One Lucky Lady

They say that cats have nine lives.  Through some quirk of nature, I must have some “link” to those lives, for I’ve gone through four already.  That’s about as lucky as a person can get, I suppose. 

Sure, I’d love to win the lottery, but that requires buying a ticket.  I could go to Las Vegas, Nevada and throw money at the slot machines, or go to the horse races at Golden Gate Fields and bet on a long shot, but those things seem unnecessarily wasteful.

I don’t play Bingo, Scrabble, or cards, so you’ll never see me entered in a competition.  Pool is not my game either.  The only contests I enter are for authors who love to throw good money away on entrance fees.

 Some things are worth much more than money.  Family, love, satisfaction, shelter, food, friends, and employment rank right in the top ten.  Simply having the good fortune to still be walking on this earth is about the luckiest that anyone could possibly be.

It’s equivalent to finding the golden ticket in the chocolate bar, or watching the long-shot horse cross the finish line well ahead of the others.  Every morning that I arise is my lucky day.  Every evening when I’m able to climb under the covers is another opportunity to count my blessings.

Once you’ve faced Death and emerged victorious, nothing can compare.  Four times I’ve walked away, knowing that Death had called my name and I had had the fortitude to stare him in the face and say, “Heck, no.”

About ten years ago a common cold moved in to my lungs.  It had the nerve to take up residence, and stubbornly refused to leave.  The sniffles turned into a full-blown, fever-induced hallucinogenic excursion into the netherworld.  Weakened by its ravaging forces, I was unable to motivate my combat troops to erect a formidable defense. 

Night after night I coughed my way through the lonely hours.  Food refused to stay down, and fluids ran right through, stopping only long enough to gather random reinforcements along the way.  Awareness took a temporary vacation, leaving me in an imbecilic state.

Eventually the battle reached a critical point.  As I pretended to sleep, each gasp was like playing a “cat and mouse” game. That’s when something bizarre occurred.  I floated.  Yes, I literally floated above my reclining body.

Looking down, I knew that I was dead.  My chest did not rise and fall.  No fluttering of eyelids or twitching of fingers.  A coldness drifted upwards as a pallor overcame what I thought of as simply, “my body.”

My husband slept peacefully next to my corpse, unaware that I was no longer there.  My heart broke, thinking of the devastation that this would cause him, and I cried, “No!” 

I fought to break free from my insubstantial self, screaming silently that my time had not yet come.  I closed my eyes and literally willed myself back into my body, one part at a time.  Fingers.  Toes.  Legs.  Arms.  Chest.  Head.

My eyes opened, and I was back.  Joy flooded my thoughts, and I knew, then, that I was victorious.

Much later someone told me about out-of-body experiences, and that it was possible for someone to defy death.  That was life number one.

Life number two was taken five years ago when a chronic asthma attack landed me in the hospital for eight days.  Every breath was a fight.  My lungs gurgled, and the feeling was much like that of drowning.  The specialists gathered about my bedside throughout the day argued as to what to try next.  Nothing worked. I weakened by the hour.

Six days in, I begged my husband to call our children.  I wanted to hear their voices one last time before I died.  Yes, I said that, for I believed that my end had come. 

One by one the calls came.  I was so weak that all I was capable of doing was whispering, “I love you.”  That night, at peace, I readied myself to die.

When morning came and I was still there, I cried.  Another day of fighting for every breath, of coughing so hard that my ribs were sore, did not appeal to me in the least. 

When the crew of doctors gathered this time, one of them suggested antibiotics.  After the first injection, my fever broke.  Within hours air began to fill my lungs, the coughing subsided, and Optimism walked into my room. 

Two days later I went home, grateful to be alive. 

Within five months I returned to the hospital with another chronic asthma attack.  Because the specialists knew what was happening, they began the antibiotics immediately.  Once again, I cheated Death.

My fourth life disappeared when the car I was riding in slid off a snow-covered Interstate 80, thirty miles west of Salt Lake City.  Normally the road is crowded with huge semis traveling at seventy-five miles an hour.  For some bizarre reason, none were near us as the car swerved in and out of lanes. 

Time stood still as we drifted to the right, heading for a ditch.  The car seemed to float off the road, down the hill, and over the clumps of weeds.  When we stopped, we were right side up, perpendicular to the interstate.  My daughter, the driver, and my granddaughter, riding in the back seat, were unharmed.

Within minutes rescuers arrived.  One was so kind as to drive the car out of the ditch.  Shaken, we returned to the highway, knowing that we would exit at the first safe-looking ramp.

On our journey home, we passed two similar accidents.  Both vehicles had flipped over as they slid off the road.  Both had landed upside down in icy water.  Both had fatalities.

So, while I have never won a grand monetary prize, I have won my life four times.  For me, that is luck enough for any one person.

Just Another Dream

            I wasn’t the kind of kid who played with dolls. At least not in the usual way. Like most girls I had been given a few dolls as gifts, but none of them piqued my interest. I never gave them names, never changed their clothes, never pretended to feed or diaper them.

            Mostly they resided on my pillow, a line-up of meaningless plastic constructions that my parents thought I should have. Several of the dolls were still enclosed in boxes. I had been forbidden from opening them, and since I really didn’t care, I never so much as broke the seal.

            Those dolls were beautiful, too beautiful for a “little girl” as I had been told by my mom. They had glossy pretend hair. I recall that one’s was black, one was blonde and another had long wavy brown hair. I had seen what other girls did to their dolls’ hair, turned it into unruly tangles, and I understood that I was not supposed to ruin my dolls in the same way.

            Since I didn’t care, threats were meaningless.

            Dolls were also pretty boring back then. Their arms and legs might move, maybe even the heads might rotate, but they weren’t cuddly and did nothing that imitated life.

            Christmas was nearing, the year I turned eight. We did have a television then, a small black and white model that carried maybe three stations. One evening an advertisement appeared that called my name. A walking doll! Can you imagine such a thing? A doll that would follow you around. A doll that could be your best friend, something I dearly needed.

            I begged for that doll. When it was time to visit Santa, the only thing I wanted was that doll. When I went to bed, pictures of me playing with the doll, happy and laughing and having the best time of my life filled my thoughts.

            I was young enough to still believe in Santa, but old enough to understand that my family had very little money. No worry: Santa would bring me the doll.

            Our family attended Mass and then ate breakfast before we opened the colorfully packaged gifts under the tree. Because it had snowed heavily, we couldn’t drive the miles into Dayton to attend church, so we gathered around my dad who read the entire Mass. My mind was not on prayer, not on the service, but on the gifts under the tree. Would there be a doll for me? I prayed and prayed for the doll.

            Breakfast was oatmeal. No surprise there. Almost all of our breakfasts were oatmeal. Never cold cereal. That wasn’t allowed until we moved to California. Never bacon and eggs. Sometimes the despised Cream of Wheat.

            We didn’t add anything to the oatmeal. No brown sugar, no raisins, no honey. Nothing to make it interesting or more palatable. I was a picky eater and because I hated oatmeal, it usually took me forever to get down one bowl. But that morning, that Christmas, I gobbled mine down in record time.

            After breakfast we’d gather around the tree. My brother and I would sit on the floor, my parents on chairs. My dad was the only one allowed to touch the gifts, so we had to wait patiently while he picked up one, read its tag, then delivered it to the recipient. Gifts could not be opened until each of us held one in our laps.

            When our dad sat and gave the signal, we carefully removed bows and ribbons, so that they could be reused next year, then ran our thumbs under the tape binding the wrapping paper. Once free. We had to smooth out the paper, fold it along its lines, then stack it neatly beside us.

            If the gift was in a box we again had to open it carefully so as to not bend it or crease it in any way. If the gift was in its own box so that the contents were revealed with the unwrapping, we were forbidden to open the box until after lunch Christmas Day.

            I don’t remember anything I opened except that none of them were the doll. When there was nothing left under the tree, my eyes filled with tears. Santa had disappointed me.

            We helped Mom sort ribbons, bows and paper into neat stacks. When the job was complete, we were set free to play. My brother was older and therefore determined what toys we played with, what games we chose. Most likely we played with his green Army men. He loved lining them up in formations and sending them to attack the meager Army I was given. My men never won. Instead they “died” gruesome deaths of his choosing.

There was something satisfying in watching my men die that day. Their misery was a metaphor for my own. Those plastic men had wishes and dreams that would never come true: my one wish had also not come true. Each death mirrored the death of my dreams. In some perverse way, it was comforting.

            Before we could move on to another activity, the Army had to be cleaned up and put away. Because I was lower on the pecking order, cleanup was always left up to me. My brother had most likely moved on to another of his preferred activities, abandoning me to place the Army in the storage box in which they lived.

            Lunch must have been served. Most likely bologna sandwiches with a slice of pretend American cheese. No chips. No soda. Maybe, if we were lucky, homemade applesauce that Mom had canned in the summer.

            Free to play with the new toys, we were set free. I wish I remembered the things I had received, but I don’t. I was having trouble learning to read and tell time, so there might have been something related to that. Most likely not. We owned no picture books. No books of any kind except for an old bible that we weren’t allowed to read.

            I did have coloring books and crayons, but no plastic dishes with which to set up house. I hadn’t wanted plastic dishes, so I didn’t miss them at all.

            My dad and brother were into trains, so I bet there was track and at least one train car or engine. My dad was trying to turn my brother into the skilled athlete that he was, so there might have been a new glove or baseball. I would have loved my own glove! Girls didn’t play ball back then, so there’s no way a glove would have been under the tree for me.

            We did play board games. Because we were often trapped at home during snowy Ohio days, my brother and I spent hours playing games. I love getting new games. Each presented a new challenge, a new experience. Until my brother dominated my pieces. He won every time.

            By this time it would have been late afternoon, early evening. At some point I probably sank into one of the two chairs in the living room, crossed my arms over my chest and let the tears fall.

            Crying for me was normal. I cried every day, sometimes all day long. I cried when my brother hurt me, beat me at a game, hit me with a ball, stole my share of the Army men. I sobbed when I was punished for being me, for not knowing my colors, my alphabet, money and time. I was a miserable child: not the kind of girl that people want to cherish, to hold, to nurture.

            At some point my dad entered the room carrying a large, colorfully wrapped box. I knew that it wasn’t for me. There was no way I’d get something that large. No way that a gift for me had been overlooked.

            My brother, on the other hand, would have been given a surprise gift. He would have been the one that my dad would set the box in front of, the one who would get to open a gift while I watched.

            Imagine my shock when the gift landed at my feet! When I stood, the box was nearly as tall as I was. Could it be? Was it possible?

            When told to do so, I gingerly removed ribbon and bow. Ran my fingers along the edge of the paper. As I did so the contents were revealed: it was the doll from the televison.

            She was beautiful. Her golden hair fell to her shoulders. It gleamed in the Christmas tree lights. Her plastic arms were pearly and smooth. She was wearing a blue fitted dress that had eyelet trim along the edge of the sleeves and the bottom of the hem. On her feet were black Maryjane shoes like the ones I wore to church.

            My dad opened the box while I waited, holding my breath. This doll would change my life. There was something about her, something so special that I knew, I understood, that I would never be the same weeping girl. I would be as special as this doll. She would become my best friend, my only friend, as she followed me around the house.

            Once the doll was set free, I yearned to see her walk. But I couldn’t. No batteries came in the box. We had no batteries at home. Because the roads were covered in snow, no batteries could be purchased until the snow melted. All I could do was push her about. You see, on the soles of her shoes were rollers. Tiny black rollers. Four on each shoe.

            In a way, that was somewhat satisfying. I’d never had a doll with rollers. Never had a doll whose eyes opened and closed. Hers did just that. I’d never had a doll that was close to my size. There was so much about her that pleased me, that I didn’t mind, much, that I couldn’t watch her walk.

            Because I couldn’t turn the doll on, my mom insisted that she be returned to her box until batteries could be purchased. I was disappointed, but also relieved. With her in the box, her hair would not be mussed, her dress could not be torn, her legs and arms could not be broken. I also couldn’t sleep with her, but her plastic body was so hard, so dense, that there was no comfort in touching her. The box was hidden in my mom’s closet.

            I don’t remember how many days passed, how many days I had to wait to see the doll walk. But one day, after I’d nearly forgotten that the doll was in safekeeping, my dad returned home from work with batteries.

            After dinner the doll was brought out. I watched, eagerly, as my dad inserted the batteries. I stood over the doll and waited, holding my breath, while my dad flipped the switch.

            A grinding sound began. It sounded like metal on metal as the doll’s right foot slowly, almost imperceptibly moved forward a few inches. The left followed at snail’s pace. Then the right. The left. Ever so slowly she moved, the rollers allowing her to go forward to the horrible grinding sound. Then she died.

            Just like that. She moved a few inches, then died. The batteries only lasted for a few minutes. End of story. The doll was repackaged and returned to the closet.

            Sometime later, when I had definitely forgotten the doll, more batteries appeared. By now I had lost interest. This doll, this longed-for treasure, the one thing that would change my life, was just another huge disappointment in a long list of disappointments.

            I watched the doll move because I was expected to. Once again her feet moved minuscule bits to the grinding sound. Once again the batteries died.

            At this point I was given the option of keeping the doll in my room. I could play with her as long as I was careful not to muss her hair or ruin her clothes. The doll’s thrill had ended on Christmas Day when I saw how little she could do.

            Her eyes did not open or close. Her head did not turn and her arms did not move. She could not sit or bend. She was not cuddly, and since standing or lying down were the only things she could do, I no longer wanted her. She was just a cold, hard, rigid body. An image of me. Or at least what I thought people saw when they looked at me.

            My mom put the doll in her box and took her somewhere. I didn’t care. Never asked about her. Never missed her.

            When I got older I realized that the doll represented my status in the family. Like the doll, I was a disappointment. My mom had wanted a girly-girl but I was a tomboy. I hated dresses and stiff shoes. I loved being outdoors, playing on the swing, imagining great adventures as I flew back and forth.

             I never became the girl she dreamt of. And when I went away to college, like the doll, I was out of sight, out of mind. The doll’s disappearance hinted at what was to become of me.

            I thought I had gotten over the doll, but obviously not. I came to accept that the things we yearn for do not always turn out to be what we really want. Desire is just an elusive feeling that is easily subdued, easily conquered.  

            As we grow older we put away childhood toys and games. We outgrow clothes, change our hair styles, pierce our ears. We fill our hearts and minds with other, more immediate joys. We pretend that we’ve pushed aside those things that let us down, but they lie buried, deep, deep inside.

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.

Summer of 1964

Exactly one month after the end of my freshman year in high school, we moved.  Not just across town, but halfway across the country, from the damp climate of the Ohio Valley to the foggy San Francisco Bay Area of California.

There is some back history to the move.  During World War II my dad was stationed in San Diego, and then in San Francisco, before being shipped out to sea.  He fell in love with the mild temperatures and friendly people. He promised himself that when the war was over, he’d move to San Francisco. He never forgot his dream of someday living in such a pleasant place even though work, marriage and family delayed the move.

My family was not quite destitute, but certainly was considered low income.  We were never truly homeless, but often in between housing.  My mother did not work when we were young and this placed a major financial burden on my dad.  He sometimes worked a forty-hour week at one job and then picked up extra hours driving a cab or helping on construction projects.

 In 1963 my mother developed chronic asthma brought on by the mildew that grew in the crawlspace beneath our house.  While she was never hospitalized, there were several close calls.  After one severe attack the doctor declared that we had to move if we wanted her to live.

That was when we began planning for the trip to California.  This was well before the Internet so we made many trips to the library to gather information.  My brother and I took on the role of California experts.  We analyzed climate options, for there is a wide range, and decided that the Bay Area would be the best match for our mother’s needs.

One discovery that tingled our toes was the Community College system.  At that time the tuition was miniscule and therefore affordable even to us.  For the first time I had hope that I could become something other than someone’s wife.

As the time to move neared we sold things too bulky to take with us, gave away even more, and packed the bare essentials into our boat-like station wagon.

One morning we loaded everything into the car and literally drove away with the sun at our backs.  The car was jammed full with a family of five, the pet dog, clothing, bedding, and travel games sufficient to keep my brother and I occupied.

The early parts of our journey were boring.  We drove past one cornfield after another as we crossed Indiana and Illinois.  Colorado was much more promising with its spectacular vistas and unfamiliar trees.

All had gone reasonably well until that point. The car had performed marvelously, we’d been able to find affordable lodging and there was food to eat. Things changed when we were high in the Rocky Mountains.

Rain clouds darkened the sky.  Huge, boiling, black masses of clouds that drastically dropped temperatures and brought ripping winds that nearly blew us off the road.   Amazement at the high craggy peaks quickly turned to fear.  While we knew tornados, we were ignorant in the ways of mountain storms.

My dad persisted, however, for we had limited money for luxuries such as an extra night in a hotel or additional meals on the road.  Unfortunately, it was his persistence or stubbornness that nearly doomed our journey.

An awareness arose that mud was washing across the road.  Not just an oozing of dirt, but bubbling masses of dark brown, saturated mud that quickly covered the road, obliterating edges and lines.  My dad, the determined explorer, kept us pointing westward.  No mud was going to delay us.

We slogged on, albeit slowly, mile after mile until an avalanche blocked our path.  Rain was pounding so hard on the windshield that the wipers could not move the water fast enough for clear vision.  My Dad leaned forward, bent over the steering wheel straining to see ahead, following taillights of a vehicle in front of us. No matter how much mud was on the road, my dad kept us moving westward until traffic came to a complete halt.

My dad has never been a patient man.  He always had a hard time sitting still.  He was happiest working with his hands, building, scraping loosening, greasing, keeping busy, keeping moving. Imagine him in his thirties, which was how old he was at the time of our move.  He was brass, bold, daring, critical, mouthy, and arrogant.  While his business was an admirable quality, my dad was not a pleasant man unless things were going his way.

Dad being who he was, was flustered by the avalanche.  We could not move forward and there was no way he would turn around. Retreating would add precious travel time and expenses.  After sitting motionless for what felt like at eternity, he got out of the car, to do what, I was not sure.

He stalked over to a group of men standing under a nearby tree.  I assumed that these guys were drivers of other trapped cars, talking about what to do.  Through the rain-created haze, we watched our dad approach the men. His posture and stride were aggressive, typical of the man I knew. When he stood face-to-face with the men, we could see, but not hear, his lips move. His gestures were angry and accusatory, very familiar to me as I was often a victim of his ire.

Eventually my dad returned, not with a solution, but with extreme anger. Using a bevy of foul swear words he explained that the wall of mud completely covered the road.  No one could get through from either direction.  We were stuck just like all the other drivers. My dad despised helplessness in others, so imagine his anger at being the one who could do nothing to change our circumstances. He tortured the steering wheel, my mother and myself and my siblings since there was no one else that he could attack.

I have no idea how much time passed while we huddled inside our car, but my older self believes that it was possibly no more than an hour.  My brother and I knew to keep silent but our sister played with her dolls, singing and talking and laughing. I feared that she would bring Dad’s anger down on me, for it was my responsibility to watch over her. Obviously, I wasn’t doing my job.

 My mother, ever the nag, didn’t help when she began calling my dad a series of disgusting names.  The tension was horrendous as I knew that Dad would explode and that someone would get hurt.

Just as his arm swung out to smack my mom a loud roar erupted not too far from us.  Through our foggy windows, we watched mesmerized as a large truck moved out of line.  It crossed over into the opposite lane which was empty, thanks to the slide.  When the truck was parallel to our car it suddenly stopped.

All of a sudden there was another roar and then the truck shot forward.  It went up and over the mound of mud with the grace of a gazelle leaping a small hill.

That did it.  My dad’s male ego was seriously threatened.  If that truck could climb the hill of muck, then our station wagon could do the same. 

  If I had known what I do now about weight and trajectory and propulsion, I would have calculated that we could never make it over the mud hill.  Even if I had known all those things, it would not have deterred my dad’s intention to match the truck driver’s bravado.

Following the truck’s example, my dad pulled us out of the line of cars.  He positioned us into the still empty lane.  He wiggled us back and forth until we were aligned with the hill of mud.  He put the car into forward gear, jammed the gas pedal, and when he was sufficiently satisfied with the sound of the engine, took his foot off the brake.

We shot forward.  The force of the movement plastered us to the back of our seats, much like being on an accelerating roller coaster.

The car approached the wall of mud which was now clearly visible despite the continuing downpour.  My eyes must have grown huge when I saw that it was taller than our car.  In fact, it was so tall that I could not see over it and so wide that Icould not see around it.

Determined to succeed, my dad kept the gas pedal glued to the floor.  Our front tires touched the mud noticeably raising the front of the car.  My view changed from mud to blackened sky in a matter of seconds.

All of us, including my dad, whooped and hollered.  We raised our hands in the air and envisioned us cresting the hill and the victorious descent to the other side.

That didn’t happen, however, because instead of climbing the hill, we came to an abrupt halt, heads still pointing skyward, our bodies still melded into the seats.  Nothing worked to move us forward, not my dad’s cussing nor his attempts at accelerating us up and over.

Exhilaration rapidly turned to fear when there was a slight shift in our position.  We weren’t moving upward. We were sinking into the muck.

My view of sky became a view of mud. I realized that we were now even with the crest of the hill. That was not the end. Instead, our car continued to sink, more and more, until we stopped with nothing but mud in front, behind and on both sides.

My dad pounded the steering well as he swore like the sailor he had been. Eventually he turned off the engine and pushed opened the door.  Mud oozed in, covering the floor of the front of the car.  To prevent that from happening, my dad stepped out into the mud and pushed the door closed. 

He moved away by lifting his feet uncomfortably high. As he did so, mud coated his legs to slightly above his knees.

My dad slogged his way back to the men under the tree.  It must have been humiliating for him to admit defeat, but he had no choice.  His family was trapped in a car surrounded by mud.

We sat for what felt like an eternity, but was probably no more than twenty minutes.  During this time, the rain slackened.  No longer a deluge, it fell softly on the windshield, making only tiny dots. I anxiously awaited my dad’s return, not knowing what his mood would be and who he would blame for our predicament. It could be me even though I had kept quiet the whole time, but that was the way in our family: someone had to pay.

When our dad finally returned, he wasn’t smiling, but the angry look was gone. He reported that the wall of mud had stopped growing and sliding.  Because he could now see over the top, my dad had seen a tow truck that was already working on the other side.  It appeared that it was going to plow a passage through the mud and all we had to do was sit and wait.

I still remember the excitement when the flashing lights atop the tow truck became visible. Their whoosh-whoosh lit up the sky as gloriously as fireworks on the Fourth of July.  My heart pounded with barely contained excitement.

Imagine my reaction when the mud began moving.  It was hard to tell the difference first because the change was so slow, but as the revolving lights seemed to move closer, the texture of the mud hill changed well.  It bulged.  It bubbled.  It slid.  It separated like Moses dividing the Red Sea.

The plow appeared first, popping up out of the muck like a chick from an egg.  Then came the grill and in quick succession, the hood, the windshield, and eventually the rest of the truck.

The tow truck had managed to clear a good portion of the road. It didn’t stop there, but instead turned around, prepared to plow through from our side. Before it took off, my dad got out of our car and began yelling at the driver of the truck.  When the driver got out, I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. If my dad started a fight, we’d be stuck. If somehow, he could present himself as a clam, reasonable man, then maybe the driver would help.

When the two of them walked around our car as best as they could while slugging through the mud, I breathed a sigh of relief. My dad must have been calm or the driver would not be walking with my dad.

When the inspection seemed to be finished, my dad got back in the car. He told us to put a halter on the dog and get out.  All of us. In the mud! 

A normal person might have been horrified, but not me. I was excited!  To have permission to get filthy dirty was a glorious thing, even though I was a teenager. 

Stepping out into the mud was better than a birthday gift or the discovery of a dime from the Tooth Fairy or even the baskets of candy from the Easter Bunny.  If I had known about the Richter scale, I would have placed this at monstrous earthquake strength.

I didn’t step gingerly or make disgusting girlish faces.  My sister did both, but not me.  I smiled. No, I beamed brighter than the sun, which was now peeking through the clouds.

I planted a foot in the muck and then another, and another, and another, walking proudly, even as it clung to my shoes and ankles and legs.  My heart soared with joy.  A balloon never flew as high as I did that day!

Once we were safely away from the car, the tow truck maneuvered into position in front of us by pushing the mud this way and that.  Once it was lined up with the front of our car, it lowered its contraption until it fit under the front end of our car.  The driver employed a series of straps and chains, and then engaged a motor. Slowly, the car arose, like King Neptune rising out of the sea. What a glorious site that was!

Once the car was in the air the truck did what is was supposed to do: it pulled us through the muck to the other side.

There was no fanfare from the watching crowds.  Instead, for the first time, I realized that the other drivers were jeering and pointing and slapping backs.  When I looked at my dad’s face, I saw humiliation.  Arrogance no longer sat on his shoulders, replaced by a profound embarrassment.

I learned a few things from watching my dad.  Bravado has its place and time.  Self-assurance is a good thing, only when tempered by a voice of reason.  Safety of family must always be first.  Competition is healthy, when appropriate.  Keeping an eye to the prize only works when flexibility is allowed to overrule potentially stupid actions.

More than anything, I knew that I would never forget that day in the summer of 1964.  And I haven’t.

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.

The “I Do” Moment

Forty-six years ago when Mike and I were planning our wedding, one of the first things we had to do was meet with our pastor. Because we weren’t active parishioners at the time, the man didn’t know us at all. He did, however, know his job.

After the preliminary questioning was complete, he handed us a brochure with the traditional Catholic vows inside. We could choose one of them, or, if so inclined, could write our own.

At that time I had neither the time nor the inclination to write my own. Because Mike was shy and unsure of his ability to craft something original, we made what we thought was the right decision: we chose a traditional vow.

As our day neared we discussed many things. We knew we wanted to buy a house, have children and travel. The fine details of wedding planning fell entirely on my shoulders.

I visited the tuxedo rental shop. I loved the blue one as it would to go with Mike’s deep blue eyes. However, the size-ranges available wouldn’t cover his groomsmen, so I chose white with black trim. The shirt was a deep yellow with ruffles, something Mike would never have worn in a hundred years.

My mom was going to make my wedding dress as the ones I had seen were too expensive. She chose a simple pattern then embellished it with tiny fake-pearls.

I had no idea what bridesmaid’s wore, but I knew they would have to be homemade as there was no money to buy premade ones. At the fabric store my mom and I sorted through rolls of fabric. The only one that looked like a gown was a Kelly green with large white dots. There was enough of it and the price was good. My poor bridesmaids had to wear ugly gowns with cheap white hats!

As the date neared Mike and I settled on our vows. I thought I heard him say the second one, so that’s what I memorized.

Meanwhile he kept me on edge by telling me that it didn’t matter what he said or did because all eyes would be on me!

By the time the day arrived and we were alone at the front of the church, stars filled my eyes and I had difficulty breathing. All I could think of was all those eyes, those eyes of our family and friends, staring at me.

When the time came in the Mass for us to exchange vows, I was prepared. I had the words down. There was no way I was going to mess this up.

Mike went first. He held my hands in his, looked into my eyes with a confidant and reassuring gaze and said, “I, Michael Connelly, take you, Teresa Haack, for my lawful wife, to have and to hold from this day forward…”

But, wait! Those weren’t the words! That was the first vow, not the second. I panic. Do I listen with a sick smile plastered on my face and recite the words I’d memorized or try to repeat what he was saying?

“for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer,” he continued.

I’m collecting his words, trying to plant them in my brain.

“in sickness and health, until death do us part.” He smiled such a warm, loving smile that I braved repeating his words.

“I, Teresa Haack, take you to be my husband.”

I pause trying to recall what came next. “to have and”, I can’t remember! What do I do?

He smiles and squeezes my hands. I continue saying the words I’d learned: “I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. I will love and honor you all the days of my life.”

It was done. With the final blessing we were married. We headed down the aisle with grins and exuberance.

Later on as we were driving away I asked Mike what had happened. He thought we had chosen the first version!

Well, in the end it didn’t matter. Our marriage has been a success. We love each other as much now as we did back then.

If I had to do it all over, though, we’d practice before each other to make sure our words matched.

An “I do” moment that almost failed, didn’t.

 

Born to Shine

Imagine how different the world would be if every child, no matter how rich or poor, heard those words on a regular basis. Think about how special they would feel after their guardian tucked them in at night and spoke those words.

There might be no bullies because, if you feel worthy, you have no need to belittle others. No one would be afraid of trying new things, of being rejected, of being pushed aside.

What a beautiful place the world would be!

As a child I never felt special in any positive way. What if my mom had told me that I was born to shine? Would I have been a different child? Would my attitude toward school have been different? My grades better? When meeting people, would I have been more outgoing because that confidence sat on my shoulders?

I know that I never said those words to my children. I wish I had. I did, however, sign them up for classes and swim lessons and sports hoping that they would discover something that they could enjoy for the rest of their lives. I helped with schoolwork and met with some of their teachers. I volunteered at their schools, as a team mom in little league, as a scorekeeper in baseball and as a soccer coach and referee. I did these things because I wanted to share those experiences with them, but also because I enjoyed it.

Born to Shine. Powerful words. My children grew up to be wonderful adults. They all contribute to society in different ways, yes, but they are helping future generations shine.

If I could go back in time, instead of reading books aloud as I cradled my kids, I would tell them that they were born to shine. As I watched them struggle in sports or academics, I’d say those words and then watch the effect they had.

Even though I don’t recall a single word of praise or encouragement, I told myself that I was born to shine. Perhaps not in those exact words, but the message was the same. Often I thought I was lying to myself, but I persevered nonetheless. When I was feeling inferior to my siblings, I’d think of the things that I could do better than them.

For example, I was the better athlete at a time when girls played few sports. I picked up languages quite quickly and enjoyed learning about different places and cultures. I was an excellent math student, so good that I got a full-ride scholarship.

But I also struggled with self-esteem and self-confidence. What if my dad had told me I was born to shine? Those words would have meant more to me than a bucket of gold. I would have known that he saw something valuable in me. My self-esteem would have risen. I wold have liked myself better.

Born to shine. I wish that every parent would say those words to their kids, no matter how old. Over and over, look them in the eye and say born to shine. Pat them on the back, give them a hug, turn it into a song. Say the words weekly, daily, hour by hour.

Slowly, ever so slowly the world would change.

Born to shine. Power.

The Lonely Kid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women Who Serve Their Country

A lot of emphasis has been placed on the #MeToo movement which brings awareness to the sexual harassment that women face in the workplace and beyond. It is a powerful movement becomes it brings to the forefront voices and concerns that previously went unheard.

Before this, women’s voices were heard through the suffragettes and then much later, by members of the women’s liberation movement which most people think began with the outspoken voices of individuals like Gloria Steinman.

During WWII women heard the call and responded. With so many working-age men serving in the military, necessary jobs were understaffed. In 1943 a Norman Rockwell painted a poster that was to entice to women to leave homes and do something to help the United States win the war. While Rockwell’s painting might have been the first, it was J. Howard Miller’s depiction of Rosie Riveter, wearing a red bandana and flexing her biceps accompanied by the words We Can do It! that inspired women to take on traditionally male jobs such as welding, riveting and construction.

The movement was not embraced wholeheartedly. A wave of women entered these fields in unprecedented numbers. According to history.com, more than 310,000 women worked in the aircraft industry and a comparable amount worked in the munitions industry. Many men refused to work side-by-side women until ordered to do so.

A sterling example of the impact of these Rosies is in Richmond, California, at the site of Kaiser Shipyards to honor the Rosies who helped to produce 747 ships, more than any other shipyard in the United States. The shipyards worked twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Over 90,000 employees struggled to assemble the ships, which were created in sections that were then lowered into place.

Women came from all over the United States to learn welding, riveting and various construction skills in order to build ships that were needed for the war effort. The call for help was so successful that the city of Richmond grew from a population of 24,000 to over 100,000 in just a few years.

Kaiser was a brilliant entrepreneur. He employed his own drafts people, many of them women, to replicate the mandatory designs for Liberty and Victory ships that moved soldiers and materials all over the world. In fact, large equipment such as jeeps were disassembled into segments and then crated. Once at the site, the equipment was rebuilt. In this way the holds could be crammed with materials.

He understood that these women were doing the same jobs as men, with the same level of training and under the same working conditions. Because of this, Kaiser paid the women the same wage. He also realized that many of the women had school-age children that needed a safe place to stay while their mothers worked. To alleviate the problem, Kaiser offered Child Care Centers at their industrial sites that were run by highly skilled teachers. The kids received an excellent education in safe environments. This was a novel idea at the time, and still would be considered such today.

Another benefit was health care.  Kaiser understood that more Americans were dying in Home Front accidents than on the battlefields. He knew that only healthy workers could meet his grueling demands and construction needs.

When workers got hurt on the job, because the nearest clinic couldn’t handle the explosion in population needing services, many hours of valuable time were lost. So Kaiser built a field hospital at the shipyard in 1942 that encouraged prepaid medical care at fifty cents a week. Two years later more than 92% of Kaiser employees were enrolled in the plan, which was the first of its kind in the nation. It featured group medical practitioners, prepayment and substantial facilities at a moderate rate.

Another problem was housing. Workers arrived to find no suitable place to live. Many slept in the all-night movie theaters and a huge number shared beds with at least one other worker. Because there were three shifts to work, someone could be in the bed during the morning shift, someone in the afternoon, and a third at night. Today we would find this unacceptable.

Rosies are slowly dying, and so there was a push to be recognized at the federal level. One Rosie began a letter-writing campaign. Every year, beginning with President Clinton, she wrote a letter asking for the government to do something to commemorate the service these women gave to the country.

After twelve years of writing, a letter finally arrived in Joe Biden’s mailbox. He arranged for Rosies to come to the White House for a special day. They were given a private tour, received hugs from Biden, and were astonished when President Obama spoke to them.

On a recent tour of the Richmond Park, we met four of the Rosies, who all shared their stories. They spoke of the call to serve, the desire to do something for their country. None of them had been employed before, so striking out on this journey was quite an adventure. Two of them became welders after overcoming the prejudice of the union that would not allow women to join. Without a union card, they could not work. Kaiser intervened and the rules changed.

The welders learned to set down seams vertically, horizontally and overhead. They said that overhead was the most challenging. To get to the place where the welding was needed, they crawled through eighteen inch square holes dragging their equipment along. It was dark and hot, but they persevered.

Another Rosie worked drafting blueprints. She enjoyed the work because she knew that if she missed an error in the design, the ship might not be sea-worthy.

Because there are so few Rosies left, we felt blessed to be with them and to hear their stories.

Image6If you get a chance to visit a memorial, stop by. It’s an amazing story.