Reality Check

My friends know that I have always struggled with my weight. It defines me as a fat person. Many people see it as a symbol of slovenliness, laziness, and carelessness. Fat people are thought to be so stupid that they don’t understand the connection between what they ingest and how it manifests in the body.

Although weight isn’t supposed to be a factor when applying for a job, it is. I have sat on interview panels looking for teachers to fill particular positions. Despite being the most articulate, the most qualified in terms of experience and having the most confidence of all those interviewed, often they won’t get hired. Why? Because of a perception that weight will interfere with job performance.

What feels like a gazillion years ago I took a weight management class that my health care provider offered. I learned a lot about nutrition, self-talk and tricks to use to distract myself from eating. I did lose weight during the four-week class so I took it again. And again. As long as I was attending, I lost. It wasn’t huge amounts, but it made a difference. I felt in control.

A long dry spell without outside reinforcement passed before I broke down and joined Weight Watchers, now known as WW. I had stayed away because I feared being weighed in public. It’s one thing for me to look at myself in the mirror and be appalled: it’s another for a stranger to see the numbers. I’m not sure what I expected would happen, but in my mind, I imagined people gathered around the scale watching as each person was weighed. Everyone would see. Everyone would know.

That’s not the way it happens. From the first meeting I was hooked. I have been attending meetings for years. I would lose a little, and then put some back on. Lose a little, gain more. Up and down, week after week.

When my knees needed replacing I took it more seriously and lost more. Due to inactivity, it returned.

It seemed that I lacked discipline and focus. I wanted to lose because it would change my life in powerful ways. A skinnier me would be a respected colleague at work. When I spoke, peers would listen to the words, not gawk at my fat.

I would bring home the proper foods and stay on track. Except for the cookie that would turn into four and the M & Ms that fell into my palm in a cluster. There would be cake and pie at parties that I had to eat. Hamburgers and candy bars that I needed at the end of every shopping trip. Over and over I overindulged in things that I knew put on fat.

Thanks to WW I began to understand that I was not alone: millions of people are just like me. It’s like being in a club of like-minded individuals. Meetings brought us together to share our stories. We listened, knowing that the words spoken represented us.

Every week I was welcomed for who I was, not for who they thought I should be. Such acceptance from strangers was new to me.  Sometimes I was the fattest person in the room, but most of the time I wasn’t. Sometimes when I was frustrated I was silent and moody, but then someone would share an insight that opened my eyes.

Even so, my pattern of deprivation followed by indulgence continued. I’d lose a fair amount of weight, buy new clothes, then something would happen and the weight would return. I saw it as a natural process: something that occurred because of an injury or illness. That image allowed me to put the blame somewhere other than in my mind, in the things that went into my mouth.

Two years ago I needed an operation that was important enough to be done quickly. However the surgeon wouldn’t operate until I had lost at least thirty pounds. Do you know how embarrassing that is? The youngish, virile man looking at me as a slab of fat, like a roast to be trimmed. If I hadn’t been in tremendous pain, like other times when doctors told me I was overweight, I would have walked away and my pattern would have continued.

Instead I accepted his words for truth. For the first time I realized that I could no longer close my eyes and pretend that even though my clothes were huge, that it wasn’t all that bad. That was my first reality check.

I cried each time I wanted something unhealthy to eat. I walked past the package of cookies, the canister filled with candy with a sense of gloom. I couldn’t eat those things. I shouldn’t eat those things. I wouldn’t eat those things.

The pounds slowly disappeared because I embraced WW’s philosophy for the first time. I tracked what I ate. I stayed within my points for the day. I had been exercising for years, but I took things up a notch. Because I wanted that surgery, I took responsibility for myself being overweight and I lost the required amount of weight.

When I looked in the mirror in an honest fashion, I was proud of myself because of what I had accomplished. I still had more to lose in order to reach my goal weight.

Before I ignored the distance between where I was and where I should be, telling myself that I would never, ever get there. Now I told myself that I was on the way. All I had to do was keep following WW, keep attending reinforcing meetings, keep walking by temptations.

When I reached goal weight I was shocked and pleased. I also understood that because unhealthy food calls my name, that it would incredibly easy for me to put all those pounds back on. It might have taken me years, if we go back to when I took the classes, to lose eighty pounds, but if I fell back, those pounds would race back.

Two weeks ago my WW leader shared the message for the week. When tempted, we should pause and then do a reality check.

Imagine standing before a package of oatmeal cookies, your favorite. You pick up the  package salivating over the tender raisins, the oat texture. Then you pause with the package frozen in place. Conduct a reality check. Ask yourself if you’re truly hungry or if you’re just looking for something to put in your mouth.  If you’re hungry, ask yourself if there’s a better choice you could make. If not hungry, then question why you need food.

Recently I put this method to a test. I was in a grocery store and saw a package of prettily decorated miniature chocolate cakes. It called my name. I picked up the package and it was heading for my cart when it dawned on me that I should pause. I held the package, looking at the cakes. How many would I eat, I asked myself. I really only wanted one. I wanted to taste it, to see if it was as good as it looked. But then there would be eleven left. Who would eat them?

Anyone passing by probably wondered what I was doing. Imagine how peculiar I looked, standing there with a package of cakes hovering over my cart. Pretty comical, right?

The next step is the reality check. If I bought them, despite only wanting one, I would eat more. I would have at least one a day until they were gone even if they didn’t taste as wonderful as I hoped.

Did I really need them? Was it important for me to buy them? If I didn’t would I have other things to eat?

The answer to all questions was a resounding no. The package returned to the display and I walked away, telling myself if, after getting the healthy choices on my list, I still yearned for them, I could go back.

Guess what? The reality check really worked. Those cakes never entered my cart.

I have used this method several times a day since then. Every time I pass through the kitchen with the intent of grabbing something, I pause. Do the reality check. Reach for fruit or walk away.

Reality check keeps me focused on my health, my well-being, my desire to present myself in a positive image. I never again want to be the obese person that I was before. I could lose more weight, but I am pleased with who I have become. I am determined to utilize the reality check method whenever temptation arises.

Imagine if everyone utilized this method! There would be no fights, no drive-by shootings, no theft, no injuries to self or others. No hurting words would be said. No haughty smirks or cutting glances. No hurtful posts on social media. No angry emails or phone calls. The world would be a safer and happier place.

I am grateful to WW for sharing this with us. Reality check is a powerful tool that I intend to rely on as long as I have the cognitive power to do so.

How about you?

Learning to be Optimistic

Before I met my husband no one would have ever considered me to be an optimist. My heart was stuck in my miserable past, and although I tried to let it go, memories drug me down.

My dreams were minuscule and short term. Turn in that paper, make my bed, don’t say anything that would get me in trouble. Every morning began with a litany of pitfalls to avoid. You would have thought I’d learn, but no, I’d fall into the same trap over and over.

Before my family moved to California, my brother and I discovered that the community colleges were affordable That was when my dreams of getting a degree began to formulate. I had no idea what I would study. I saw it as a way out. An opportunity to break free of the bonds that tied me to people seldom showed love or compassion.

Every class I took for the next three years was chosen to get me into college. I had no idea how I’d pay tuition as I had never worked. When an opportunity arose to make some money, I seized it with both hands. Night after night I sat at the scorekeeper’s table at the local bowling alley and kept score for league competitions. The bowlers paid well, but when they saw that I was studying while keeping score, they paid me more. Then when asked if I was intending to go to college, they gave me more. Over the course f two years I save up enough for a year’s tuition and books.

I needed my counselor’s recommendation to be sent to colleges. She told me that I lacked the skills to succeed. That I would fail out after one semester. Considering that I already had low self-esteem, she sent me deeper into the basement. I cried for days.

One morning I woke up with a new feeling: determinination. I would enroll in college. I would take courses that would count when I transferred to a four-year-university. I would prove that she was wrong.

It was hard to maintain that optimism as my family situation had not changed and I still had no friends. I was a geeky kid, one of those weirdos who don’t fit in any group. I wasn’t pretty as my father had repeated told me. I was smart, but not as smart as my brother as my mother reminded me. I wore hand-me-down clothes, shoes that were too big and had a hairdo that was ancient.

The State of California gifted me a full-ride scholarship to any in-state college. I was happy, but not buoyant. In my mind the fear still lurked that the counselor was right, that I didn’t have the academic skills to succeed.

My parents wouldn’t let me go away to college the first year, so I enrolled at a community college. I had never been a good student of English. I loved to read, but it seemed that I was unable to perceive what others did from the literature. In fact, it was as if I had read completely different books. I could write papers that got good grades, but didn’t understand how to analyze written word.

After getting two miserable grades in my first college English class, I began to believe that the counselor was right. I dropped the class. However, my Spanish professor told me I was too advanced for any classes at the college! My spirits lifted a tiny bit.

I got a job at a clothing store. Big mistake. What shopper would listen to a lower-class employee clearing wearing used clothes? No one. I was fired after a week. Spirits fell.

Then the local KFC hired me even though I knew nothing about cooking. Working the counter was intimidating. I was so shy that speaking to strangers was challenging. I felt inferior every day. The customers dressed better, spoke clearer and knew what they wanted. I lacked all of those skills.

As time passed, however, I learned the job. I was excellent at making coleslaw and excellent at strawberry pie. I kept things clean and was polite and respectful. My confidence took a step up the ladder.

I transferred to USC in the fall. My parents moved to southern California in order to keep me close. Another KFC hired me at the first interview. Another step up the ladder.

When I arrived in my dorm I was filled with excitement as this was my first time away from home. When my roommate arrived with her personal maid and boxes and boxes of brand-new clothing, I realized I was out of my element. I was the white-trash girl trying to blend in with the ultra-rich. Down to the bottom I slid.

My life was one big board game: up two steps, down ten, slide two to the right, down, then up. Meanwhile emotionally I was frozen in time. I passed all my classes, earning excellent grades, but never totally lost the fear of failure. I was a loner. Sitting by myself in the cafeteria. Spending night after night alone.

Imagine watching groups of laughing friends on campus wishing you could join in. Picture yourself in class when discussion or group projects are assigned and no one wants you in the group. That was me.

After college I was forced to move back home as I had nowhere else to go. I was back to being inferior to my siblings. Back to being ridiculed by my parents. Back to being treated like an imbecile. What good feelings I had had disappeared.

It took months to find a job, but when I did, the first thing I did was buy a car. I needed my dad’s signature. The car I wanted he wouldn’t let me have because I was stupid. Instead I ended up with a Ford Pinto, an awkwardly shaped car. But I got to choose the color so I went with the one my dad hated: bumble bee colors. Hah. An act of rebellion.

Over time things opened up for me, but I still lacked confidence. One positive was that I made a friend at work. Another was that I did have a few dates.

I switched to a government job making enough money to get my own apartment. For the first time I was in charge of my life. I ate what I wanted. Drove around wherever I wanted. Watched what I wanted on television. Listened to my music and sang as loudly as I wanted without fear of being teased. Life was good and so my self-esteem soared.

I became a positive person because I was over being negative. It took work to make the change. I had to constantly remind myself, reset goals, reward myself when I felt good.

It was during this period that I me the man who would become my husband. He exuded confidence. Not in an over-the-top way, but in an I-know-who-I-am way. The attraction was immediate. I wanted to be like him and thought if I hung out with him at work his buoyant spirit would rub off.

It took time, but he taught me to love myself, reminded me that I was lovable, and kept me away from negative, overpowering people. He beloved in himself and then believed in me. Through him I learned that I could do many things.

Recently I was reading about a different kind of therapy for depressed individuals. Instead of dwelling on the past, which cannot be changed, look to the future and try to see yourself there. What would you want to be doing? Thinking? Feeling?

Patients were encouraged to write about future selves. Guess what happened? Over time attitudes changed and they began to see brighter days ahead.

If only I could have worked with someone like this. It would not have taken twenty-five years for me to be able to see the good in myself.

I try not to see the negative in people and want to believe that there is good in everyone. However, when I do encounter someone who drags me down, instead of blaming myself, I move away. Rapidly.

This is what positivity gives you: an ability to walk in your own shoes away from negative people. Let them be miserable in their own world: keep them out of mine.

Life is easier, too, when those you have chosen to be with echo the feelings you want to cherish in yourself. Life is too precious not to be positive. I will hold that thought dear to my heart.

 

 

 

 

 

Disaster Strikes

The weekend before Christmas my critique went on a writer’s retreat in Mendocino. The weather was spectacular despite being a bit chilly, but the skies were a deep blue. The four of us would meet, discuss our work, eat something, then repeat. By evening we were finished for the day and so decided to visit the Botanical Gardens in order to see the colorful light displays. While we roamed about taking in one spectacular display after another, the fog came in.

We decided to eat at Hotel Mendocino because of its charm and the quality of the food. After parking, we headed up the steps. I placed my right foot on the first one, and then found myself falling. I landed so hard that my right arm shattered. I knew it was broken despite not feeling any pain.

When the paramedics arrived they cut my sweatshirt off then slid a blow-up cast on my arm. I was then transported to Fort Bragg’s hospital. X-rays revealed that my bone was in there distinct pieces that would require surgery to mend.

The orthopedic surgeon was in Willits, a winding one-hour ride away. It was now almost midnight, so my friends left me in good hands. I must have been given something for pain, as I felt none and was a bit loo

The surgeon was waiting for me, but couldn’t begin until my blood was checked. I had been on blood thinners for years at this point and had recently had it checked. It was at 3.2, a good number. However, the surgeon reported that he couldn’t operate because it was 3.9! I was given three bags of plasma before the operation could take place.

I remember nothing of that morning except for the ride to the ICU. Just as they wheeled me past a door, I heard my husband’s voice! He had begged for a ride as my car was in front of the Bed and Breakfast. Knowing he was there lifted my spirits. I felt blessed in so many ways.

Falling was not what I intended to do that evening, but because of my friends who took care of me, the paramedics who kept me comfortable, a renowned surgeon who just happened to live in Willits and the support of my husband, the tragedy wasn’t as bad as it could have been.

Open Arms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay.”

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

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

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

“How do you know that?”

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

“I feel like that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Reflections on Faith

My parents were Catholics when convenient. They baptized us as infants because it was expected and demanded by family. Going to church, however, didn’t begin until it was time to enroll my older brother in Catholic elementary school. The parish checked tithing records and saw that my parents didn’t donate regularly. Once they established a pattern, then my brother could attend.

I enrolled a year later, no questions asked.

School began with daily mass. Prayer occurred at regular intervals. Massive school-wide processions took place with regularity, rain, snow or shine. Students were disciplined with ruler, clicker, social isolation and words. We studied the saints and wrote countless reports about our favorites. All art was related to church and church teachings. No frivolous country scenes. Only crucifixions or stained-glass windows.

We read the bible, not contemporary literature except for the occasional Dick and Jane and see Spot run. We were conditioned to believe that church was our life now and in the future. Every year priests and nuns and missionaries spoke to our entire school about a life of service.

Throughout all these years I often attended Sunday Mass, but only if there wasn’t an excuse to skip it. It crops had to be planted or harvested, no Mass. If it was too snowy, icy or rainy, no Mass. Too hot? No Mass. Memorial Day? No Mass only endless visits from one cemetery to another. Relatives to visit? Well, you get the picture.

My parents made sure we received our first Communion. We processed in with our classes, hands neatly folded with a white prayer book nestled between and a white plastic rosary draped over the tips of our fingers. My brother got by with a white school shirt but I was stuffed into a stiff Communion dress and a tight-fitting veil pinching my puffy cheeks.

Once that milestone was accomplished we once again attended Mass when my dad saw fit. Interestingly enough, ten cents out of the quarter weekly allowance was handed back to my dad as our donation to the church we never attended.

My brother and I stayed at the Catholic school through Confirmation. My teacher, a strict nun, made sure I understood that this sacrament sealed my commitment to a life of service to God and church. I took it quite seriously. When the annual recruitment took place, I was ready to sign up for a monastic life of solitude and prayer. I envisioned myself in a place of peace, a place of reflection, a place devoid of the tension which was my home life. My parents wouldn’t let me go.

When we moved to California in 1964 my dad began his search for the fastest mass in town. He took us over the hills to Half Moon Bay and Pacifica where the priests spoke of fire and brimstone, damnation of everlasting hell. They terrified me.

We tried churches in San Mateo and Burlingame. We didn’t fit in those well-to-do parishes due to our extreme poverty. He found one in San Bruno that he liked until the priest asked for regular donations. There were two in South San Francisco:  one which was supposed to be our assigned parish and the other, a tiny one, with a thirty-minute mass. That’s the one my dad chose. In and out, over and done.

When away at college I discovered the Neumann Center, a tiny chapel on campus with a welcoming atmosphere. The music was contemporary with drums, guitars, keyboard and cymbals. Dancing in the aisles. Hallelujahs and lots of praise be to God. I fit in.

My husband grew up in a family that attended mass faithfully regardless of whether even when they had to sludge to church through downpours.  Going to church was part of who he was. It influenced his thinking, his behavior, his attitude toward others.

His beliefs built our family into who we are today. If we were camping, he found a church. Skiing? Church. Traveling? Right, church. Sometimes we drove for miles to find a church, but we got there nevertheless.

For almost 46 years Sunday Mass has been an integral part of our relationship. In fact, when I travel on my own, I seek out church and attend.

Not being able to attend due to the coronavirus takes me back to my childhood days of any excuse to miss going to Mass. Except for one caveat: this isn’t voluntary, but enforced.

We found a Mass on television, which is a nice substitute, but there’s a huge difference between sitting in your family room and being in the church building. There are stained glass windows in the TV church and statues and the readings and the service, but the lack of physical presence takes you away from the reverence, the spirituality.

Today things changed for me. I was asked to be the lector for today’s Sunday Mass. I put on a dress and necklace. Studied my readings. Made sure my hair was neatly combed. Put on my mask when I entered the church. Three others were there: the parish secretary, the parish office manager and the choir director. The church felt hollow. Voices echoed.

But the pews were there. Candles, flowers, statues, stained glass windows, all the things that identify that church as mine. When the priest entered and the service began I was filled with awe. Several times my eyes filled with tears. Singing with the director took me back to a few weeks ago when I’d be standing with five other choir members, lifting our voices in praise. Now there was just two of us.

The priest shared a time when he had strayed from God and how, when the call came, how powerful it was. His words carried me back to  my childhood when it wasn’t me that chose to stray, but circumstances beyond my control, and how powerful it was when I found God in my late teens. He spoke for all of us, reminding us to talk to Jesus.

Next Sunday we’ll watch the television Mass once again. It won’t be the same, but I’ll share the experience with my husband, the man who taught me that attending church was a powerful connection to our faith in God.

In these times we need reminders that there is someone up there, someone ready to listen when we’re ready to pray.

 

Tackling Projects

There have been things I’ve wanted to do but never had the time or inclination to take them on. For one reason or another I never have the time. Either I’m running off to the gym or meeting with book club friends or walking with my husband. There are a myriad of preferred activities I have at the tip of my fingers that prevent me from taking on the big projects.

Now that I my outdoor activities are limited to quick trips to the grocery, walking with a friend while maintain six feet of separation or neighborhood with my husband, I have run out of excuses.

This week I decided to sort through all the music CDs I have bought and stored over the years. For a long time the cases were stuffed into a cabinet, but when that became unruly, I filed the CDs in binders and taped the cases into boxes which were stuffed under beds or stacked high in closets.

I began simply by retrieving only one box. As I reunited the CDs and cases, I reflected on whether or not I really needed to keep it or if it could go in a pile to sell at a nearby store. Amazingly enough, the majority went into the sale pile.

The next day I tackled another box. The day after that, one more. The ones I kept were numbered in the twenties. The boxes of giveaways grew taller.

The boxes high in the closet were easy to reach; the ones below the bed required gymnastics as I cannot kneel and have difficulty getting up off the floor.

As each day passed and one more bit was accomplished, my attitude changed. At first it was a tedious chore. It changed to a challenge as the cases had not been stored in any organized fashion. Country was mixed with Christian along with Pop and Christmas.

Yesterday I finished. Most CDs had the correct cases but about ten cases had no CDs! Where were the missing CDs? I have no idea. The only possibility is that I accidentally put the wrong CD in a case. But, if that is so, shouldn’t there by a CD remaining by the same artist? And shouldn’t the numbers of empty cases match the numbers of homeless CDs?

After attempting to look through the piles of giveaways, I decided to quit. I accomplished what I had set out to do. The mishmash has been cleared. The mission completed.

Now I can slowly rebuild my collection as my favorite artists release new albums. That simple thought brightens my day.

One project tackled successfully. Where do I go from here? Who knows, but at least I can chalk one off the list.

 

Memories of Life in the Projects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Bear of a Man

My mother had many siblings.

Her brother Joe scared me because he liked to pick me up, turn me upside down and paddle my bottom, long after such things would be done to someone my age. Tears never deterred him and my parents never intervened. One time he threatened to stuff me in my grandparent’s coal-burning stove. I kicked and screamed and cried for help, but not even my grandmother stopped him. When I felt the heat on my face and thought my hair was on fire, Joe finally set me down. I scurried away as fast as I could. Thankfully he lived many hours away and so visits were limited to twice a year.

Clarence was a backwoods man. He lived off-the-grid before it was popular to do so. He was moody, somber and seemed to have had children with several of the women who shared the house. It was hard to tell who belonged to whom because they all looked the same. Because his home was so far off any civilized road, we only visited him once.

There were several sisters. Rachel lived on a huge chunk of land, her house sitting high on a hill overlooking meadows of green grass. Not only was it a peaceful environment, she was a calming presence in my hectic life. I loved visiting her. Her youngest son was older than me but still liked to play little-kids games. Only later did I learn that Jimmy was learning disabled. One time my brother and I got to spend a weekend with Aunt Rachel. It was one of the best weekends in my life. I missed her when we moved to Ohio.

The uncle I knew the best was Rudy. He had moved to California before we did and was established in Orange County. He had bought a house, had a good-paying job, and his three sons and wife seemed happy. When we first arrived in California we stayed with them for several days. The sons were rough-and-tumble, but overall good kids. The wife was merry, easy to be around, and a good cook. Rudy was a quiet, respectful guy, quick to hug and laugh. He told great stories and enjoyed athletic pursuits. He was also an alcoholic.

When Rudy drank his personality changed. He growled with anger at perceived insults, was argumentative and disagreeable. He grabbed me whenever I passed nearby and held my arms so tight that he left bruises. He pulled me to his chest and kissed my head, over and over, stroking my hair. It gave me the creeps.

He threatened my brother, called him names and made fun of him for being an intellectual. Rudy respected only his type of intelligence: mechanical skills. He could fix any engine, appliance, television or radio. When he was sober. Drunk he was useless, which is probably why he moved so often.

My family rented a miniature house a few miles away from Rudy. My dad was struggling to find full-time work. Rudy came over one evening and after quite a few drinks convinced my dad to be his courier. My dad was to go to a mail pick up spot, open the box, remove whatever was inside and deliver it to a different address each time. He was not to open the envelope or ask the name of the person receiving the package. For this Dad would be given several hundred dollars, an amount that would feed us and keep us sheltered.

I think my dad knew there was something shady about this business. After Rudy left my parents huddled together in their bedroom for a long time, the murmur of voices the only sounds we could hear. The need for money won so my dad made a few runs.

Each time he was handed a bundle of cash. The money was a wonderful gift at a time when we were desperate. But then something happened that frightened my dad and he was not easily frightened. A man was standing outside the box pickup spot, followed my dad to his car, knocked on his window and demanded the package. Dad sped away, but later noticed a car following him. A case ensued through the streets of southern California. Eventually my dad shook the tail and delivered the envelope.

When he got home he called Rudy and told him he would never do that again.

Within minutes Rudy stormed into our house. He threw his barrel chest out, bumped it into my dad and pushed Dad up against a wall. I believe that punches were thrown, but by now I was hunkering behind the couch. I heard thumps and bumps and tons of curse words.

My uncle’s bass voice reverberated against the walls. He threatened to turn my dad into the police for laundering money. He promised jail time and a long conviction. His verbal abuse continued for a long, long time.

When my dad did not give in, Rudy demanded a beer, which my mom delivered. He parked himself in our rocking chair and sat there, downing beer after beer until his words were slurred. Throughout it all, he ranged from being abusive, threatening, intimidating, and finally as the alcohol set in, he fell into uncontrollable sobs.

Shortly after that incident we moved to South San Francesco. My dad found work and things were going well. We were in school and finding our way about in the new environment.

Rudy reemerged, this time as the warm, loving bear of a man that I knew and loved. He was once again jovial, telling jokes and stories that brought guffaws. But I knew, I remembered the evil version, the threatening grizzly bear who intimidated my rock-solid dad, a man who was threatening when displeased.

If Rudy could intimidate Dad, then what could he do to me?

Even when Rudy moved back to Ohio I never forgot his temper, his strength, his posturing. The teddy bear when sober was a man-killer when drunk. I was glad that I never saw him again.

 

 

The Times are Changing

Every year the flu sweeps across the country and sickens thousands. Kills many more. Yet we seldom panic when the word “flu” is used. Why? Because it is commonplace. It’s expected. It’s understood.

We know that it brings runny noses, coughs, chills, fevers. We expect to suffer for a week or more. It will leave us weak, but we recover. We don’t want to eat, but that’s for a relatively short period of time.

Our neighbors and coworkers and relatives get it, suffer, then most of them get well. Only rarely does someone we know die from the flu, and those that do tend to have compromised immune systems.

So what’s new about this coronavirus? For one thing, it’s taken researches a while to try to isolate what caused it. We don’t like mystery. We like scientific explanations. We like logic.

Mystery illnesses remind us of science fiction movies where plagues sweep across the world killing millions. That makes us uncomfortable because there’s a touch of reality in there, a touch of possibility that causes us to squirm.

Americans are accustomed to catching the flu then returning to normal life. While we are home suffering, everyone else is working, traveling, shopping. We wrap up in heavy blankets and sip broth while the rest of the family gobbles down pizza, hamburgers, spaghetti.

While we’re home unable to work, work goes on, leaving us behind. We worry that the boss will discover that we are not needed. That hurts our egos as we like to believe that we are indispensable.

Across the United States, as the virus sickens more and more of us, governors and mayors are enacting rules that restrict our movement. We don’t like that. We believe in our freedoms and those are being eroded on a daily basis.

We are in love with our cars. Yes, we can still drive about, but where can we go? Not to the movies or the theater as they are closed. We can’t dine in a nice restaurant where we chitchat with friends, for they are closed as well. We can drive up to a fast food window and order take out, but we aren’t permitted to share the meal with outsiders.

Our churches are closed, so we cannot worship in the usual way. Some churches have created streamed services, but that’s not the same environment. The pomp is gone. The music is gone. The partaking of communion is also gone. Our community is broken into tiny parts.

We cannot stroll through a mall or go for a hike with friends. Even our doctors don’t want to see us, opting for phone calls instead of in-person visits.

All the things that we are used to doing, that we accept as our rights, are shuttered.

The scary part is that we don’t know for how long. Two weeks? Three? Maybe even four? No one knows for sure. This uncertainty is new.

The flu might close a school for a deep cleaning that lasts a day, but all schools are closed for at least three weeks. Education, a right that we highly value, has ground to a halt.

No public transportation is operating, so we cannot go into the city or ride across the bay. We are truly stuck.

This curtailing of our freedoms is frightening. People are hoarding food and medicine. They are even filling bottle after bottle with water, thinking that our supply is going to be cut off? Who knows.

We are told to use sanitizer but you can’t find it anywhere. We are told to stay out of stores, but what if you need food? Because of the hoarders it’s hard to find fresh food, and when you do, the prices have risen to unacceptable rates.

We are told to keep six feet of separation between us, but at the grocery store, people stand shoulder-to-shoulder.

I hope and pray that this passes quickly and that not too many sicken and die.

Let’s muscle through this together. Let’s comply, as much as possible, for the betterment of all. Perhaps if we stay home, the end will come soon.

Meanwhile, we can sing the old song about how the times are changing.

The Lonely Kid

When I was a little kid I was shy and deeply miserable. At home there was one girl who would only play with me outside, no matter how cold the wind blew or how deep the snow. I never understood why I never entered her house until I was much older and able to reflect on possible reasons. To put it mildly, I was weird.

My clothes were faded hand-me-downs from older aunts. The styles were old-fashioned and inappropriate for a kid. My shoes weren’t name brands, clearly from thrift stores and cheap five and dimes. Even my hair made me stand out, for my mom curled it into tight ringlets every night, that when combed out sprang from my head much like Little Orphan Annie’s.

Even my school uniform marked me as unlikable. It was of the old style, with a rounded collar and a droopy A-frame skirt that fell well below my knees. At one time it was blue, but mine were gray. Everyone else wore square-necked pleated jumpers that hit mid-knee. I was the only one in faded uniforms.

Even at home I was alone. I was the middle child, wedged between an older brother who my mother worshipped and a younger sister who could do no wrong. Even though I never articulated my desires, what I wanted more than anything was to be held, caressed, and even though I didn’t yet know the meaning of the term, to be held in the same regard as my siblings.

At school and at home I played alone, preferring my own company to the maneuverings at school and the tension-filled interactions with family. Even though I knew that I was often the cause of much yelling, I didn’t understand what I had done to trigger the lectures and revilement.

Several yeas ago I saw home movies that were taken when I was a child. In all the scenes in which I appeared there were brief moments when a tiny smile creased my lips. In one I was running toward my grandpa, in the other I was in his arms.

It was a great consolation to see that there were, indeed, periods of happiness.

When I was sent to school I understood that I was going not because I was smart, but because I was dumb. This was reinforced when my mother, who learned how to drive so she could get me to a school, reminded me daily of what she was giving up, the sacrifices she was making to enroll me in the private Kindergarten. I was, in fact, the dumbest kid in the class. I had no knowledge of letters or sounds, number values, shapes, and most of the colors. I couldn’t cut paper or tie my shoes or hold a pencil correctly.

I worked hard to learn, to blend in, but even so I often felt my teachers’ frustration with my lack of knowledge and skills.

In elementary school it didn’t take me long to figure out my place in the hierarchy. I was the dumb one, the girl who never knew the answers when the teacher called on her. I was the one who never got Valentine’s Day cards and who was never invited to play dates and parties.

Granted, it was probably my fault. I was a sullen, sulky kid who wandered the playground aimlessly, interacting with no one. My brother loved cartoons and I read whatever he was given. One time, buried in the back, was a magazine ad about how to create tornadoes in a jar. Every recess I carried my jar, twirling it, setting the miniature tornado in motion, finding limited solace in watching my creation. Imagine what the other kids thought when they saw this strange girl roaming the playground with a glass jar in her hands. No wonder I was alone.

There was one girl who befriended me in fifth grade. She had recently enrolled so didn’t know my status. Imagine my surprise when she invited me to spend a weekend. I had never slept away from home before except when visiting relatives, so I had no idea what to expect. I figure life would be the same: with yelling, accusations, physical torment. But it wasn’t.

During dinner her parents conversed quietly. They asked questions of me and included me in discussions. There was no name calling or bickering. Everyone had smiles on their faces.

I fell in love with that family and wanted to live with them. I prayed for them to adopt me. I didn’t want to go home and cried when my mother took me home.

In eighth grade an odd-looking quiet boy invited me to go roller skating. I went because it was a date, my first one, and he was a nice kid. I could skate as long as it required going around the oval. I knew how to stop and start and to keep a steady speed. That was it, but it turned out, as we skated side-by-side, I knew more than Geoffrey. Modern tunes were played, which pleased me tremendously as I knew all the words, but poor Geoff was lost. After a few laps, his hand brushed mine and then morphed into hand-holding. It was my first time being with a boy, so I was nervous. He must have been as well because his was damp. I didn’t care.

In ninth grade Geoffrey invited me to my first school dance. My mom made me a powder A-line blue dress for the occasion. He arrived in a suit, bearing a corsage which he couldn’t pin on me because neither of us were comfortable with the idea. My mom did the job, but only after stabbing me with the pin.

Neither of us knew how to dance, so we spent most of the time standing on the outskirts leaning against walls or, if available, sitting on folding metal chairs. I didn’t have a great time, but a pleasant one because he was kind.

My family moved to California that summer. I was excited to go, for a new place brought hope for new adventures. No one would know me there; no one would remember my faded uniforms and weird ways. No one would have known the stupid me, for now I was one of the best students in my grade.

My mom insisted that I bring addresses of neighbors that she thought were friends. They weren’t, but I carried the information on our cross-country drive. Once we had a place to stay, I sent them letters and postcards every week. Even though none of them wrote back, I cried.

I was still shy so I made no friends my first year in my new high school. I drifted around campus as I had done in Ohio, constantly moving so that kids would think I had a purpose and a destination.

My Algebra teacher was the closest thing to a friend that I had only because he smiled when I got the right answers. A PE teacher also befriended me when I tried out for the softball team. She drove me to her house one day after school and gave me one of her mitts, then took me home. My mom threw a fit. I had no comprehension as to why my mom was upset. Now, as an adult, I do.

Across the street from the first house that we rented in South San Francisco lived a young man several years older than me. My dad liked him and spent hours standing in the street swapping stories with him. When Dennis asked permission to date me, my dad approved. I was only sixteen at the time, while Dennis was in his early twenties.

He looked like every glasses-wearing boy of the sixties. Black haired combed to the side, black-rimmed glasses, and button up the front plaid shirts. He treated me respectfully and spent money taking me on dates. We went bowling, to movies and hung out at his duplex, where he lived alone, listening to music. He wanted more than a casual relationship, however.

Sometimes after dark he’d park in an isolated spot behind a closed store and we’d make out until my lips hurt. I was never comfortable with these arrangements as I feared being robbed or killed. I was also terrified that the police would find us and arrest us for being someplace where we didn’t belong. If that happened then my parents would know about these trysts and I’d be in trouble; with both my parents and the law.

The closest call came after the bowling league ended. It was a chilly night. Dennis started his car, a blue VW Beetle, then while the engine warmed, pulled me close and kissed me. It went on and on. Bowlers walked past. Some pounded on the door or window, saying “Get a room.” Eventually we left, only to end up at his place.

At first we listened to music. We shared an interest in the Beach Boys, Beatles and other groups of the times. We’d sit side-by-side on his couch while the music played. After finishing a soda, Dennis pulled me to his side and resumed the passionate kissing. He told me how much he loved me and I believed him. I allowed him to push me down onto the pillows of the couch and didn’t protest when his hands went under my bra.

I was uncomfortable. I felt that a line was being crossed, but I didn’t know which line. I knew nothing about sexual relationships or what steps led to situations that could never be reversed. Fortunately Dennis never pushed me beyond what I did allow, even though he did ask for more.

He repeatedly said he loved me, but I never said the same to him. Because we dated for several years, my parents were thrilled. The daughter that they had felt was unlovable had someone declaring true love.

When I transferred to USC after graduation I lived on campus and ate in the dining hall. At first I ate alone, but one time when searching for a spot, a girl invited me to her table, a table at which sat lonely looking people like me. We were all odd-balls, and that was the bond that drew us together meal after meal.

One thing we had in common was that we are all quite intelligent and quite knowledgeable about a wide range of subjects. Some of us were world-travelers, some were from overseas, some, like me, were poor. For the first time I felt an equal. I don’t know how they saw me, but I was always treated with respect. Over time I dated two of the guys. They were really nice. In fact, one of them wrote me a three-page letter explaining how great of a husband he would be, and that back in his country I would be treated like royalty. As intriguing offer until he explained that I could never go anywhere alone and would have to cover my face.

All was going well until one weekend Dennis drove down to see me. He took me to Disneyland where we had a good time, but all the while I was there, I knew that I was going to break up with him. He still loved me, but during our separation I grew to understand that I liked him, but didn’t love him. He cried when I told him. I did too.

It was after Dennis left and I returned to campus that I realized how much I had changed. I was no longer the lonely kindergarten kid but a part of a social group that did things together. That treated each other as equals. That valued intellect over money and appearance.

We did crazy things together, like drive across town just to buy Tommy’s famous chili burgers. We went to the beach when it was raining and ran through the damp sand, our wind-swept hair flying behind us. We studied together in the lobby of our residence hall, reinforcing each other’s strengths and helping overcome our weaknesses. We were inseparable.

After college I returned home to find that nothing had changed. I was still the middle child, not a woman. I was still unloved and disrespected. I was still considered a bumbling fool. When I got a job and saved enough money I moved out. My mom was despondent, I think, because she no longer controlled everything I did.

As an older adult I still have my lonely days but I don’t let them drag me down. I know that they are only a blip in what are normally busy times with friends and family. I have a husband who enjoys being with me, who respects me and encourages me to do all the different things that I love to do.

Being lonely as a kid was a terrible thing. I saw kids running around in groups that were ever changing, but never with me a part of the fun. There was no one to help me navigate the social circles, to teach me how to fit in.

Along the way there were glimmer of hope: the girl who invited me over to her house, the boy who took me roller skating, the young man who said he loved me and all the college friends who respected me. Because of them I entered the world of work prepared to interact with those who showed signs of openness.

For the sake of all the lonely people in the world, be open. That will help them overcome loneliness. Be kind.