My Inheritance

            My mother’s family was incredibly poor. They owned their clothes, which were mostly hand-me-downs from wealthier relatives, a few pots and pans and some utensils. Whatever they had traveled with them as they moved from one farming job to another.

            With packs on their backs, they’d trudge around the Ohio River area, occasionally crossing over into West Virginia.

            My grandfather could not read. His math skills were poor and when his coffee was only available in cans, he’d make the shop owner open the can and weigh the grounds on the scale. He was afraid of being taken advantage of.

            For much of his last years Grandpa was a tenant farmer. The land was way up in the hills, a long walk. He had no wagon, cart, mule or horse. When he worked the fields, he’d walk for hours, leaving early in the morning, coming home well after dark. He was in his eighties, still working as a farm hand.

            My mother explained, often, that she only had one pair of shoes. She’d go barefoot no matter the weather. On school days she’d carry her shoes over her shoulder, putting them on when she reached the schoolhouse. As soon as class was over, off they’d go.

            At times her family lived in the woods, camping under the stars or building shelter out of branches and leaves. If they were lucky, someone would let them live in a barn during the winter.

            It was a rough life. As soon as my mother turned fourteen, she left home, moving to Dayton, Ohio to live with an older sister. That sister helped my mom get a job at Woolworth’s, a job she loved.

            In fact, when I was a teenager, my mom got hired at a Woolworth’s near our home, and despite her eighth grade education, worked her way up to manager where she oversaw purchasing, sales, and some bookkeeping.

            We never lived near my grandparents. Whenever we did visit, we left early in the morning for the long drive, heading south through the countryside. We’d stay for a bit, then make the drive home, arriving after dark.

            I hated their house. The coal-fired furnace terrified me. To me, it represented the fires of hell, only made worse when an uncle would pick me up and pretend to stick me inside.

            There was no running water. The outhouse out back smelled pretty bad, the wooden seat had splinters and huge spiders lived in the corners of the ceiling. Flies circled about, landing on you as you took care of business.

            They never did get electricity. Back then we didn’t have a television, so not having one didn’t seem odd. My grandmother had a treadle sewing machine, something I found fascinating. My grandmother loved showing me how it worked. The rhythmic sound of the peddle mesmerized me. And the things she made!

            My grandmother was a terrific seamstress considering the lack of tools. She hand-sewed squares, triangles and diamonds into the most beautiful quilts. Each one was made of bits and pieces of overalls, shirts, dresses, anything that was no longer wearable.

            She also had made every rug in the house. She showed me how she’d weave together scraps, tying them together as she went. The weave grew longer and longer, turning into a multicolor rope. That would be woven into an ever-lengthening spiral, then sewed together. They were soft on the feet and intriguing to look at.

            When both of my grandparents had died, within months of each other, my mother dreamt of getting one quilt and one rug. Because we lived so far away, my dad had to arrange time off in order to drive my mom there.

            Her siblings lived nearby, so had first access to anything of value. Granted my grandparents owned nothing that, at the time, was marketable. However, those quilts were what everyone wanted.

            Grandma had made at least five. When we visited, I’d beg her to show them to me. She was a shy, quiet woman who didn’t like to bask in the glory, so it took quite a bit of persuasion on my part. Even at my young age, I appreciated their beauty.

            By the time my mother finally got to the house, her siblings had claimed every quilt, every rug. They had taken the metal cup that everyone drank out of. Gone were the clothes, which would have been faded and stained. My grandmother owned no jewelry, or that would have been gone as well.

            My mother was so distraught that she sought solace in the barn at the back of the property. She walked about with tears in her eyes, fingering her father’s old tools. None of them were usable anymore, which was why there were still there.

            Up on a shelf something caught my mother’s eye. Reaching high overhead, she wrapped her fingers around the thing. It was the tool her father used to remove kernels off the cob. It looked like a can opener, which most likely it was when new. Grandpa had attached a leather strap to it.

            He’d slip his fingers under the strap, then rake off the kernels. The strap was stained with his sweat.

            Holding it brought back memories. My mother slipped it into her dress pocket and after saying goodbye, headed home. She never told anyone that she had it.

            I admired it. Imagining grandpa working with it allowed my mind to create original stories. The fact that not only had he created it, but that his sweat stained it, endeared it to me.

            Many years later when my mother’s mind began to fail, she insisted that my siblings and I claim things in the house. My brother got first choice, and even though my sister was the youngest, she got second.

            Every time I’d mention something I’d like, one of them had already claimed it. Until I thought of Grandpa’s tool.

            I was told I’d have to wait until my mother died before I could take it, one day she surprised me by placing it in my hand.

            That was my inheritance: a reminder of where my family came from.

My Cat History

            Growing up we never had a cat. My mother was afraid of them. She truly believed that cats could suck the air from a sleeping child. Imagine the picture this put in my naive mind! A stealthy cat climbing the bars of a crib, sneaking up to the head of the child, staring at the face, looking for the best angle of attack, then slowly, ever so slowly lowered its head, mouth open, ready to steal the air from the hapless baby.

            It was not until I married my husband that I found out that this was one of those old wives’ tales.

            My family had a beagle from the time I was about eight until I was into high school. My husband’s family had always had a cat.

            When I saw the family cat, I tensed, expecting an attack. My husband noticed, asked and then laughed when I offered my reasoning.

            Once I knew the truth, I gradually taught myself that a cat could make a good pet. I was terrified of the claws, but then dogs bite. Equally dangerous.

            My husband had a friend up in Portland, Oregon. On a camping trip up north, we stayed with them. They had two Siamese cats. Elusive, yet curious. When one came close, I tried to pet it and immediately got clawed. The deep, blood-drawing type. For the rest of our visit, I cringed whenever those cats drew near. They knew I was afraid, and seemed to relish in torturing me.

            At that point I had no interest in having a cat.

            One time my women’s guild was having a bake sale to buy something for our pastor. I had made cupcakes. My oldest son, maybe four or five at the time, came with me. The women getting things ready were a bit discombobulated. A pesky reddish cat kept coming inside, begging for food. When my son saw her, he grabbed her, held her to his chest and begged to bring her home.

            I explained that she most likely belonged to a family living nearby, but if his father approved and if she was there in the morning when we went to Mass, he could have her. As soon as we parked, he ran to the small hall. The cat was there, still begging for food. He scooped her up and held her in his lap, me by his side, while my husband attended the service.

            She was named Cupcake Eater Connelly due to the bites of cupcake he fed her. Cuppie, as we called her, was a wonderful cat. She was not quite full grown, but not a kitten either. She adapted quickly to our house and our routine. We loved her and took good care of her. When she died, we were heartbroken.

            After Cuppie came a rescue that belonged to my daughter. She named her Calie because, guess what? She was a calico cat. Not too bright, but once we finally got her housebroken (and that really tried our patience), she was a loving cat. Calie was patient and kind. She loved my daughter and then, later when she had children, her daughter as well.

            Calie lived a good, long life. Once our daughter went off to college, Calie fell in love with my husband.

            For years after we were never without a cat. There was Josie, a tiny stray that walked out of my husband’s closet. She was a sweet, wonderful cat. Tigger was a feral cat our daughter brought home, saying it was a female. Nope. I hadn’t wanted a male, thinking they were aggressive. He was not.

            I adopted sister tuxedo cats. One ran away as soon as my husband left a door open. We saw her off and on, but she never returned to live with us. The other was a sweetie. She loved petting and had an awesome purr. Then she fell ill, kidney disease.

            Next came Cole, a kitten I fell in love with at an adoption event. He loved nothing more than sitting on a lap. The poor thing got very sick, very quickly.

            Immediately after Taffy joined our home. I changed his name to Tuffy, a more masculine sounding name. He was a bit standoffish until he got quite a bit older. Then he was a lap cat. Always on me or on my husband.

            Once he died, we decided no more cats. By now we were both older and didn’t want our kids to have to deal with a pet after we were either incapacitated or dead.

            I miss having a four-legged pet. I really want another cat, an older one as I don’t want to deal with clawed furniture and poop in closets.

            Someday, hopefully soon, I’ll find the right cat.

A Religious Awakening

Fifty years ago, my faith was in doubt.  Tired of hearing the hell and damnation homilies of the local parish priest, I tuned out every time he spoke.  I knew that I should have been listening, for I feared that I was one of the sinners that he condemned to everlasting fire, and that there was no hope for my salvation.

I did not “do” drugs, proffer myself to men, nor commit crimes against society.  I was, however, not a dutiful daughter who accepted her subservient status in a household that held women with little respect. My parents believed that my sole purpose in life was to work for them, as a household servant, and when those jobs were done to satisfaction, then and only then could I pursue an education.

I did not object to assisting with the care and operation of the house.  What angered me most was that my siblings were exempted from any and all responsibility, including cleaning up after themselves. 

A major part of the problem was that my parents were ultra-conservative and narrow in focus.  To them, the duty of an older daughter was to manage the house and to marry young.  By young, I mean by the age of fourteen.  I didn’t even date at that age, let alone have a serious boyfriend, and I hated housework, so I was a failure in their eyes.

It should be a surprise that I was so affected by what was said for the pulpit, for Sunday worship was not something that my parents faithfully practiced.  They went to church when they felt like it, when the weather was good, when there were no sporting events on television.  And when they did go to church, it was not at the nearest church, but rather one which held the shortest service.

When I left for college in the summer of 1969, I decided to act boldly: I would not go to church at all.  My resolve faded as soon as the first Sunday arrived.  Not wanting to anger God, fearful of blackening my soul any further, I found the Newman center on campus.  The atmosphere was one of welcome.  The music filled me with joy, literally erasing all my negative thoughts and feelings in one fell swoop.

As time passed, my attitude toward the church changed. I believed the good news that I heard over and over during those joy-filled services. I understood that God had not judged me and found me wonting.  Instead, I now knew, He was a loving God who cried when one of His souls lost the way.  He offered peace and salvation to all who believed.  He gave solace, when needed, in times of stress and anxiety.  He loved us, no matter what we might have done.

Several months into that first school year, the Neuman Club organized a retreat up in the nearby mountains.  I had never done anything this before, but it sounded exactly what I needed.

The camp was somewhere east of Los Angeles, a rustic setting nestled in a forest. From the time we arrived at the camp, I felt at peace. All of us hurried inside, anxious to claim a bunk in one of the dorm rooms.  There was no pushing, no domineering, no one person making others feel worthless.

Having never been camping, I was unprepared for the chilly nights and the crisp morning air.  My clothing was not substantial enough to keep me warm, especially when it snowed in the night, leaving about six inches on the forest floor. Nevertheless, thanks to the generosity of those who shared warm mittens and thick sweaters, I stayed warm.

Throughout that weekend, my heart sang.  It was as if a giant anvil had been removed. Like a newly feathered chick, I flopped my wings, and took off.  Faith came at me from every direction.  From the treetops came God’s blessed light.  From the ferns sprang His offerings of love.  From my fellow participants came God’s unconditional love.  From our times of prayer and reflection, came discovery of my love for the God who loved me back.

I smiled until my face literally hurt.  I laughed at the crazy antics of my roommates, and joined in the singing in front of the fireplace at night.  During prayer times, tears poured down my face, yet I did not have the words to explain why.  It was as if someone had reached inside, pulled out all the pain, and filled me with a wholesome goodness.

I do believe that God touched me that weekend.  Not with His hands, for I did not feel the slightest brush against my body. What I did experience was the enveloping of His arms, holding me and making me feel safe. He gave the gift of feeling both loved and lovable.  He made me feel important, and inspired me to continue to follow His way.

When the weekend drew to a close, it was with deep regret that I packed my things.  I hoped to hold on to all that I had experienced.

I would love to report that my life was permanently changed, but it was not.  When at home, I continued to feel inadequate.  Not one day passed without hearing what a huge disappointment I was.  There was nothing that I did that ever pleased my parents, and not once did they give me a single word of encouragement.

When I graduated from college, I moved back to the still stifling environment of my parents’ home.  Pulled down by the never-ending criticism of my unmarried state, my unemployment, and by the wasted years at college, I quickly fell into a state of despondency.  The local Mass situation had not changed, even if the pastors had.  One pastor continued to preach the same old fire and brimstone message about the blackening of our souls.  In another, the Mass was so short you could be in and out in less than forty minutes.

It was not until my husband and I moved into the parish that he had known as a teenager, that the glow returned.  I rediscovered the God who loved me, who sheltered me from the storms of life, and who walked with me every step of every day. 

It was, and continues to be, a community of caring individuals who come together to worship and to pray for each other in times of need.  While priests have come and gone, the overall feeling has not.  We are the parish, the ones who define the atmosphere that envelopes all who step through the doors.

I know that there is a loving God who helps us walk through life’s challenges. He has blessed my life in ways that I am still discovering. 

That is the story of my faith.

An Unexpected Surprise

            When you grow up in a dysfunctional family, happy memories are few and far between. It’s easy to dredge up the pain and sorrow, to recall the angry words and the punishments that followed, but difficult to find just one that didn’t hurt.

            Today my husband and I went out for ice cream. After enjoying my delicious treat, as we were driving home, a sudden flash appeared: my sitting on a stool at a Walgreen’s counter.

            We seldom ate out. When you’re low income, money is tight and not spent on restaurant meals.

            When I was in fourth grade, we lived in a suburb of Dayton, Ohio. My mom had just learned to drive, which really made life better when all our doctor appointments were in the city.

            I don’t remember why I was the only one with my mother. That rarely happened. My mother must have left my brother with someone, a relative probably, as she had no friends in the neighborhood. I don’t recall taking him somewhere, but we must have.

            I’m not sure why we were in town. It was around the time the principal of my elementary school told my father that I could not return without glasses. That’s the most logical reason for our outing.

            I knew, even then, that when my mother left home at thirteen, she moved to Cincinnati to live with an older sister. She helped my mom get a job at a Woolworth’s Department Store. I don’t know what she did there as she was so young.

            Anyway, here we were, sitting on stools in a Woolworth’s in downtown Dayton. A bunch of colorful balloons floated above our heads, all tied to a long string so as not to float away.

            Like any kid, I loved balloons. The colors, the way they flew about my head, the feeling of owning something that was just mine. Until my brother popped mine. Every last balloon I possessed he popped. Probably out of meanness. Maybe out of jealousy.

            Anyway, here was a bright, colorful, happy-looking array of balloons. I wanted one so badly that all thoughts were erased from my head except for the one of owning a balloon.

            The person behind the ice cream counter told me I could have any balloon I wanted. I recall looking at my mother to see if this were true. Possible. I remember holding my breath as I waited for her response.

            When the clerk said the balloons held surprises, that each one had a slip of paper inside that would reveal what ice cream treat I could have. I think she said that a few balloons awarded a free treat. A completely free ice cream treat!

            Even at that young age I understood that nothing was free. If something good came my way it would be immediately followed by something bad. But I was a kid and kids hope.

            When my mother nodded that I cold pick a balloon, I was shocked. I. Got. To. Pick.

            I am sure my eyes were wide in disbelief. I am positive that I knew I’d never win. But, like any kid, I imagined that my balloon would give me something free. Maybe an ice cream soda, or if I was really lucky, a banana split.

            But there was a really good chance that all I’d get was a cheap sucker. One of those wrapped in cheap plastic that doctor’s give after a shot. There was a glass jar of suckers on the counter right in front of the clerk.

            I liked suckers. Any color, any flavor. We seldom had them, so winning a sucker wouldn’t be a bad thing. Just not the thing I wanted most of all: a banana split.

            My mother grew impatient as I stared up at the balloons, trying to see through, to read the slip so as to ensure that I got that banana split.

            The clerk asked what I was hoping to win. I looked first to my mother, then when she nodded, I said, loud and clear (something unusual for me), that I wanted a banana split.

            My mother laughed. Not a happy laugh, but a mocking laugh. You’ll never win that, she said. Or I seem to recall her saying.

            It seems as if my shoulders must have slumped. I bet my whole body slumped.

            I think the clerk told me to take a chance. That she thought I’d be a winner. Just point and tell her which one I wanted.

            Back then, as now, blue was my favorite color. Except for the years when my Catholic school uniform was blue. But I loved blue t-shirts, blue socks, blue shorts and really, really wanted a pair of blue tennis shoes I’d seen in the bargain store where we shopped. I’d never gotten the shoes.

            There were several blue balloons. One way up high, one to the right, one to the left, and one right on front of me, so close I could have touched it. I thought about that one. It was so close, so it must be the lucky one, right? But that would have been too easy.

            I nodded. The only balloon that might be lucky was the blue one so close to the ceiling that it brushed the tiles when the fan’s blades came near. I pointed with my right hand, my middle finger extended.

            Are you sure the clerk asked. It’s pretty far away.

            She made me question my choice. Did she know something that I didn’t? Did she know that one held a worthless slip of paper? Or was she trying to steer me away from a sure winner? The one with the biggest prize?

            It made sense that she’d trick me into making a poor choice. After all, my life had been one poor choice after another. Why should this be any different?

            By now my mother was getting impatient. I could tell by the way her eyebrows scrunched up and wrinkles formed around her eyes. If I didn’t make a choice soon, there’d be trouble later on.

            I changed my mind and went for the blue balloon right in front of me.

            The clerk popped it, a noise that always made me cringe.

            She handed me the slip of paper. My reading skills weren’t so good back then, so my mom had to read it to me.

            I’d gotten a discount on a cone of ice cream. Unsure what a discount was, I’d asked. All it meant was that it would be a bit cheaper.

            The clerk must have been clever at reading faces, for mine registered intense disappointment. My eyes filled with tears.

            Don’t you want an ice cream cone she asked.

            I shook my head.

            My mother grabbed my hand and pulled me off the stool. Sorry, she said, we don’t have enough money even with the discount.

            Choose another balloon, the clerk said.

            I turned to my mother and saw frustration and anger. She wanted to leave. I knew then that she had never intended to buy me an ice cream. She took me there for the free sucker in cheap plastic.

            The clerk repeated that I got to choose another balloon.

            I decided to take a risk and go for a red balloon. Red was not my color. I’d never liked it. But I had nothing to lose. So I pointed to a red balloon off to the right.

            The clerk pulled it out of the bunch and popped it. She didn’t give the slip of paper to my mom. She read it aloud. I had won a free banana split!

            I didn’t know what that was, but based upon the happy look on the clerk’s face, I understood that it was special. A rare treat.

            My mom said I could have it.

            The clerk peeled a banana and then split if down the middle. She placed the pieces on either sides of a glass bowl. She added scoops of chocolate, strawberry and vanilla ice cream. Not the tiny scoops I’d get whenever we were lucky enough to have ice cream at home, but huge, huge scoops.

            She added toppings. Pineapple, Strawberries. Marshmallows. The tiny kind.

            Over that she poured chocolate sauce. Not my favorite, but glorious in its brown gooiness. On top went huge fluffy swirls of whipped cream with a bright red cherry on each mound.

            When she placed it before me, I was in shock. It was more ice cream than I’d ever had in my whole life if you added up all the tiny bowls I’d eaten before. And this was all for me.

            Or so I thought.

            The clerk handed me a spoon. Then gave one to my mother.

            I really didn’t want her to have any. This was mine. I’d won it fair and square. I understood fairness at that point. Fair things seldom happened to me. To my brother, yes, if my mom was the one in charge. But never to me.

            My mother told me to get started eating before the ice cream melted. That we had to hurry because I’d taken so long to choose. That if we didn’t get home soon my dad would be angry.

            My dad’s anger was terrifying. He shouted words I didn’t know but felt that they registered disapproval. He hit hard, so hard it left bruises. He shook me until it felt like my head was going to topple off. And his spankings left belt marks on my backside.

            I picked up my spoon and got to work, shoveling in the gooey combination so fast that my nose froze. I scooped faster and faster, taking very little time to relish and enjoy.

            My mother worked from the other side, eating slower, but still chipping away at my treat.

            I didn’t get to finish it.

            When there was still more than half left, my mother announced that we had to leave. She stood, buttoned her jacket, then lifted me off the stool.

            I bet my eyes filled with tears. I am pretty sure that my body registered my disappointed anger, something I had perfected.

            It’s funny how some memories stay hidden for a gazillion years while others stay fresh year after year.

            I can remember the punishments my dad dished out as if they happened yesterday. But this one happy moment, this one time when I got a very special treat has remained hidden for well over sixty years.

Reflecting

Friends have asked what I would do differently if I could go back in time. First of all, I would never want to relive my first twenty years of life.

My early years with my family were emotional bombshells. My dad’s explosive temper often resulted in physical punishments and humiliation. My mother preferred my siblings (yes, I am a middle child.) I had been overwhelmed and intimidated so thoroughly that I preferred to sit in a corner and hide.  

Elementary school amplified my feelings of inferiority as I was the dumbest kid in whatever class I was in: I couldn’t read and my teachers didn’t help.

Middle school added new torments. Previously I had attended Catholic schools, but now I was in the public school. Because of the size differential, it was easier for me to hide. Except from the Home Ec teacher who must have seen something in my demeanor that triggered all her alarms.  After a rather awful day at home the evening before, I was still suffering when I entered her class. She called me aside and asked if everything was okay at home. I lied. After that she never asked again even though I wished she had.

High school was more of the same socially, but by now my talent for math and learning languages had begun to shine. I joined the basketball team, and although I wasn’t the best player, it allowed me to stay late after school and travel to away games, thereby reducing the amount of time I could be abused at home.

My first year of college my parents made me attend the local community college. The highlight of that year was learning that my Spanish skills were beyond the course offerings! I beamed with pride. But, because it was a commuter college and I was still terribly shy, I made no friends.

My euphoria regarding Spanish didn’t last long because I struggled so badly in my English class that I had to drop it. Back to feeling stupid.

My next three years at USC were a mixed bag. I developed friends who were like me. Somehow, we found each other in the cafeteria. None of us were in the popular group, which might have been what united us.  While we never did anything together outside of school, at least it was a safe place to eat.

Unfortunately, I just have been sending out “I want you” vibes because several of the guys hit on me. One was a prince in whatever country he hailed from. He handed me a multipage love letter detailing how well he would treat me and what my life would be in his country. First of all, I liked him as a friend. Secondly, I knew how women were restricted in his country and wanted no part of that. He accepted my refusal with grace.

Another young man, Jorge, wooed me by asking a lot of questions about what I thought about this and that. He took me out to lunch and occasionally to a movie. I liked him because he was soft-spoken and gentle.

A break came up and he had nowhere to go. I invited him home with me.

My parents were not welcoming. First of all, I failed to tell them he was Hispanic. When they learned his name, saw the gorgeous hue of his skin and heard his charming accent, it was over. They were polite, but not welcoming.

Jorge ceased being my boyfriend after that. I couldn’t blame him: he understood that my parents were prejudiced.

My next boyfriend was a hippie, like I had become. He was easy to be with, had a car, and enjoyed camping as much as I did. I figured we would get married. And then he transferred to a college in Minnesota. During winter break I flew out to see him.

His family there were warm and welcoming. They drove us around to see many of the lakes and treated us to a tasty meal. They laughed easily and seemed comfortable in their own skins.

I pictured myself as part of that family and it felt right.

And then John told a group of his grad school friends that what he liked about me was that I never had an opinion. To his credit, I did keep my opinions to myself, but it didn’t mean that I was a blank slate! That was the end of that relationship.

When college ended, I had no choice but to return home, back to being bullied emotionally and physically. It took me a while to find a job. The most embarrassing interview was when I found out that the phone company was hiring. My mother insisted on driving me, then went in and applied for the same job! She got hired, but I did not.

The best choice I made was taking the test that could lead to a job with the federal government. Imagine my surprise when it led to a job, a good job with benefits. My first post was in SF, a city with huge hills and limited parking. I was a field agent, so I traveled all over the city, up and down those hills, going in and out of businesses and homes.

It wasn’t the kind of working environment where you made friends. People came in, worked, went home. I transferred to the Oakland office which was much the same. I was given the cases the furthest from the office, so I drove all over the area. That was the best part of the job.

I did meet someone. A very pleasant man asked me out. We got along quite well. We even went skiing and few times. It was going smoothly until he invited me to his apartment. That’s where I discovered that he was married with children, but currently on a trial separation. He had virtually no furniture: only a mattress on the floor. I broke up with him shortly thereafter.

My next posting was back to SF, then to San Mateo. I loved the people at the new detail. They were kind and helpful. They welcomed me into their “family” and truly cared about my welfare. It’s also where I met my future husband.

My coworkers encouraged me to speak up. They listened to my opinions and, in time, asked me to consult on cases.

It was thanks to them and to my future husband that I developed a voice.

My Love of Music

            I bought my first radio when I was in Middle School. It had taken a long time to save up the money as my allowance was only twenty-five cents a week, ten of which had to go to the church.

            When my brother discovered Grit magazine, a weekly newspaper, I was able to earn more money. We went door-to-door trying to get subscribers. When the papers were dropped off at our house, we loaded them up in the baskets of our bicycles and road all over the rural town of Beavercreek, Ohio making deliveries.

            That simple job allowed me to finally buy that radio. I listened to popular music and fell in love with Ricky Nelson, Glen Campbell and the Shirelles. I memorized the lyrics and when no one was around, sang along.

            Music became my refuge. It took me away from my dysfunctional family’s woes. I felt the singers’ highs and lows. Their heartaches and joys.

            When my family went on picnics, that radio came with me. I didn’t have headphones, so I could only listen when I had permission.

            When my dad bought a record player, I used my earned money to purchase 45s and 78s. I didn’t have a lot of records, but those I did have brought me great joy.

            I attended a Catholic School until the end of seventh grade. A boy, whose name I don’t recall, invited me to a dance at a neighboring Catholic school. This was my first experience with a live band. While they were just a little older than me, and to me recall, not that good, I was enthralled. And I wanted to sing.

            That boy took me to dance after dance. Some were pretty miserable affairs with maybe ten people in attendance. Others had disco balls and flashing lights with great food. It made no difference to me: I had a wonderful time.

            The next year I transferred to the public school and never saw that boy again. For some reason I was enrolled in choir. I had never sung in public except for the Gregorian chant at church. Imagine my terror when the teacher demanded that we stand up, one-by-one, and sing the National Anthem.

            I knew I couldn’t do it, but I practiced in my bedroom. I was convinced that I was off-key and my voice cracked whenever I came to a high note.

            When my turn came, I froze. My butt refused to come off my chair. I trembled so badly that I don’t think my legs would have held up my weight. (I had a lot of weight!) The teacher called on me. My eyes filled with tears and my body refused to stand.

            The teacher smiled, encouraged me to try, then moved on to the next student. She never did make me sing in front of the class. She did figure out that I was an alto, however, by standing near me during class.

            By now I had fallen in love with a variety of popular singers, including the Everly Brothers, Roger Miller, and The Temptations. I bought the teen magazines that featured stories about the artists and included the lyrics to all the top hits.

To my joy, I discovered fan clubs! With a simple letter I could request autographed photos! I sent off letter after letter and when the photos arrived, I taped them to my bedroom wall. All my favorites were there, and since I had the lyrics, I could sing with them, never missing a word.

I never took a music class in high school. I thought about it, but my focus was on getting into a university with a full scholarship. My courses were tough: lots of math and science. Spanish and Social Studies. No fun electives.

Another problem was that my younger sister had grown older and controlled what happened in our shared bedroom. It seemed as if every time I turned on my radio, she appeared and demanded that I turn it off. If I didn’t, she whined to my mother who’d then threaten to smash the radio if I didn’t comply.

My developing love of music stalled.

When I enrolled at USC sophomore year, I took my radio and a record player I’d bought with me. By then I had a fairly extensive collection of records which I played whenever my roommate wasn’t around.

My parents thought that having music on distracted me from my studies, but it was the opposite. Music calmed me. It soothed my fears. Playing favorite songs quietly in the background gave me the energy to put in long hours.

Although I thought about taking a Music Class, once again, just like in high school, it didn’t fit into my major’s requirements.

I dated a guy for a short time who loved music as much as I did. He took me to concerts at UCLA. We rode in his VW Bug with the radio blaring, screaming out the lyrics. He took me to used record shops where, with very little money, I bought tons of records. Thanks to him my collection grew.

He never took me to a school dance, though. When posters advertised a dance in my residence hall, I decided to go. Alone. It was hard for me to do this. I was still overweight and saw myself as ugly. I figured that even if no one asked me to dance, I could enjoy the music.

The cafeteria was transformed into a disco ball. Someone had hung up decorations all along the walls and streamers hung from the ceiling. I was amazed but also thrilled. The one thing I hadn’t planned on was the huge number of students who would come. The place was packed.

I grabbed some snacks. Listened to the music. Wanted to dance. But I was ignored. When OJ Simpson and his gang of football players came, I snuck out. I knew that this was not my crowd.

On campus was a Neumann Center that held Mass on Sundays. I had never heard guitars and drums at church before. There was something about the folk-style that called to me and before I knew it, I was singing. In public.

It wasn’t until many years later, when I my kids were away at college that I bolstered myself up and joined the church choir. I didn’t know how to read music, but one of the singers, Patty deRidder, who was also the First-Grade teacher at the Catholic school, taught me. She told me I had a beautiful singing voice and encouraged me to solo.

I never would have taken that leap on my own. However, one Sunday no other singers came to mass. That meant I had no choice. Oh, was I terrified! But I did it.

Next thing, I was a regular soloist. Sunday after Sunday I stood at the ambo and lead the congregation in the psalm.

I remember one time when I’d rehearsed the psalm at home, over and over until I knew it quite well. When it’s time, I climb the steps to the ambo. The pianist begins playing and I freeze. She played something different! I know that my eyes got huge as I stood there in shock.

I shook it off, then sang the psalm I’d rehearsed, forcing the pianist to adapt.

Over the years my taste in music has expanded. I love country, but I also love Christian and some contemporary pop. I am not a fan of classical unless one of my grandkids is playing it. And I definitely never thought I’d like rap until I saw the musical Hamilton.

Looking back, I can see the important role that music had played in my life. It calmed me when times were tough. It brought solace when I was down. It lifted me up when my spirits were sagging. Most importantly, it showed me that I could sing. That my voice was strong enough, sure enough that I could stand before my congregation and lead them in song.

I don’t listen to as much music now as I did in my younger years, but it’s always there in my mind, in my heart.

The journey to get here was long and at times challenging. I am grateful to the boy who took me to dances. To the teacher who saw how terrified I was. To the choir member who encouraged me. To all the various choir directors I worked with over the years who saw in me what I still struggle to see: that I could bring joy to others through my voice.

Morning Thoughts

I rose before the sun

Crested the nearby hills,

When the nighttime darkness

Blanketed my world

The air, clean-smelling

Like freshly washed clothes,

Energized my newly awakened body

Augmented by a gym workout

The gift of time well spent

Brought immense pride

I visualized myself shrinking

As sweat poured down

Face, back, arms as my legs

Pumped the Stairmaster

Moving in its never-ending cycle

It reminded me of my day-to-day

Existence

Feed, water, take care of critters

Feed my own body and soul

Seven days a week, without fail

Five days a week I stood

Before reluctant high school students

Who were so bored they could barely keep

Eyes open and heads up

I force-fed them an education

That seemed so meaningless

In their social-driven lives.

Yet they learned

Despite a lack of engagement

As the work day ended,

I left with a smile

Knowing that the effort

Was worth it.

The cycle began again.

Getting up early

Rising before the sun

Crested the nearby hills

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.

Valentine’s Day Lessons

            I still remember my first Valentine’s Day party. I was five years old attending a private Kindergarten, not because my parents were wealthy, but because free Kinder programs didn’t yet exist. My parents enrolled me because I was painfully shy and well behind academically.

            My clothes were hand-me-downs or homemade while my classmates were well-dressed. Even at that age I knew there was a difference. I stood out because of appearance, sociability and academic struggles (I didn’t know my shapes, letter sounds and the basics of math).

            However, when my teachers spoke of there being a party on Valentine’s Day, I was quite excited. With wide-open eyes, I chose the cards that I thought my classmates might like and then dutifully addressed each one. I believed that I would receive an equal number of cards. After all, the teachers said one for each student in the class.

            The big day comes. We’ve had sweets made or purchased by parents. We’re given a lunch bag to put on the front of our desks. One by one we get up and walk about the room, dropping cards in each bag. As time passes, my eyes pool with tears: over and over I was being skipped. Not one student put a card in my bag.

            When my turn came to distribute cards, I hid them in my lap and pretended as if I had none. I understood that I was beneath consideration; my standing was such that I didn’t warrant a cheap paper card.

            Perhaps it was an anomaly, perhaps it was intentional. What was important was that my teachers did nothing to address the discrepancy.

            When Valentine’s neared the next school year, my mom insisted that I prepare cards. Once again I chose the ones that I thought were the best, addressed each, then brought them to school. I was now in a Catholic elementary, so I figured things would be different.

            My teacher told us to put the bag we’d brought on the front of our desks. I’d decorated mine in bright colors and happy symbols. I was proud of the effort I’d put in and hopeful that it would be filled with cards.

            As the rows of students were told to distribute cards, I leaned forward, excited to watch cards drop in my bag. But something went horribly wrong. Just like in Kindergarten, my bag remained empty.

            The same thing happened in second grade, third grade, fourth grade and fifth. Every year my mom insisted in buying cards, having me address them, and forcing me to bring them to school. Every year my bag remained empty. Every year my eyes filled with tears.

            By this time I hated the day and wished it had never been created. Obviously Valentine’s Day was for special people, not everyone. It was a happy day for kids who had friends, but for loners like myself it was just one more reminder of how isolated we were.

            Thankfully when I moved into middle school, the day took on less importance and was essentially ignored for the rest of my school years.

            When I became an elementary school teacher I distributed written instructions before the day. All students must give cards to all students. Period. Cards could be homemade or store-bought, but there must be one for each student in the class.

            To decrease the chance of embarrassment, students did not roam the class giving out their cards. Instead my instructional assistant collected the cards, sorted them, counted them, and filled in any gaps when the numbers were not equal. She was the one who carried the cards to the desks and placed them in the bags. All students got the same number of cards. No one was made to feel less-than.

            Lessons learned when we are small are quite powerful. I learned that it hurt to feel excluded and that when my teachers did nothing, I understood that I was truly alone. Not wanting my students to experience what I had drove me to be a better teacher.

            With Valentine’s approaching in this year of COVID-19, each of us needs to ensure that everyone feels cherished even if cards are distributed online or through drop-offs at school. Children who are different-than average must not experience a harsher exclusion or differentiation then they already know.

            Find ways to show love that encompass all those in your social circle. Be kind to even the most difficult person in the group. That’s a hard challenge: forcing yourself to put aside angry or hurt feelings in order to be inclusive.

            This is my Valentine’s Day lesson: how we treat others at a young age affects how they see themselves later in life. Children who are ignored or isolated grow up feeling ignored and isolated. Addressing cards to children who are not your children’s friends might make the lonely kid’s day. The smile on that child’s face might change her way of looking at herself, leading to a life of successes.

            Be thoughtful. Be mindful. Be inclusive.  

The Shell

Walking along the beach

I found a shell,

An ordinary shell.

Perfectly formed.

Six rows of ridges

Ruffles

Completely round

Except for where it joined

Its twin when still whole.

It felt surprisingly cool

And light

As it its soul’s mate

Disappeared long ago.

As I stare out at the Pacific Ocean

I wonder where this clam

Might have lived

And how it got to this spot

On this day

In time for me to pick it up.

Years ago my family moved

To California

A long journey.

I felt the hollowness

Of forced abandonment.

Like the clam

I was not in charge of my destiny

That power lay in my parent’s hands.

I was an ordinary teen

No great beauty

Smart, but lacking common sense

Or so I had been told,

So I had no say in the decision-making.

My parents picked the city,

The house, even the school

All I did was move in

Confined by their overarching rules

Until I went away to college.

For years I drifted through life

Swept by the tides

Working at one job, then another

Until marriage grounded me.

Now I stand with feet deep in sand

Rejoicing in the gifts given me.

Much like this simple shell

Held in my hand.