Looking Back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mother

Gray hair that once was brown

Straight that used to curl

Not combing or brushing

Not washing or rinsing

Just tangling on her head.

Body so frail that once ran

Legs that can’t even stand

Not moving or twitching

Not lifting or stretching

Just resting in the bed.

Eyes that once so clearly saw

Every mistake, every flaw

Not blinking or closing

Not focusing or watching

Just staring straight ahead.

Mind that once measured

Each phrase, each meaning

Not thinking or dreaming

Not pitting or planning

Just forgetting all said.

Voice that once spoke

Of family and friends

Not whispering or shouting

Not bragging or lying

Just lost in a void.

Gone now.

Laid at rest.

Still.

Silent.

Peace at last.

To be Yours

God came to me today

In the form of a tiny child

Whose fragile hands

Reached up to mine

Crying

Love me

Care for me

As if I were your own

Mary walked with me today

As a lowly washer woman

Whose wrinkled hands

Caressed my soul

Weeping

Help me

Touch me

Stay with me

As if I were your own

Jesus spoke to me today

Through the eyes of a blind man

Whose stumbling walk

Came near to me

Calling

Guide me

Trust me

Worship me

As if I were your own

Take time to see

To truly see

The Spirit deep inside

Of every man and woman

Walking by your side

For Jesus Christ may

Come to you today

The History of a Struggle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memorable Doctor’s Visits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Favorite Holidays

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Reliving a Moment


Every time we drive to Utah we travel past the spot where my daughter’s car slid off the road on a snowy winter day. Even though years have passed since then, goose bumps still break out all over my arms. Not only that, but shivers shake me to the core. You would think that time would dissipate the feelings, but it hasn’t. Just thinking about it now fills my eyes with tears.

At the time my daughter lived in Tooele, Utah; a bedroom community located about 40 miles from Salt Lake City. While it seldom gets deep snow, it is subject to what is called “lake effect,” meaning that moisture is pulled out of the Great Salt Lake, turned into some form of precipitation, and then dumped on Tooele.

When we arrived that January, there was already some snow on the yards and grass medians, but not on the roads.  No snow was expected; not a surprise considering our long drive from California was under bright blue skies, generally a harbinger of things to come.

On January 3 my daughter wanted to drive around the Oquirrh Mountains to West Valley, a substantially larger city with many shopping options. The purpose of the trip was to exchange some Christmas gifts that either didn’t fit or weren’t needed.

She was eight months pregnant at the time, with a nice round belly filled with a yearned-for little boy. I was excited to go, as shopping trips with my daughter had been few and far between over the years due to the distance between us. My husband and I figured out that if we drove, we could visit more frequently, which meant more opportunities to visit stores.

It snowed the night before our planned drive. Not a light dusting, but a sizeable storm that dropped a six-inch layer of snow. It continued to snow quite heavily all morning, depositing another four inches.

Footsteps were quickly filled and the increasingly heavy load caused tree limbs to droop. The roads which were normally clear had a thick covering.

Nevertheless, my daughter was determined to go, convinced that once we got out on the freeway, all would be fine.

We took the youngest daughter, now two, with us. Once she was settled into her car seat, we took off. It’s a twelve-mile drive from where they were living just to the freeway. No matter time of day the road is busy because it’s the only way in and out of the Tooele City. Because of the expected traffic, my daughter figured there would be safe paths despite the still falling snow.

She was wrong. There road was not dusted with snow, but rather held an accumulation of more than four inches despite traffic. And it was till snowing as we approached the I-80. In fact, the weather and roads worsened once we were heading east. Snow that should have been mashed was not. Blizzard-like conditions blurred our vision.

I tried to convince my daughter to turn around at the first opportunity, saying that we could go another day, but she was insistent that the highway would be clear the further we traveled. We moved on with windshield wipers working at high speed.

As a person who learned to drive in California’s East Bay, I was unfamiliar with conditions like these. I was nervous, terrified and anxious all in one. My hands gripped the armrests and my knees shook.

This stretch of I-80 is a major connector between northern California and states east. It is always filled with semis pulling multiple trailers, tourists, trucks of all shapes and sizes, and any other vehicle possible, all traveling at seventy miles an hour or more. It is two lanes in each direction, and because of the high speed, care must be taken even in the best conditions.

Due to the snow-covered roads and limited visibility speeds were down to sixty miles an hour, somewhat of a comfort since it was slower than normal. Even so I felt it was too fast to safely maneuver in case of an emergency.

Shortly after entering the highway we saw that the snow accumulation was getting worse. The sky was one huge gray cloud, so no relief was in sight. Because of the treacherous conditions I finally convinced my daughter to return home. When she agreed to get off at the next exit, I was relieved.

The sign appeared, but when we could see that no one had driven that way since the snow had begun, we chose to continue on. The next exit in the same condition, with deep snow and no tire tracks. The next one seemed to have tracks that were only partially filled-in, so she decided to exit even though we were still a mile away and our vision was partially blocked by swirling snow.

As we approached the exit my daughter made a slight pull on the steering wheel, heading us toward the ramp. Just as it was time to commit to leaving the freeway, we saw that no vehicles had passed that way recently, and although there were tracks, they were quickly filling.

Deciding that this was not a safe exit, my daughter corrected by turning slightly to the left.

That small movement was enough to send us slipping and sliding down the highway. We found ourselves in the fast lane, then into the slow. We drifted toward the shoulder, back to the slow, over into the fast, and at the last, we hit some hidden ice and gradually, in what felt like slow motion, slid closer and closer toward the shoulder.

I was in full panic-mode: I couldn’t speak, think, or offer words of advice. My brain was frozen as my wide open eyes stared at the embankment ahead, wondering what fate had in store for us. I should have been screaming, crying, hands up preparing for the impending impact, but I just sat there.

The minivan’s rear spun once more to the right, taking us completely off the road. I feared a rollover similar to ones my husband and I had seen on our drive to Utah. But for some reason, despite the combination of speed and slippage, we remained upright.

When we did come to a stop and all seemed well, we looked at each other and breathed a sigh of thanksgiving.

No one was hurt. The van was not damaged. No vehicle had struck us as we careened out of control. Although the lanes had been crowded with a variety of vehicles, any of which could have sent us to our deaths with even the slightest of impact, we had escaped without impact.

After a brief interlude of blessed relief, I decided to get out to see if where we had landed was safe of if we should immediately abandon the vehicle.

Because of the proximity to the Great Salt Lake, the water table is quite high all along that stretch of road. The freeway bed is raised so as to avoid flooding, but since the shoulders drop off steeply, the depressions paralleling the road often are filled with water. In this case, there might have been marsh to suck us in, a patch of dry land or a thin layer of ice that might crack.

I needed to see for myself what the surface looked like so as to determine our next steps. What I discovered would decide whether we could remain in the vehicle until help arrived or get ourselves and the baby out as quickly as possible.

Imagine my relief when there was no evidence of water lurking under the covering of snow. The ground seemed solid beneath the layers of snow and I sensed no layer of ice.

If ever my faith had been tested before, this surpassed anything I had ever experienced. I truly believe that my Lord and Savior was watching out for us because we had landed in a spot that, I hoped, would keep us safe from sinking.

Neither my daughter nor I had a cell phone which meant we had no way to call for help. Not knowing what else to do, I climbed up the hill to the shoulder of the freeway and began waving to passing vehicles.

I was not dressed for the cold and so my fingers and toes so began stinging. My breath came out in puffs and my face was freezing. I knew that I couldn’t stay out there for too long, so I prayed that someone would see me and quickly come to our aid.

I smiled when a semi driver honked and waved. A variety of trucks passed, many of them honking. This reassured me that someone was calling for help.

A woman pulled over on the shoulder despite the risk of being hit. She ran over to where I was standing, dressed in high heels and a tight skirt, waving her cell phone. She asked if I would like to call for help and was shocked when I told her I did not know how to use a cell phone.

While she made a call, a snowplow went by in the fast lane. The driver honked and waved, reassuring me that several people now knew where we were. Hopefully they all realized our predicament and that help would soon arrive.

The woman told me that someone had alerted Highway Patrol. I expected her to leave since she seemed dressed for work, but she stayed.

I was surprised when another vehicle pulled over behind the woman’s care. This time it was a young man wearing a Fire EMT jacket. He approached the car and immediately went into rescue mode, asking over and over if everyone was fine. He asked my daughter to open her window and unlock the back door so he could check on the baby. He asked my daughter how far along she was and whether or not she needed assistance.

A third vehicle stopped while this was happening, this time a man dressed in his winter Army uniform. He took charge in a confidant, militaristic way. Speaking softly, he asked my daughter to get out of the car. He told her to leave the baby, reassuring her that all would be safe.

He got in, strapped on his seatbelt put the minivan into gear. When he stepped on the gas the car crept forward, slowly, slowly, until the front wheels reached the solid ground of the shoulder. He turned the front wheels to the right, bringing the car entirely on safe ground. He put the car into park, and when he got out, he told my daughter to stay there for a while until she was calm enough to drive.

All three remained with us while my daughter sat with eyes closed. I know that I was giving thanks and I believe that she was doing the same.

When my daughter waved, indicating that we were ready to leave, the woman, the EMT, and the Army officer got in their own vehicles.

In the safety of the warm car we watched them pull away, thanking God for sending kind people our way. If not for them, we might have sat perpendicular to the highway for a very long time.

We knew, without saying it, that our trip to West Valley was not going to happen. My daughter stated that the best place to turn around would be the exit for the airport, as it would be heavily traveled, so that became our target.

Out on the freeway she drove at about twenty miles an hour, terrified that we would slip again. It was a good decision because about mile down the road we passed an accident scene. A minivan like ours had gone off the road and overturned into the water. Victims had been pulled out and lay there covered with body bags. It was chilling.

Another half mile along we passed another accident. This time a small pickup truck was in the median between east and west, facing the wrong direction. It was on solid ground and the occupants seemed to be okay.

Not too much further along, on our side of the highway, off the road and upside down in the water, lay what was left of a minivan. Emergency vehicles were there, lights flashing. As we drove past, we could not see the condition of the passengers, but I think we both knew.

We safely negotiated the airport ramp and came to a stop at the lights with only a tiny bit of a skid. We crossed the overpass and returned to the highway, now heading west without incident. Still going slowly, we drove in the far right lane, my daughter holding tightly to the steering wheel.

Perhaps we had gone two miles before we passed another accident, this time where body bags lined the side of the road.

We said little on our return trip because I think we were both in shock.

Once we were back at my daughter’s house, I fell into my husband’s arms, tears pouring down my face. I was grateful to be alive, grateful to be able to see him and the rest of the family.

Several hours later I fell into a deep sense of despair, thinking about how differently the ending might have been. I kept myself grounded by reminding myself that we escaped thanks to the grace of God.

I haven’t driven past the spot of our accident in quite a while, but I know that the next time that I do, the same feelings will arise. The space between survival and death was tiny. If we had stopped six inches along the freeway there was the possibility that our back wheels might have been in the muck. Six inches saved three people from impending death. Six inches allowed three people to return home to rejoice in thanksgiving.

People say that you should get back in the saddle after being bucked off. That by trying again, you can conquer your fear. I believe this is true because when I returned to the scene on our next visit to Utah, I was able to relive that terrifying journey, see how close to meeting my Maker I truly was, and rejoice in the time that I have been graciously given.

He Smiled

Imagine being able to say that OJ Simpson once smiled at me!  Guess what? It really happened. This is the story of my “brush” with the famous.

When I transferred to the University of Southern California in the fall of 1968, I knew little about college football.  At the time, I was soon to discover, USC was an athletic powerhouse, thanks to a phenomenal bunch of handpicked athletes in a variety of sports. The Trojans dominated in football, men’s and women’s basketball and swimming.  Not only that, but their track and field teams were equally strong due to multisport athletes.

Football begins the season. Banners covered surfaces all across the campus. Rallies were held every day and when the teams weren’t at home, all ears were tuned to the radio. You either followed the sports or you were an outcast. It was that simple.

The athletes, no matter what sport or how great they were, dominated the social life of the campus. Partying to celebrate their successes was a nightly affair since some team played almost every day, whether at home or away. If they weren’t off playing or pratcicing, they strutted their stuff around campus, practically oozing greatness.

I quickly learned the “culture,” of partying. There was a booze-filled affair the night before a game, partying during the game, and another party after the game, all in celebration of a victory won or a record broken. And if you didn’t find what you were looking for at one party, all you had to do was stroll down fraternity row to find another. This was especially important if you didn’t like the booze being served or the music thundering out onto the street.

None of the better-known athletes lived in the Greek houses and few had their own apartments. Instead they had their own dorm which was shielded from the peasants by locked doors and glazed windows.  It was rumored that their meal options weren’t the standard bland food that the rest of us got: instead legend had it that they feasted on huge, juicy steaks, fresh vegetables and a cornucopia of cheeses and desserts.

When they had nothing better to do they swaggered about campus in their lettermen jackets emblazoned with every type of recognition (except for a noticeable lack of academic awards). That’s not to say they weren’t capable, but at that time, achievements on the field or court were what kept them at college, not the grades received or classes taken.

With their rippling muscles, impossibly broad shoulders, and over-confident leers dished out to fawning fans, they stood far above the crowd. And they knew it.

Periodically small groups of “stars” strolled through my dining hall, snickering at the dismal fare splattered on institutional grade plates and trays.  I imagined that they had just dined on mounds of steak cooked to perfection, served with steaming mashed potatoes and crisp fresh greens.

Equality among students did not exist and there was no pretense of leveling the playing field, because the athletes were, literally, the bread and butter of university funding.  The stronger the athletes, the more likely the university would rack up victories, which then correlated to increased donations from alumni.

If I hadn’t been awed by their very presence, I should have despised the athletes for they were the epitome of all that I was not.  My family was low income which qualified me for a rather generous “pity” scholarship from the state of California. Without that gift I would not have been at such a prestigious college as USC.  But, like the vast majority of students, I didn’t hate the arrogant athletes, but rather worshipped the ground they walked on.

One evening, in a rather unusual move for me, I got as dressed up as I could and went downstairs where a dance was being held in the cafeteria.  I am not sure what possessed me to go as I was a horrific dancer.  I was also painfully shy and so operated solo the vast majority of the time, in classes as well as while on campus.

I did have friends, academics like me, but more extreme for their heads dwelt more in the clouds than in reality.  None of them were what I considered marriageable as they were more interested in finding a spouse to complete a given responsibility than having a relationship of equals. But, like any teenager, I yearned to have a boyfriend.  The dance “called” my name, speaking to me of an opportunity to meet, greet and date and so I went.

The dining hall had been transformed, as much as possible, into a disco dance hall.  With lights down low, revolving points of light danced across the walls, creating an eerie spectacle of glowing, gyrating bodies.  It wasn’t Halloween, but the bizarre lighting gave off the same feel.

The music was ear-shattering making it impossible to do more than look at all the beautiful people.  I meandered about the perimeter of the room with a plastic smile glued to my face, hoping that just one person would nod kindly in my direction. Once my circuit was completed with no takers found, I wanted nothing more but to leave this place of loneliness among confusion.

I headed toward the door, but just as I got within sight of the doorjamb, the crowd parted as miraculously as the Red Sea.  In walked none other than OJ Simpson, flanked by two humongous football players.

OJ was an incredibly handsome man with an earthy skin tone that spoke of roots, faithfulness, integrity, and family.  His eyes sparkled and a shy smile gave a sensuous lift to his lips.  I saw no semblance of arrogance, but warmth.

Like the rest of the crowd, I stood transfixed, enjoying simply being in the presence of greatness.  This was OJ’s year, the year he earned the Heisman Trophy, broke a number of records, and was first pick in the professional football draft.  Everyone knew that he was bound for the record halls and that his name would be spoken around the world.

As the trio neared me I was shoved back into the crowd.  I didn’t mind, for I intrinsically knew that these men were well beyond my social reach.  What I didn’t expect or count on was being seen.

As O’s greatness neared me, his eyes glanced in my direction and he smiled.  Not an I-want-to-talk-to-you smile, but one that recognized me as a fellow human being.  Since the contact was short-lived, I realized that there was the possibility that the greeting wasn’t even meant for me.  I acknowledged that OJ was simply flashing his famous smile at everyone, sort of like the priest sprinkling Holy Water over the congregation in a quick pass down the aisle.

Even though I knew that the encounter meant nothing to OJ, I stood a little taller and felt a tad more important than I had before.  It was a moment that I will never forget.

     Ode to Food

Food, glorious food!

Sumptuous tastes of

Slowly roasted beef

Drowned in onions

Covered in gravy

 

Potatoes gently

Browned, sprinkled

With parsley and chives

Arranged in spirals

Delicate designs

 

Green beans bathing in

Mushroom sauce, topped

With fried onions

Or drenched with butter

Stacked like lucky logs

 

Delightful desserts

Sugary cookies

Mouth melting cakes

Devilish  custards

Compelling desire

 

More, much more, awaiting

Consumption by

Mere mortals yearning

To taste the nectar

Of the golden gods

 

Food, glorious food!