. Laughter.

Kind arms.

I convinced myself that I was adopted,

Like the kids in stories who were abused

By their adoptive families,

As an explanation as to why you treated me

The way you did.

That helped me move past my deep-felt hurt.

I never forgot the things you did.

The way you spoke to me in derision.

The lack of your love.

But more than anything,

I never moved past my fear.

 

Fearful Memories

She came to her mother in the night

smelling of sweat, fear and sour breath

with hair tangled into miserable knots

crying about the monsters plaguing her dreams

which resembled all too closely

the boys who teased her mercilessly at school

even though Mom had complained to the teacher,

begging her to stop the torture.

The girl snuggled next to her mother’s side

head resting on the chest

arms tightly gripping her mother’s waist

and cried until all tears were gone.

her mom thought about sending her daughter

back to her own bed

back to the darkness where nightmares ran free,

but instead cradled her daughter and tried

to erase the painful memories.