My Birthday Party

            I had never wanted a party. I was lucky to have been born in August when school was out. It was impossible to hand out invitations, a true blessing. It didn’t bother me when I learned about other kids having parties to which I had not been asked to attend. After all, since I had no friends, who would I talk to?

            One year my younger sister wanted a party. Unlike me, she had friends who would come. And they did, bearing prettily-wrapped gifts. They played pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, musical chairs and relay races of various kinds. They watched expectantly as my sister blew out all the candles on her cake and then devoured their slices drowning in vanilla ice cream.

            She sat like a queen surrounded by her subjects as she opened her gifts. If she liked it, she’d blush with excitement and hold it aloft for all to admire. If she didn’t, she dropped it to the floor at her feet.

            She was six years old.

            Because my sister had a party, my mother decided I had to have one as well. My birthday is four days after my sister’s, which would place a huge burden on my family in terms of time and money. I didn’t want a party, but it did not deter my mother. She tried to make things equal, or at least pretended to make things equal. They never were and I knew it.

            My mother revered my sister. She placed her on a pedestal that I never had a chance to climb. Celebrating my sister’s birthday was an important event that involved days of planning. Everything stopped on her day. There was no yard work, no housework, no spending time alone. All focus was on my sister.

            So when the PARTY was confirmed, I think my mother felt guilty for not having one for me. Anyway, I was having one despite my loudly voiced opinion.

            To get ready, my mother bought juvenile-designed cards. I recall a clown with balloons. I was thirteen, too old for clowns.

            She made me sign them then ride my bike around the neighborhood delivering them to girls who never talked to me. Few opened the door when I knocked. The two who did looked at me like I was insane. They were right.

            My mother bought princess cut-outs that she made me hang in our windows. I was humiliated. No thirteen-year-old would ever tape up cardboard princesses on a bedroom wall, let alone in a window for all to see.

            I don’t remember anything about the food or the cake, but we played the exact same games that my sister’s friends played. Teenagers don’t pin things on donkeys or run around chairs. They listen to music and talk.

            My mother made me wear my best dress, something way too fluffy for a birthday party. She plastered my hair into an old-fashioned style piled up on my head, the spray so heavy that not a single strand would come loose in a tornado. I knew that I was inappropriately dressed and that if anyone did come, they wouldn’t look like me. There was nothing I could do about it.

            The clock crept toward the given hour. I stared out the window, hoping that no one would come. Then I’d wish that someone would come. I’d sit down on the couch, thinking that if I didn’t look, someone would come. Then I’d look, hoping to jinx the party.

            When I girl from down the street knocked on the door, my heart sank. There really was going to be a party. Two more came.

            My mother went into hyper-mode, telling us where to go and what to do. I spoke only when I had to, moved when I had to, blew out the candles when told and attempted to eat some cake without throwing up.

            The gifts matched the juvenile invitations. I recall a coloring book and crayons, a picture book and some paper dolls, all things that my six-year-old sister loved.

            I would like to share that time flew by, but it didn’t. It’s possible that it only lasted two hours, but it felt like four. There was no joy, not from me and not from the girls who came. It was an exercise only, a pretend party.

            Perhaps this is why I’ve never liked parties for myself. I enjoy celebrating the milestones in others’ lives, but not my own. I love buying gifts for others and watching them open them. I like being with others, watching the joy in their faces and listening to what they have to say, as long as I am not expected to speak up.

            Is that one disastrous party to blame? Probably. But maybe not. Maybe I’m just not a party person.

            What is amazing is that an event that took place sixty-two years ago impacted how I still feel about parties today.

The Invitation

            I was not a popular kid. I never received a single card on Valentine’s Day even though we were supposed to give one to every classmate. I attended no birthday parties and was never invited over on a play date.

            I don’t blame the other kids. I was a deeply unhappy, troubled girl who couldn’t hide those feelings. My face was in a perpetual frown. My lips were thin white lines. My eyes fought to restrain the tears that poured seemingly on their own accord. I never smiled, laughed or even when on the playground, ran about as joyfully as others.

            At that time, I would have been labelled a sad-sack. I was Grumpy the Dwarf from Cinderella.  I was the cartoon character who went about with storm clouds overhead. I was Eeyore.

            Later when I became a teacher, I understood how my own teachers had failed me. In today’s world a miserable student like myself would have been referred to a school nurse or the psychologist or even Child Protective Services. The stories I could have told would most likely have landed me in a foster home. But that never happened.

            Instead, I moped my way through school, the kid no one invited to anything.

            Until one day in fourth grade a girl handed me a pretty card. She watched with bright eyes as I opened it and read. She wanted me to come to her house for a sleepover!

            I didn’t want to go but my mother insisted. She took me to the store to buy new underwear and pajamas, toothbrush and toothpaste. She made me call the girl and tell her I was coming, get the details as to what time to arrive and what time my mother was to pick me up the next day.

            As time drew near, I became increasingly anxious. I’d never slept anywhere but home. I was terrified about the logistics: where would I sleep, would I have to brush my teeth in front of others and what would happen when I had to go to the bathroom.

            I feigned illness when it was time to leave. My mother made me go.

            To my surprise there were four other girls there. None of them were friends as I had none, but all were in my class. I knew their names, but had never spoken to them.

            We gathered in the girl’s bedroom, clustered on her twin bed. Because I was the last, I got the foot of the bed. I barely fit.

            I don’t remember much about what happened that night, except for the magazine. The girl brought out one of her mother’s magazines. The girls passed around the magazine, taking turns ogling the models and the fashions. All went fairly well until they decided to read the stories.

            The only one I remember was a test to see if you were a lesbian. I didn’t know the term, so had no idea what it meant. As they took turns reading the “signs”, I realized that I fell into that category.

            I had no interest in boys (although, truth be told, I had none in girls either). I was a tomboy with muscles instead of a girly figure. And, worst of all, dark hair on my arms and legs.

            The girls began teasing me, calling me names and scooting as far away from me as possible. Although no one pushed me off the bed, I somehow ended up on the floor.

            The teasing was so bad, so insistent and so cruel that I ran downstairs and told the mother that I was ill and needed to go home. She must have called my mother.

            While I feared my mother and really didn’t like being with her, when her car pulled into that driveway, I was very happy to leave.

            Looking back, I wonder if the girls hadn’t set me up. If they hadn’t planned on taunting me. If that hadn’t been the only reason that they had invited me.

            After the disastrous party, the girls returned to treating me the way they had before. They never spoke to me, played with me, invited me to parties.

            That one invitation could have opened doors for me. Instead, it solidified my place in elementary school society. How sad!

Stepping Out

            When I transferred to the University of Southern California at the end of my freshman year of college, I had no idea what to expect. I had visited no college campuses during my last year of high school, had never seen a residence hall (we called them dorms in the 1970s), and had chosen a major in math just because I found it easy.

            USC was not my first choice. I really wanted to go to Ohio State and live with my grandmother. I didn’t know if her neighborhood was safe, how far she lived from the campus and whether or not public transportation could get me there. My primary purpose was to escape my dysfunctional family. Going to Ohio was about as far away from California as I thought my parents would let me go. Plus, I figured, living with Grandma would give my parents peace of mind.

            They refused.

            Thanks to a full scholarship from the State of California, I could attend any college in the state, tuition-free. I wanted San Francisco State College because they had an excellent teacher-preparation program. I had always dreamed of being a teacher as the classroom was the one safe place where I wouldn’t be hit, spanked, or ridiculed. Teaching, was to me, an honored profession, something to aspire to.

My parents thought differently. They believed that I didn’t have it in me to teach. Intellectually, socially, psychologically. Considering had backwards I was back then, they were right. So, once again, my parents refused. The excuse they gave was that they didn’t want me living on campus and they were terrified of public transportation Their fears made no sense to me.

            My brother also received the state scholarship. He applied to and was accepted to USC as an Engineering major. Because my brother would be there, that was the only college my parents would allow me to attend.

            When September rolled around, my parents drove us down to Los Angeles. My first glimpse of USC was of towering, impressive-looking buildings. Everything was huge. So huge that I saw myself drowning. But I nodded, telling myself that I wouldn’t let that happen.

            After unloading my brother’s stuff at his dorm, I was taken to mine. My room was on the fourth floor, with a great view of what I learned was called the quad.

I wasn’t dismayed by the tiny size of the room as I had been sharing a comparably-sized room with my sister for most of my life.

There were things about it that I liked: the closet was the right width for my limited wardrobe. The bed looked like a couch until it was pulled out from the wall. It was comfortable enough, but then I was only eighteen and so thought anything that wasn’t a floor was okay.

I had a desk and shelves. Wall space to decorate. And more drawers than I’d ever had.

Everything about my new living situation pleased me except for the trek required to get to the communal bathroom. Sharing a bathroom for private affairs was a bit of a shock. But I was okay because it wasn’t home.

My roommate was a haughty, unfriendly rich girl. Her mother arrived every week with a rack of brand-new clothes with tags on and wrapped in plastic bags. A hair dresser appeared like clockwork every few weeks and cut her hair in our room! I couldn’t imagine such wealth until I’d come face-to-face with it.

Shortly after classes began, my brother decided to pledge a fraternity. I seriously doubt that he knew any more about fraternities than I did about sororities. We knew no one who had gone to college and so had no experience with pledging and all that entailed. I wasn’t going to let that stop me. I figured that if he could do it, so could I.

He got accepted into the house that later I learned was for nerds. It wasn’t his first choice. He’d yearned to be at the jock house even though he wasn’t a jock. The only fraternity that accepted my brother was the one for the smart, geeky guys that couldn’t get in anywhere else. Despite the disappointment, my brother grew to love it. For the first time in his life, he was surrounded with nonathletes whose academic goals were lofty.

Next door was a beautiful southern-style building that was home to a sorority affiliated with my brother’s fraternity. They called themselves Little Sisters.

I convinced a rather plain looking girl whom I had befriended in the dorm to go through rush with me. We spent many dinners at that sorority, hoping to be accepted. Looking back now, I bet the sisters laughed at my wide-open eyes each time I sat to eat.

It was my first experience sitting at an exquisite dinner table with rows of utensils on both sides of the plate. Tablecloth and stark white linen napkins. Getting gussied up for a meal. Surrounded by pleasant conversation swirling about. It must have shown, yet they invited me back, time after time.

I was overwhelmed each time. There was no arguing, no belittling, no being punched or kicked or smacked.

I badly wanted to be there, to be one with this wonderful group of young women. My friend was eventually dropped. I understood, even though it made me angry. Her face was covered by acne scars, so many that her skin was permanently dimpled. Her voice was nasally and her wardrobe was as inferior as mine. She was hurt when she was asked not to return. Even so, she encouraged me to continue to try to be accepted.

As time passed, in order to prove my worthiness, I had to participate in a series of activities. The first was a fashion show for a group of women donors. We had to wear our own clothes.

That’s when I noticed how badly I fit in.

The others had designer outfits. Tailored dresses for all occasions. Perfectly cut pants with matching blazers. Scarves and expensive-looking jewelry. Casual clothes that spoke of money.

Only my underwear came from a store: my mother had made every dress, skirt and blouse.

Prior to the show we practiced sashaying down a pretend runway. I was awkward to say the least. I blushed at the thought of swaying my hips. I had difficulty breathing just thinking about parading in front of anyone. (I’d never done that at home as my mother thought such behavior was vulgar.)

Two days before the show we had to submit a 3×5 card with detailed descriptions of each of our three outfits. We were supposed to name the designer, the fabric, the trims, the details so as to wow the audience.

What was I to do? Name my mother? The cheap cotton of my dress? The discount fake-lace and ribbon? I tried to “sick” my way out of the show, but was told that it was a condition of my potential acceptance into the house.

The day arrived. I carried over my arm an A-line dress made of white cotton, trimmed with fake gold around the neck, a plaid plain-looking skirt with a matching cotton blouse and the only pantsuit I had, a bright orange cotton, bell-bottom affair that probably glowed in the dark.

Behind the stage we were given racks to hang our clothes. Except for high school PE, I had never changed in front of other girls. As I watched them get dressed in their first outfits, I realized that they were skinny and I was fat. There was no way I’d fit in with these girls!

I picked up my clothes to make a hasty exit, but the house mother blocked my way. I was told that under no terms was I told I had to go out on that stage.

With tears in my eyes, I put on the dress and stood in line. Slowly it inched forward as impeccably dressed girls went before me. When only two girls were before me, I had a clear view of the stage, the walkway and the room. To my eyes, I believed there were at least one hundred richly dressed women in the room.

My turn came. I took a deep breath, squared my shoulders and walked out on that stage. As instructed, I stopped next to the emcee. As she read the description of my homemade dress, I felt my cheeks blush and my eyes fill with tears.

I knew by then that I didn’t belong there, that I would never belong and that I was foolish to think that I could. However, I couldn’t runaway, so I took a deep breath and stepped out.

I did not sashay. I did not swirl or twirl or even plant my hands on my hips. I did not stop when I got to the end, but spun around and not-quite dashed to the back of the stage.

I changed into my next outfit, knowing that it only served to show how very poor I was. When my turn came, I stepped out once again. And then did the same for my third outfit.

When the fashion show part of the luncheon ended, we found seats at the tables, surrounded by wealthy women. I don’t remember the meal, but I am willing to bet that I ate nothing. I probably only offered cursory responses if anyone bothered to speak to me. I probably sat there with tears streaming down my face.

On the way back to campus, I berated myself for being so foolish to think that I could be a part of a sorority. My poverty, my poor upbringing, my complete lack of exposure to wealth, meant that if I was invited to join, it would only be because they needed a poor girl as a token representation of their efforts to diversify.

Stepping out on that stage was one of the most difficult things I’d done, but I did it.

Wished-for Treasure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            I didn’t care. I still wanted one.

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

            I cried all the way home.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts About Life Before Death

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

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

            Her words hit home.

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

            Heavenly, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            I certainly hope so.

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

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

One Lucky Lady

They say that cats have nine lives.  Through some quirk of nature, I must have some “link” to those lives, for I’ve gone through four already.  That’s about as lucky as a person can get, I suppose. 

Sure, I’d love to win the lottery, but that requires buying a ticket.  I could go to Las Vegas, Nevada and throw money at the slot machines, or go to the horse races at Golden Gate Fields and bet on a long shot, but those things seem unnecessarily wasteful.

I don’t play Bingo, Scrabble, or cards, so you’ll never see me entered in a competition.  Pool is not my game either.  The only contests I enter are for authors who love to throw good money away on entrance fees.

 Some things are worth much more than money.  Family, love, satisfaction, shelter, food, friends, and employment rank right in the top ten.  Simply having the good fortune to still be walking on this earth is about the luckiest that anyone could possibly be.

It’s equivalent to finding the golden ticket in the chocolate bar, or watching the long-shot horse cross the finish line well ahead of the others.  Every morning that I arise is my lucky day.  Every evening when I’m able to climb under the covers is another opportunity to count my blessings.

Once you’ve faced Death and emerged victorious, nothing can compare.  Four times I’ve walked away, knowing that Death had called my name and I had had the fortitude to stare him in the face and say, “Heck, no.”

About ten years ago a common cold moved in to my lungs.  It had the nerve to take up residence, and stubbornly refused to leave.  The sniffles turned into a full-blown, fever-induced hallucinogenic excursion into the netherworld.  Weakened by its ravaging forces, I was unable to motivate my combat troops to erect a formidable defense. 

Night after night I coughed my way through the lonely hours.  Food refused to stay down, and fluids ran right through, stopping only long enough to gather random reinforcements along the way.  Awareness took a temporary vacation, leaving me in an imbecilic state.

Eventually the battle reached a critical point.  As I pretended to sleep, each gasp was like playing a “cat and mouse” game. That’s when something bizarre occurred.  I floated.  Yes, I literally floated above my reclining body.

Looking down, I knew that I was dead.  My chest did not rise and fall.  No fluttering of eyelids or twitching of fingers.  A coldness drifted upwards as a pallor overcame what I thought of as simply, “my body.”

My husband slept peacefully next to my corpse, unaware that I was no longer there.  My heart broke, thinking of the devastation that this would cause him, and I cried, “No!” 

I fought to break free from my insubstantial self, screaming silently that my time had not yet come.  I closed my eyes and literally willed myself back into my body, one part at a time.  Fingers.  Toes.  Legs.  Arms.  Chest.  Head.

My eyes opened, and I was back.  Joy flooded my thoughts, and I knew, then, that I was victorious.

Much later someone told me about out-of-body experiences, and that it was possible for someone to defy death.  That was life number one.

Life number two was taken five years ago when a chronic asthma attack landed me in the hospital for eight days.  Every breath was a fight.  My lungs gurgled, and the feeling was much like that of drowning.  The specialists gathered about my bedside throughout the day argued as to what to try next.  Nothing worked. I weakened by the hour.

Six days in, I begged my husband to call our children.  I wanted to hear their voices one last time before I died.  Yes, I said that, for I believed that my end had come. 

One by one the calls came.  I was so weak that all I was capable of doing was whispering, “I love you.”  That night, at peace, I readied myself to die.

When morning came and I was still there, I cried.  Another day of fighting for every breath, of coughing so hard that my ribs were sore, did not appeal to me in the least. 

When the crew of doctors gathered this time, one of them suggested antibiotics.  After the first injection, my fever broke.  Within hours air began to fill my lungs, the coughing subsided, and Optimism walked into my room. 

Two days later I went home, grateful to be alive. 

Within five months I returned to the hospital with another chronic asthma attack.  Because the specialists knew what was happening, they began the antibiotics immediately.  Once again, I cheated Death.

My fourth life disappeared when the car I was riding in slid off a snow-covered Interstate 80, thirty miles west of Salt Lake City.  Normally the road is crowded with huge semis traveling at seventy-five miles an hour.  For some bizarre reason, none were near us as the car swerved in and out of lanes. 

Time stood still as we drifted to the right, heading for a ditch.  The car seemed to float off the road, down the hill, and over the clumps of weeds.  When we stopped, we were right side up, perpendicular to the interstate.  My daughter, the driver, and my granddaughter, riding in the back seat, were unharmed.

Within minutes rescuers arrived.  One was so kind as to drive the car out of the ditch.  Shaken, we returned to the highway, knowing that we would exit at the first safe-looking ramp.

On our journey home, we passed two similar accidents.  Both vehicles had flipped over as they slid off the road.  Both had landed upside down in icy water.  Both had fatalities.

So, while I have never won a grand monetary prize, I have won my life four times.  For me, that is luck enough for any one person.

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.

Election Day Thoughts

            I still recall my first opportunity to vote for a president. I was not a political activist, but I became one because I wanted to make what I thought was the right choice for all Americans. I attended rallies, workshops, seminars and listened to countless speeches. My university was predominately liberal, but all voices could be heard. And listen I did.

            When it came time to vote, I did so with great pride.

            My candidate won and went on to become a good president, a good leader. He lead with compassion and thought.

            I never regretted my decision even when I changed political parties for the next election.

            In over 50 years I have never missed an election cycle because I feel it is my civic duty to vote. When I study the issues and the candidates I am constantly aware of how, many years ago, not all Americans had the right to vote. If you weren’t a white man, you had no voice. When women finally won the right to vote, many chose to vote as their husbands, fathers or brothers told them to do. Politics was considered above the head of women and discussing political ideas was considered unseemly.

            My candidates didn’t always win, but I told myself that the winners would still represent me, would still keep me in their minds as they brought forth bills. At times I was sorely disappointed. Decisions were made that angered me or negatively impacted me, such as when taxes were increased or boundaries were gerrymandered to enhance the strength of a different political party than mine.

            For the most, part, however, I understood that the voice of the many was what drove decisions, what won elections, what dictated how laws were interpreted and enforced.

            Until 2016. My candidate did not win, not because of popular vote, but because of an archaic system called the Electoral College. I understand why the founding fathers established the College many years ago: it was to make sure that all states had equal voice in choosing who would be president. However, at that time, much of America was rural, with people scattered across vast swaths of land.

            Those “fathers” most likely didn’t expect things to remain static, that America would remain mostly rural. They also probably expected change to take place as time and circumstances dictated. There has been no change. So what we have is a system in which a wide-open mostly rural state has the same two votes as a densely populated state. Essentially this means that not all voters are equal, not all votes count.

            The current president won because of the Electoral College. His “two votes” came from predominately rural states, states that for the most part are mostly white, run by white males. His victory represented those white ideals, not the majority of Americans, not the majority of women or people of color. We have seen the results, over and over as mandates have been signed and laws have been passed or rules have been challenged which weaken the voice of anyone who is not white male.

            The importance of voting has become more and more apparent as the years have passed. During 2016 many sat out the election because they didn’t like a particular candidate, sort of a protest non-vote. There were Independents who chose to vote for candidates who stood no chance of winning because of our primarily two-party system. Because of the many who chose not to endorse the candidate who did win the popular votes, our country ended up with a president who represents a narrow spectrum of America: white males.

            By the time you read this, it will be too late to vote. Hopefully you did turn in a ballot. Hopefully you chose wisely after much thought and research. Hopefully you are pleased with the outcome.

            After the results were announced in 2016, many across America mourned. Hopefully the same will not happen again.

            Americans have always been proud of how we come together, regardless of many diverse circumstances, in pride in our country. We are not perfect: far from it. We make mistakes. Often we learn from those same mistakes, but it sometimes takes many, many mistakes before we do something about it.

            We need to understand that choices have consequences. Just as when one buys a particular brand and model of car after much research, choosing a political candidate requires the same amount of careful research. The difference is that car buying affects only one family while the political candidate affects thousands, millions, billions.

            My hope is that Americans who chose not to vote last election, Americans who chose to vote for a third-party candidate, have awakened to exactly what that wrought.

Anything Goes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            The only monitor I have is me.

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

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.