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.

 

 

A Precious Cat

Today a friend shared an interesting story.

Out for a walk, she spotted an orange cat sleeping on the sidewalk. She had never seen this cat before, but thought it was strange behavior.

What cat sleeps like that?

She approached the cat, speaking softly to it, but it did not react.

My friend continued on her walk, never stopping thinking about the cat.

When she neared her home, the cat had moved. It was now lying in the street. It did not appear to be injured, but my friend believed it was probably ill.

She approached the cat, determined to rescue it. Just as she was about to touch it, it hissed at her.

The only thing she could think to do was knock on doors.

Eventually she found someone who thought the cat might be hers. The woman picked up the cat and put it in a carrier. She took it to the vet where X-rays and blood work was done. The vet found nothing despite the fact that something was obviously wrong. Six hundred dollars poorer, the woman returned home.

Just as the woman opened her front door, her cat appeared! She had taken an unknown cat to the vet.

My friend offered to post a notice on the neighborhood blog. She got the woman‘s contact information, composed the notice, then called the woman back to confirm.

The woman was distraught. The cat had just died!

Imagine the range of emotions that the woman had experienced. Everything from worry, fear and then relief when it was not her pet.

My friend felt quite guilty for involving a total stranger in the story. She would have taken care of the cat herself if she wasn’t afraid of being scratched.

Instead, because of her actions, a neighbor had spent a huge sum on a cat that was not hers, all the while terrified that it was her dear pet.

The moral of the story is not clear. Do you get involved or walk away?

Indian Lake

When we lived in Ohio, summer vacation meant a week at Indian Lake. In the early morning hours, my brother and father snuck out of the cabin, fishing gear in hand. After a stop at the bait shop, they got into a rented boat and took off.

While they were participating in a male-bonding ritual, I stayed behind with my mother and younger sister. Times were different then, so I was allowed to roam the fields around our cabin. I went out early each morning, so as to listen to the songbirds talking about the weather. I picked the tops off thigh-high grass, and with God-like hands, scattered the seeds.

One tree had several low-slung branches that I could easily climb. Granted I only went up a few feet, but I was high enough to feel like a princess in a castle tower. When the winds blew, I imagined a retinue of admirers bowing in unison.

When my dad and brother returned, there was the cleaning of fish and gear. I loved carrying the rods and tackle boxes. Somehow it made me feel part of their exclusive club. Only once did I venture toward the fish-cleaning station. I never returned because the stench was nauseating.

In the afternoons my brother and I played outside. Whiffle ball was a favorite activity, as was badminton.  My dad set up the net behind our cabin, and left it up for the week. We played several games every day, most of which I lost.

After dinner the family got in the rented boat for a ride around the lake. I loved the smell of the fuel, the roar of the motor, and the feeling of flying across the surface of the water. Sometimes we rode past the expensive houses lining the shore, and when we did, I created stories about the families that lived there, always including myself as one of the children.

Other nights we went near to the town. If we were lucky, there was a carnival going on. We never docked the boat and walked among the celebrants, but we did drift with engine silent and listened to the music and the laughter.

On the weekend we drove around the lake and picnicked at the state park on the west side. From our chosen spot we watched boats going by. I loved the water skiers, even though I would never have been brave enough to don a jacket just to be yanked out of the lake.

Those were easy times in which my parents relaxed in each other’s presence. Each day offered some new adventure that became the source of storytelling at the evening meal. Even sitting in the large swing on the porch was a joy. It creaked one note going back and a different one going forward.

Nirvana, it was not. My parents did have occasional spats, and I was terribly jealous of my brother’s one-on-one time with my dad. My sister, seven years younger, did not join in my imaginary games, which didn’t bother me as I preferred a solitary life.

One day my father woke me up early to go with them to the bait shop. He bought me a Nehi orange soda, even though it was morning. Holding my hand, he took me across the road over to the dock. As he primed the motor, I handed the gear to my brother, all the while hoping that my dad would invite me to go along.

It was not to be. He put the motor into gear and off they went. My shoulders slumped and tears welled in my eyes. The further away they went, the more I cried.

When I realized that my dad would not change his mind, I turned around. Without looking, my right foot reached for the step that should have been there. Nothing but air greeted me, and so I toppled, comic-book fashion, into the water.

Down I went, into the shocking coolness. The air was stolen from my lungs, to be replaced by the fishy tasting water. I flailed my arms and kicked my feet to no avail, as I had never been interested in learning to swim.

It seemed as if a large fish pulled me down, down, to what felt like the bottom of the lake. No amount of struggle released its grip.

Just as I thought I was lost forever, I flew from the water. Blessed air greeted me with the song of life. My father’s arms pulled me to his chest, where he held me in a tight embrace.

He drove the boat next to the dock and grabbed it with one hand. “Get out,” he said.

I did.

“Go to the cabin and stay inside. Tell your mother what you did.”

As I took the first step, my father revved the motor. I didn’t need to turn around to know what was happening. My father, my hero, left.

For that one all-too-brief moment I felt a father’s love. How sad to think that an eight year old had never experienced that love before and never felt it after.

Indian Lake remained my favorite vacation spot for many years. Too bad that we moved to California and those wonderful, lazy days ended.

 

Not Just a Story

My mom seldom talked about her past, but when she did, her stories were riveting.

She was born a child of poverty, the second oldest amongst a passel of children. Her mother, my grandmother, grew different kinds of herbs, vegetables and flowers. Grandma was a quiet woman who wore soft, well-washed cotton dresses up until the day she died.

The only house they lived in, that I knew about, was primitive. There was a wood-burning stove for cooking and a pump for water. A tin cup hung by the pump for anyone who was thirsty. Heat was a coal pot-belly stove in the main room. It terrified me.

One time an uncle opened the door, picked me up and threatened to throw me in. I screamed and cried until he put me down. Then I scuttled as far away as I could in the tiny house.

My grandmother made her own lace and sewed by hand even though she had a pedal-operated machine. She made beautiful quilts which she pulled out whenever we got cold.

When my brother smashed my plastic doll to pieces, she made it a body, slip, underpants and a dress. I cried when she gave it to me. Even though I was quite young, I understood how wonderful my grandmother’s work was. I still have that doll today.

My grandfather was a tenant farmer who moved his family around to wherever he found work. They most often lived in southern Ohio, near a town called Gallipolis. Sometimes they crossed over the Ohio River into Virginia. At no time were they comfortable financially. In fact, they would have been considered dirt-poor farmers, except that they never owned any land.

My grandfather knew how to hitch a mule to a wagon and how to grow crops, mostly corn. He was a quiet, thoughtful man. He seldom spoke in my presence after I reached school age. My grandfather was embarrassed that he didn’t know how to read or write, and once I learned, then he had nothing to say.

I never understood why my grandparents weren’t more loving, why they didn’t offer hugs and kisses. My mother wasn’t big on hugging either, so I thought it was just the way things were.

While my grandfather couldn’t read, he understood weights and measures and the value of money. Every day he would walk down the road to the store and buy whatever they needed. He watched as things were measured and packaged to make sure he was not cheated. When things started being canned and bottled, he was dismayed. One time he made the store owner open the can of coffee and weigh the contents. Only then would he purchase it.

My mom did go to school. She was not the best student, but she enjoyed her time in the one-room schools that she attended. Often she had to walk through deep snow wearing only a thin coat, cotton dress and old leather shoes. In the spring and fall, she walked barefoot, her shoes tied and dangling over her shoulder. It was important to take care of those shoes, for without them she could not go to school.

When she completed eighth grade, her parents did not have the money to send her away for high school, so my mom repeated that grade two times even though it was hard.

At the age of fifteen she moved into the city to live with a sister. She got a job at Woolworth’s, a five-and-dime store, and worked there for many years.

When World War II started, my mom enlisted in the Army. At a post in Florida, her main job was to carry buckets of water to palm trees. She knew it was a stupid job, but she did it until something better came along.

When an opportunity arose to be a phone operator, which meant connecting calls using cords that plugged from one hole into another, my mother gladly took the position. She must have been good at it, for that remained her job until her enlistment was over. In civilian life she worked as a phone operator for a hospital and then for the federal government.

One night, as the war continued across the pacific, mom awoke to a feeling that something was crawling up her leg. In panic, she bent her leg at the hip, a poor choice, because she pinched a black widow spider. Of course, it bit her. She fell violently ill and, according to her, nearly died. Once she recovered, she was sent home in her uniform, which she wore proudly.

My mom moved back in with her sister. There was a USO in town that frequently held dances for the servicemen, even after the war ended. It was at one such dance where she met a handsome man. They danced and talked and then she brought him home to meet her sister. The man was hungry, so he went to the pantry and took out the last can of food and ate it all by himself. The sister was angry at the man’s arrogance. My mom was intrigued.

They married within months, but continued to live with the sister until they found a place of their own. Within eight months my brother was born. Interestingly enough, my mother claimed that the pregnancy was full term, that he was not born prematurely, and that she was not pregnant when they married. When I got older I understood what the early birth meant, but my mom never changed her story.

A year and a half later I came along. My earliest memories are of a home in what my mother called the projects. It was a small house with only two bedrooms, but a huge porch that stretched across the front. My mom did have a job outside of the home, but being a housewife then was hard work. We were lucky enough to have a washing machine, but it was the old-fashioned type with a wringer that terrified me. I hated watching my mom feed clothes into the wringers, fearing that her fingers would get caught and fall off.

By the time I was old enough to go to school, we had moved to a larger house in the suburbs of Dayton. There was a large backyard, big enough for a swing set, a dog house and a garden. It was here that my mom learned how to drive. She had to, if she wanted me to go to Kindergarten.

My mom decided that I was a slow learner, a backward child, who wouldn’t succeed in school without help. This was a difficult decision, as kindergarten was not free back then, and so it placed a financial hardship on the family. But my mom thought it was important, and so she drove me to school every day, even when the roads were deep with snow.

When I started first grade, my mom returned to work as a telephone operator. She left for work about the same time that my brother and I headed off for school, and didn’t come home until after my dad. She fixed dinner, did the dishes, made sure we were clean and tidy and took care of the house. That’s what women did then, all the housework with no help from the men. My mom was not the best cook, but there was always food on the table.

When I was seven my sister was born. It was a rough time. We were told that my mom had had a nervous breakdown and that we had to keep quiet so as to not upset her. Thank goodness it was summer, so my brother and I spent hours outside. We were not allowed in the house from morning until evening for fear of disturbing Mom’s sleep. I saw very little of both my mother and my sister during that time.

My dad took over the cooking. He burnt most things and undercooked others, but expected us to eat everything he served.

We moved when I finished fourth grade, this time to a house in Beavercreek, Ohio. It was a rural area, far from the city. Nevertheless, my mom drove us into town so to attend the Catholic elementary school. She also took us to the library, all the time driving an old, flat-black business coup that had no backseat and no heat. We sat on piled of blankets and in the winter we wrapped up in the blankets and laid on the floor to try to keep warm.

One time, just as we pulled into the library parking lot, flames shot out from the hood. My mom knew what to do. She sent my brother and I inside to search for books. My mom sat in the car, letting it cool down. When it was time to leave, she got under the hood, tweaked a few things, then started the engine. It worked! She drove us all the way home, probably smiling with pride.

That house used a septic tank for waste disposal which sometimes developed problems. After watching my dad dig into the dirt to reveal the lid, remove it, and dump treatment into it, my mom knew what to do. The next time it backed up, she took a shovel and went to work. I don’t know how she lifted the heavy lid by herself, but she did.

For years afterward she bragged about digging up the septic tank. It was something to be proud of, for it showed her determination and independent spirit.

During my freshman year of high school, my mom’s health went downhill. I didn’t understand what was happening, just that sometimes she seemed unable to breathe. Her doctor said that we had to move, that she had asthma that was triggered by the humidity, and so my dad sold everything and drove us to California.

It was quite an adventure. My favorite part was seeing Pike’s Peak in Colorado and the Native Americans on the reservation in the desert. My least favorite was the field after field of corn and the heat of Arizona.

Somewhere in the desert we developed car trouble. We stopped at a little service station for help, but my dad did not trust the mechanic, so he wouldn’t let the man fix our car. It was blisteringly hot and we had nothing to drink. We also had no money to buy water, so we sat in the car, getting thirstier by the minute. The store owner came out more than once, offering water, but my mom would not take it. She did not want to feel obliged.

Considering her humble beginnings, my mom did quite well in the working world. Once we settled in a rented house in South San Francisco, California, she got a job at a little five and dime store and within a few years became the weekend manager. She kept track of register receipts, placed orders, and conducted inventory. When the store closed due to competition, my mom quickly found a job at a pharmacy, but it was a longer drive from home. She had to go by freeway, and that terrified her, especially in the fog and rain.

Her next job was with the federal government as a phone operator. Once again, she rose through the ranks and became a trainer. This was about the time that equal employment forced agencies to hire minorities and the disabled. Her office hired a blind man.

At this time, calls were still connected by moving cords from one lighted hole to the next. How was a blind man going to see the lights? My mom thought about this for a long time and played around with various creations. Eventually she designed a tool that allowed him to do the job. She received not just a certificate honoring her invention, but a little bonus. She was so proud. In fact, that was probably her proudest moment.

My mom’s story was probably not that unusual. She was unskilled with limited education, but with great determination. She was hard-working and willing to do any job. She was independent and proud of it, even though she continued to be a regular housewife at home.

After phone operators were no longer needed, my mom got a job washing pots and pans at the local school district. It was not full time work, so she also worked at a community college doing the same thing. Leaning over a deep sink, day in, day out, scrubbing out remnants of food was hard on her back. Her hands turned bright red and the skin peeled off, even though she wore thick gloves. Soap got into her eyes, causing burning and intense pain. Even so, she kept at it until physically she was unable to perform the job. By this time she was well past retirement age.

My mom did have one last part time job that she got after her seventieth birthday. She discovered that she could get paid for delivering phone books. She and my dad got up early in the morning, loaded up his truck with books, then spent the day putting them on porches and doorsteps. It was an exhausting, poorly-paid job, but she did it with pride and determination.

Once my mom was no longer able to work, she collapsed physically and emotionally. Dementia set in, robbing her of her memory and her will to fight. She died in her sleep, a fitting ending to a life lived in extremes.