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


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.

Anything Goes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            The only monitor I have is me.

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

Thinking Back

Memory fails me, as I try to recall

those things that we did, both momentous and small


The many times that we laughed. Those that we cried.

The children born healthy, and old folks who died.


But as I grow older, my mind has begun

to forget the details, including the fun


things that we did, before our children were born.

When we were that young, was I ever forlorn?


Perhaps. As I part the mist that clouds my view,

I see a lonely place, before I met you.


My heart was heavy with worries, that’s true.

Sorrows befell my soul, until there was you.


With you the sun arose, brightening my way,

and so it continues, to this very day.


As I stroll through life, beauty I can now see:

blue sky, birds, butterflies, and the apple tree


under which we sat, and talked about our love.

And though it sounds corny, even the white dove


that flew high overhead as we pledged our vow

to love forever.  I remember it now!


Such a wonderful time!  A beautiful place!

The way we danced and the smile on your face.


A white picket fence.  The cookie-cutter house.

The cuddly kitten.  Yes, even a brown mouse.


Such an exciting time, those long-ago days.

Our children grew up, then went separate ways.


Those things that we did, both momentous and small

As memory tricks me, I sometimes recall.

What Could Have Been

I don’t spend time dwelling on

what could have been

if I’d done this or not done that.


I don’t lament those events

I missed or the wrong steps I took

As I floundered my way through life.


Instead I rejoice

In what I was fortunate enough to do,

and those things that I was a part of,

no matter how small or insignificant

it might have seemed to others.


I couldn’t always see

the sunshine due to tears that flooded my eyes,

sorrow that held my face to the ground,

and regrets that froze my feet in place.


Periodically the lenses of my eyes opened

and the black curtain parted

allowing a glimmer of light to break through

so that new horizons appeared.


Here I am in my twilight years

with dreams still appearing of things

I yearn to do, places I hope to visit,

without ever thinking

about what could have been.

Our Life Stories


all of life is a series of


the might-have-beens

the almost becames

the things we dreamt of


but never did

the wishes unfulfilled

presents never delivered

or received

places never visited


chance occurrences

that developed into nothing

the left-behinds


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



we constantly create

our personal life stories

our dreams springing to

a life lived luxuriously

laughing joyously

over the endless



If you remove the normal transformations that we experience as we change from child to adult, I believe that I have been many different people.

I have always been shy. Put me in a crowd and I become a silent member of any group. However, when I am with trusted friends, I can find plenty to say. I love listening to my friends talk and then responding to whatever they bring up.

When I was a field officer for the IRS I had to knock on doors and enter businesses where I knew no one. It was terrifying. I knew that no one wanted to see me, but somehow I had to communicate how much they owed and establish a payment system. I learned a lot in that job.

First, I discovered that I had a voice. I had something important to say even if the message was not a pleasant one. This came in handy when I became a teacher. Conferences are tough. Parents show up hoping to hear that their child is a genius with hidden talents. Nice if that’s the truth, but not always the case. Imagine telling a parent that her child has a learning disability that will make reading/writing/math challenging? Imagine the looks on faces at that news. Then imagine yourself as the bearer of that news.

That’s what I did for 23 years. That’s who I was. The teacher who wanted to offer hope, to say that one day their child would wake up and the disability would be gone, but I couldn’t in good faith do that. So the person that I was at that time was the giver of negative gifts. It hurt.

Second, as a Revenue Officer I discovered that I could navigate myself around San Francisco, Walnut Creek, San Mateo, just about anywhere around the Bay Area. Not such a big deal now with all the technology we have, but it was then. I relied on a book of maps and directional instinct. This was a real confidence booster. Without my dad driving, I could get from point A to point B and then on to point C.

I used that planning skill when I began teaching. I read helpful books, but then I had to implement a curriculum that I had planned, from beginning to end. When finished, I evaluated the relative success of a lesson and then adjusted. I still got from point A to point B, but upon reflection often a divergent path was taken.

I relied on my IRS skills throughout my career, no matter the job title. While presenting at meetings still make me nervous, I knew I had the wherewithal to plan and execute.

As a wife and parent I used the same skills to run our household. Having never been much of a cook, now I was responsible for three meals a day for a growing family. Cookbooks became my new best friends. Some of those early recipes are still in use today, now prepared by my husband or kids for their families. I learned that I could follow directions and usually end up with something edible. That’s a real confidence booster.

For a while I was involved with our church’s women’s guild. At first I was an observer, but in time I was pressured to begin organizing things. At first it was Santa at a bake sale. Then it was as treasurer and eventually president. I didn’t like any of these roles, but because I knew how to plan, organize and implement, I pulled them off.

When we began traveling as a family I once again tested those skills. I created a checklist that included necessary camping gear that constantly had to be revamped when we discovered that key items had been left home. Like the time our tent poles were left in the garage or when we tailgated without the grill to the BBQ. But as organizer I learned how to make reservations, buy tickets and pay fees, all when the internet was a baby. It meant phone calls. Lots of phone calls.

All this organizational practice takes me to who I am today. I can do all kinds of things that my parents would have thought impossible. From the shy Kindergarten kid who never opened her mouth I have become a singer, a friend, a member of an extended family, a person who leads book talks and who reads stories in public. I do these things with much more grace than I did earlier in my life. I know how to ask questions that get people talking. I know how to respond with appropriate comments.

I treasure those fleeting moments when I realize how life has transformed me into the older woman I am now. Looking back, I would never have pictured me doing all the things that I now do; if I had stayed the course set all those years ago, I would be a lonely spinster with ten cats and five dogs clamoring for attention. They would have been my family, my companions.

Because I have been transformed, I am pleased with who I am.


Thinking Back

I’ve been asked what I would do differently if I could go back in time. First of all, I wouldn’t do that. I didn’t enjoy my early years, hated middle school and despised high school. I didn’t start to truly enjoy life until I met and married my husband. The years we have had together have been the best ones of my life.

As a child I was sulky and miserable. I was born eighteen months after my brother and walked in his shadow even beyond college. I knew that my mom worshipped and protected my brother, and so I wanted to be exactly like him. I played sports of all kinds as a kid, which meant endless hours of kickball with the neighborhood kids, whiffle ball in our backyard, along with badminton, sledding,  and snowball throwing. While I was a decent athlete, I could not throw as hard as my brother did and so found myself with reddened palms time after time.

I was one year behind my brother in school, which meant being held up to his academic standards by teacher after teacher. I don’t know how much time my brother spent studying. For me, reading, writing, science and history did not come easy. I didn’t learn to read independently until fourth grade, but once I mastered the skill, you couldn’t keep a book out of my hands. Spelling didn’t make sense. How can cow, how, now and show have the same root, but sound differently? Science and history required memorization, something which did not come easy to me. I spent hour after hour on homework every night, rereading the same passages time after time. There were two subjects in which I excelled: math and languages.

We were as close as kids could be. Partly because we spent many hours together inside the house during the winter, during which we played board games, that I always lost, built castles with Lincoln Logs and had epic battles with armies of plastic men. We built igloos and had epic sledding hills that crossed three backyards. We explored the woods behind our house, jumped off boulders and climbed trees.

Neither of us had any mechanical skills, so while my brother was a disappointment to our father, I equally disappointed my mom. My brother had no interest in changing oil or tires. I had no desire to learn how to cook. Both of us spent time watching and getting yelled at when we didn’t pay attention.

I did not play with dolls. In fact, the only dolls I ever owned were several of the fancily dressed kind that simply rested against my pillow and a mechanical one that rolled about on skates. I was not allowed to play with the first because my mother feared that I would mess them up. She was probably right. The skater required batteries, which were expensive, and so not available. Barbie came out when I was a young teen, but I could only afford a cheap plastic cut-off whose arms fell off and whose “skin” was translucent.

My sister was born when I was seven. There was enough distance between us that we had little in common, and so we did not spend time together other than the sharing of a bedroom. It was probably my fault, as I put no effort into befriending her, finding her unable to do and uninterested in the things that I enjoyed.

That is one thing that I would change. I would find a way to embrace her, to search out those activities that we could have done together. She was into playing with dolls, walking them through pretend worlds and relationships that I could not understand or relate to. But what if I had tried? Would that have erased some of the years between us? Would it have brought us closer together? Part of me wants to believe that it would, but another part of me remembers how much my mother cared for my sister. How much she protected her and fussed over her, and then I’m not so sure.

School was one of many places where I felt most alone. I did not have playground friends, so spent much of my primary years sitting on a bench against the wall, watching others laugh and giggle and run around like nuts. I remember hating Valentine’s Day. While I had cards for everyone in my class, I seldom received cards in return. I was never invited to birthday parties and only once went to a sleepover when I was in middle school. My mom bought me new pajamas for that affair, as mine were old and faded. But I had been sheltered from the world of teen magazines and gossip television shows, so when the girls talked about kissing and hair and clothes, I had nothing to contribute. I felt even more isolated after that.

In eighth grade I transferred to public school and fell in love with my teacher. Mr. Bennington was kind and patient, two qualities that I desperately yearned to be the receiver of. When asked to do a research project on a college that we might like to attend, guess what I did? I found Bennington College in Vermont. I was proud of myself until I turned it in, and then I was too embarrassed to talk about it in front of the class. That is something else that I would change. I’d find a college closer to home as my target and report on it.

I went on my first date in eighth grade. Our school had a prom-like affair in mid-year. A dorky boy asked me out and I accepted. (Of course, I was also a dork!) I did not know how to dance and was uncomfortable with his touch. The evening was long and painful.

I was a shy child, not just in Kindergarten, but all the way through most of my college years. I was the kid in the class that no one knew. I did not raise my hand to answer questions, did not seek help from my teachers, and did not go up to the front of the room for group activities. In fact, I remember scooting down in my desk when my reading group was called and sitting there while all the others had the teacher’s attention. Yes, it held me back. As I sat in my chair, I yearned for the teacher to notice that I was not in the circle and call me forward, but she never did.

If I could have chosen my desk in middle and high school, I would have sat at the back of the room, I so feared attention from the teachers. Unfortunately teachers generally assign seats by alphabetical order of last name, so I ended up somewhere down the second row. That is something I did change when I returned to college as an adult. I always sat in the first row so as to better hear and be seen. It helped me build confidence and so I succeeded. It is also something that I did not do as a teacher. I let my students pick out their seats and then left them alone unless they were being disrespectful of the right of others to learn.

One thing that I would change, if I could go back in time, is to make a better effort at finding and keeping friends. Because I was shy, I was not one of those kids who was sought after to be part of a group. On occasion, someone did approach me and initiate conversation, but I never was the initiator. Imagine how different my life would have been if I had had the courage to walk up to someone and simply say, “Hi.” Wow! Even now this is hard for me.

As a college student I had more success in building relationships. I did not get to attend the college of my choice because my parents would only let me follow my brother to the one he had chosen, which, it turned out, was a good thing. He joined a fraternity, which had a support group called Little Sisters, and they took me in. Because of being a Little Sister, I had invitations to parties, actual dates to events on campus, and a place to spend Friday and Saturday nights.

Unfortunately I chose an impractical major. I entered as a math major, thinking I’d study statistics and find a job working with data. I pictured me sitting in a room with charts of information before me and knew that this was something I could do. The problem is that when I went to college, the women’s liberation movement had not yet evolved into a force, so it was no surprise when the math department chair called me into his office and told me that no company would ever hire a woman because all we wanted was to find a man and get married. I left his office and changed majors.

If I could repeat that day, I would defy him, earn my degree in math, get hired, and work long, happy hours doing something wonderful with numbers.

Instead I took a serious look at how many credits I had in each subject area, keeping in mind that I had to graduate in four years as that was how long my scholarship lasted, saw that only in Russian could I do that, so chose that as my new major. I told myself that I could get a job as a translator, without taking into consideration that I was too shy to ever speak Russian outside of the classroom. And that there were no jobs for Russian translators.

What I should have done was stuck with math and defied the chair, but women didn’t do that back then. We were raised to be compliant and to think of being wife and mother, not employee.

After college I returned home and joined the real work force. The one in which the only work experience I had was sitting behind the desk in a college dorm was meaningless. I had a hard time getting a job because I had no office skills. I was a poor typist and could not operate any of the machines in use at that time. When I did finally find work, it was at a furniture store, unfortunately as a customer service operator. I had to answer phones and had to pacify upset callers. I hated the job!

I’m not sure what I could have changed about that except for going way back in high school and sticking with my one and only typing course, honed my craft, and then I would have had marketable skills years later.

After that I was hired by the IRS as a tax collector. Not a job for a shy person, but I will credit the experience as helping me move past my fear of meeting and interacting with unfamiliar people. I had to knock on doors, walk into businesses and drive around San Francisco, up and down those hills and in and out of all types of neighborhoods. I learned to sit in my car and practice what I was going to say before walking into those situations. It was valuable experience for later on when I became a teacher.

There were two great things about that job. First, I made enough money to buy a car and then rent an apartment. That gave me freedom to simply be. I was in charge of my own life, had the ability to get myself places, and made decisions about where and how to spend my money. I learned to cook rudimentary things, just enough to survive. The second most wonderful thing was meeting Mike, who later became my best friend and husband.

Being married to Mike is one thing I would never change. He brings light to my life. He has been my strongest supporter in everything I have set out to tackle. He has been a role model for how to be as a person, wife and parent. Without him, my life would have been unrecognizable. He has never once held me back, never discouraged me from trying something new, never stopped me from tackling college courses or conferences or workshops.

There are things I did as a parent for which I am proud. For one, I always prepared breakfast for my kids. Most days it was a hot meal, but there were times when they preferred cold cereal, and I let them eat it even though, nutritionally, it was not the best choice. I packed their lunches except for once a week when they were able to buy lunch at school. I drove them to swim lessons, soccer, baseball and softball, all of which I supported as team mom, scorekeeper, coach, and referee. I attended parent-teacher meetings when needed, and even though I was working, took off to go on some field trips. During the summer months, when they were younger, I worked with them on academic skills in between swim lessons and soccer practice.

On the other hand, there were things I wish I could take back. I was not the most patient of parents. When my kids got angry, I didn’t know how to handle it. In my growing up years, anger was met with anger, tantrums with spankings, yelling with hurtful, cruel yelling. That was the only model I knew and so, despite what I read in parenting magazines, when my patience ran thin, I resorted to the poor models of behavior that I had benefited from. I wish I could replay those events and this time, instead of reacting poorly, simply walk away. Calm down. Allow my kids to calm down. And then later on, talk about what caused the anger and seek out appropriate solutions. If I could have done this, I would have been a better parent.

I am glad that we cannot revisit the past just to do it all over again. There is no way that I would choose to repeat any of my previous years of life. It would be terrifying to be a child today, faced with all the terrors that today’s kids deal with. Drugs, alcohol and tobacco were not the temptations back then. Kidnappings probably happened, but the news was not filled with story after sad story. I feel sorry that today’s children do not have the freedoms that I had to ride my bike through neighborhood after neighborhood, going miles from home, without worry.

I would not want to be a teenager who wants nothing more than to be a mechanic, being forced into college prep classes because that’s all that is offered. To want to be a nurse’s assistant, but having no opportunity to learn those skills. To want to be a doctor but unable to take advanced placement classes because my school does not offer them.

So, to answer the question, would I want to go back and redo my life, the response is a resounding no. I have worked through the issues that burdened me as a child, teen, and older adult, am happy with who I am at this point in time. I love my husband and my grown up children. I love my grandchildren. I love being able to write, to having enough savings to travel, and spending time with my husband doing things that we both love. I have a good life, filled with things to do and people to see. What more could a person want?