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.

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.

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.

     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!

Coming Home

Grandma and Grandpa Williams’ house rested on the crest of a small hill overlooking the Ohio River near the Gallipolis dam.  From the porch, if I looked between the houses across the road, I saw numerous barges and freighters, some clearly full, riding low, just above water line.  Others bounced on the wake of passing ships, much like a bar of soap floating in a tub of hot water.

Sunday afternoons were spent with my brother and I chewing the gum my mother forbade, while Grandpa worked on accurately spitting tobacco juice into an old tin can.  When he missed, there was a disgusting splat, adding to a constantly growing pile of partially digested tobacco.  I pretended not to see or hear, preferring to watch the ships and speculate as to what the cargo might be and where the ships might be going.

Much of their house was a combination of put-together rooms, a rather ramshackle affair that, at one time or another, housed up to ten people.  Not one board on the outside had ever seen a drop of paint, and the roof was nothing more than tin sheets nailed together in an overlapping pattern.  It didn’t leak, which was all my grandparents cared about. I worried about how they kept warm during Ohio’s cold, snowy winters.

The house was so old that there was no electricity or running water inside.  Grandma Williams lit the house with candles and kerosene lanterns, long enough to do “piece-work,” as she called it, for a few hours after dark.  She had a pedal-operated sewing machine that she used for “fine” stitching, such as sewing on a lace collar or finishing off her quilts.  Spools of thread sorted by color, with white always on the top, were stacked on a rounded stick that Grandpa had lovingly whittled.

Grandma’s hand sewing was accurate and precise, each stitch neatly following the next, marching in a straight line of equal length and breadth.  It amazed me that she could create such perfection without benefit of modern machinery, and while I owned one of the best sewing machines available, my workmanship fell into the barely adequate, yet serviceable category.

A coal-burning stove sat majestically in the front room, providing the only heat for the house.  When the stove was “cookin’,” as Grandpa colorfully said, no one could stand within a few feet of it without feeling feverish.  Next to the stove sat a black tub filled with odd sized chunks of coal and next to that, a dusty black shovel.

When Grandpa opened the door in the front of the stove to dump in scoops of coal, the interior reminded me of the fires of hell. While I relished the warmth it created, I was terrified of being sucked into its cavernous interior. The fire called to me, hypnotizing me, saying, “Come closer, come closer.”  Only when the door was shut and firmly latched was I able to break free and step away.

There wasn’t much in the way of furniture.  A crate served as an end table, covered with a dishtowel hand embroidered in rose-colored flowers and meandering vines.  A kerosene lantern took center place, with odds and ends scattered about, ceramic and pewter “doodads” that folks had given Grandma over the years.  Crystal birds, miniature horses, and dolls’ heads stood with a grace befitting gold bracelets and diamond tiaras.  While Grandma encouraged me to touch her beloved treasures, I never did; I was too afraid of breaking both the item and her memory.

There was a loveseat big enough for two and a half grownups, but plenty of room for four kids.  The cushioned seat lifted up, disclosing storage room underneath, like a pirate’s chest holding gold doubloons.  This is where Grandma kept her quilts and pillows, always ready for company in case anyone stopped by looking for a place to sleep.  Every quilt was of a different folk pattern, all made by Grandma, all perfectly crafted in mesmerizing patterns of shape and color.  The fabrics Grandma used amazed me: pieces of Grandpa’s well-worn overalls, a sleeve from Uncle Dowie’s flannel shirt, a pocket from a gingham apron, and the collar from her old calico blouse.

Not one picture hung on the walls or sat on a flat surface.  My grandparents believed that a person’s soul was a tenuous thing, easily stolen, and so they forbade photographs either being displayed or being taken.

As they aged, my grandparents relaxed a bit in their beliefs, and so after much begging, allowed the taking of two well-cherished photos which now sit in my bookcase as reminders of two people who loved me unconditionally.

Grandma’s kitchen was so small that two people could manage to work in there at the same time, but only by carefully orchestrating the changing of places.  When we visited, my mother helped while I watched from the back porch.  Too little to help, too inexperienced in the art of cooking, all I was capable of doing was running for more wood or sweeping up spilled flour. What amazed me, however, was the magical dance the two most important women in my life performed as they, soundlessly, moved past each other, butts touching in a tender way.

Longing to share in their loving togetherness, I stayed close enough that one of them could reach out and brush my cheek.  Sometimes my grandma blessed me with a floury kiss or a sticky touch, and then my heart leapt like a stag through the forest.

Along one wall was a good-sized cast iron stove.  A box of cut wood sat nearby.  Off and on Grandma picked up a stick, opened the bottom door of the stove and threw in the wood.  She then wiped her hands on her well-worn gingham apron and went back to peeling and coring apples or rolling out a crust or boiling eggs.

She cooked with heavy cast iron skillets that she stored inside the oven, and cast iron pans that stayed stacked on the flat burners until she put them to use.  She did own a few cheap aluminum cookie sheets, pie tins, and measuring cups that were dented like pockmarked faces, but she didn’t like to use them, believing that food never came out tasting as good as when cooked in cast iron.

Along the opposite wall of the kitchen was a metal sink as dull as an unpolished car.  On the end nearest the window was a hand pump that intrigued me.  Lifting the handle up and down, up and down, again and again, brought the coldest, crispest water imaginable.

When, Grandma pumped her arm muscles bulged with effort.   For the longest time, nothing happened, and then a dribble showed up, followed by another and another. The dribbles turned into a gush, caught by the bucket that Grandma hung just under the faucet.  As the bucket filled, I often wondered why it didn’t slip, no matter how full it got. Grandma never explained the mystery to me, but when I was much older and touring an old Louisiana plantation, the docent pointed to a barely discernable niche in the spout, just deep enough to hold a bucket handle in place: and then I understood.

Grandma knew how much I yearned for her attention, without my saying so.  One of the first things she did whenever we arrived was to bring me into the kitchen, dip the cup into the bucket and give me a cool drink of water.  She smiled as I drank, and then patted my head as softly as she would a newborn babe.  Grandma didn’t have to do much to let me know that I was loved, even though she never said the words.

Off the kitchen was the porch: Grandma’s greenhouse.  Over the years Grandpa had enclosed the room, using pieces of discarded wood and scraps of screen.  The floor’s composition was equally mismatched: boards and bricks, tiles and dirt. Being a hodgepodge affair, the porch emitted an aura unlike anything else I knew.  It was homey and peculiar, safe and mysterious.  A place of growth and death.

There were no tables, just a collection of old boards balanced on homemade sawhorses, reminiscent of shacks built by hoboes in days gone by.  Every flat surface was covered with plants: mostly vegetable, some flower.  They grew in cans, ceramic pots, old buckets and cups, tubs, glassware, all of various sizes and shapes.

Knowing that my mother would not have tolerated such a mishmash made Grandma’s collection even more amazing.  As a child I thought plants required properly identified, single purpose pots, but Grandma’s green house proved me wrong.  Her touch was as golden as King Midas’ in the fairy tales, for greenery sprouted far and wide.

Grandma carefully pinched off dead leaves, repotted plants that had grown too large for their containers, watered each plant, one by one with a gentle spray of water.  She hummed as she worked, quiet tunes that were mostly hymnals that I recognized from records my mom listened to in the afternoons when my dad was at work.

Once I joined in the humming, thinking that my grandma might share her love of music with me, bonding us together as tightly as a snail and its shell, but that was a mistake.  Grandma, immersed in her labor of love, had forgotten that anyone else was around until she heard my child’s soft voice blending with hers. Her face registered surprise and then horror, almost as if I had caught her performing a criminal act.  From then on, Grandma never hummed when I was nearby.

There was only one bedroom.  A large feather bed took up most of the space. A few of Grandma’s quilts covered the bed and a pair of pillows stuffed with chicken feathers sat at the head.  One for Grandma.  One for Grandpa.  A lace doily, reminiscent of the ones Spanish dancers wore in storybooks, daintily covered each pillow. The bed was surprisingly soft, an amazing thing for a child whose mattress was as hard as the cement floor of a garage.  I loved to crawl up on the bed, stretch out full length, and sink into the comforting softness.

The only other piece of furniture was a chest of drawers.  It was of a dark wood, with four drawers and mismatched knobs. A large doily spread across the top, along with Grandma’s hairbrush and hand mirror, facial powder and lotion, barrettes and combs and even a ragged hairnet or two.

If I looked closely at the knobs, I saw indentations where Grandma’s fingernails cut into the soft wood and smudge marks where Grandpa’s farm-dirt hands pulled open his drawers.

Next to the bed was an oval rag rug.  Grandma made one for the living room as well.  Beginning with odd sized scraps of cloth, Grandma twisted each piece into a “rope” of color, then wound and wound the rope around its center until a large oval took shape.

Most of the colors were shades of blue, pieces from overalls Grandpa had worn through.  One of my favorite things to do was to sit on the rug and run my fingers along the track of the rope, inside out, outside in, sensing Grandma’s tender touch as surely as a baker senses the yeast working to raise the dough.

Because there was no running water, there was no indoor bathroom.  One of the sons had built an outhouse in the field behind the greenhouse; nothing more than a narrow building with a plank for a toilet seat.  High on one wall a narrow window provided the only light, and that was always kept open thanks to a couple of nails and a piece of twine.  No toilet paper.  Old store catalogues with missing pages sat next to the hole, giving indication as to how they disappeared.

Flies buzzed around and spider webs clung to the ceiling.  The stench was indescribable and unforgettable, the sight intolerable and sickening.

Not understanding the nature of outhouses, I wondered why it was in a different spot on every visit.  Years passed before I broached such a sensitive topic. My Uncle Joe roared with laughter, making a point of sharing my outlandish question with every member of the family within calling distance.  From then on, whenever I stepped foot on my grandparent’s gravel driveway, somoene hollered out the location of the outhouse, to my endless embarrassment.

Primitive though it was, my grandparent’s house was bursting with love.  Anyone who wandered up from down below found a warm meal, warm hearts, warm fire, accompanied by welcoming company.

To me, arriving at the small house at the crest of the hill was like coming home.

 

 

Our Life Stories

 

all of life is a series of

nonstories

the might-have-beens

the almost becames

the things we dreamt of

doing

but never did

the wishes unfulfilled

presents never delivered

or received

places never visited

near-misses

chance occurrences

that developed into nothing

the left-behinds

and

soon-to-be forgottens

all stories untold

mysteries locked

romances closeted

things never experienced

foods never tasted

but secretly yearned for

nonstories frozen in place

and time

with no characters to lament

plots stagnant

themes dragging behind

do we obsess

over the lost stories

and live life in a

vacuum?

NO

we constantly create

our personal life stories

our dreams springing to

a life lived luxuriously

laughing joyously

over the endless

possibilities

My Legacy

When I am gone what do I expect?

Do I want people to miss me? You bet.

But not for long.

I want them to think fondly

Of whatever good I might have done

To recall interesting experiences we shared,

But then I want them to move on,

Forging their lives as the independent people

I hope they are.

My legacy is formed by my writing,

My singing, my service to church,

My work as a teacher

Being mother, wife, friend.

That’s enough for one person,

Don’t you think?

I pray that I won’t leave behind

Too many memories of mistakes I made,

Too many thoughts of things I said

That hurt feelings

The times I wasn’t empathetic enough

The times when I was so self-focused

That I failed to see the worry in those around me.

That’s not the legacy I hope to leave behind.

I don’t hope for fame after I am gone,

Which is good as there will be none.

I am an ordinary person who lived an ordinary life.

That’s my legacy and that’s enough for me.