Hoodwinked

            Neither my husband nor myself can sleep on planes, even on very long flights. When we arrived in Santiago recently, we weren’t thinking clearly. We’d prepaid a ride from the airport to our hotel, so all we were doing was getting luggage, then get out to where the ride would be. We failed to stop at a currency exchange, which turned out to be a huge mistake.

            As we walked past the line a drivers holding cards, we didn’t see one with our name. A nicely dressed man stood at the end, offering help. We both thought he looked somewhat official, so we handed him our confirmation paper. He claimed to have seen the driver, then went outside. Came back, reported that there was no driver. Then he called the number, we think. He spoke to someone, handed my husband the phone, who then was told that the driver had broken down on the freeway and we’d have to find alternate transportation.

            Of course, the nicely dressed man could do that! We’re stuck, right? So we agreed. He called someone. Next thing we’re being ushered out to the parking garage where the ride awaited.

            The car was an immaculate SUV with leather upholstery. The driver spoke no English, so the nicely dressed man rode with us.

            You’d think that by now we’d be a bit suspicious. Well, we were, but we needed to get to our hotel.

            Anyway, we took off down the highway. We have no idea if these guys are taking us to the hotel or out to a deserted place to kill us, but we’re stuck, zooming down the freeway.

            After about thirty minutes, the guy tells us they’re going to pull off the freeway to an ATM they know.

            It was a decrepit gas station in the middle of an extremely poor area. Homeless people were standing around. It didn’t feel safe.

            The driver got out a card-reading device and swiped one of our credit cards. It was declined. He swiped it several times, declined over and over. We don’t know why, but we’re both getting worried. Would these guys dump us here? Throw out our luggage and leave us stranded?

            Mike handed the guy his debit card. It was declined. Repeatedly. Then I made a huge mistake: I gave Mike my credit card!

            Fortunately I stayed in the car as the men took Mike to the ATM. All our cards were tried there as well, and all declined.

            The men conferred, decided to drive into Santiago to a major bank. At least it was in a good neighborhood! Again, all our cards failed.

            The me decided they’d take $40 US dollars. They dropped us off in the street in front of our hotel, not at the door, which was a bit of a walk.

            At least we got there safely!

            The hotel wanted a card as a deposit in case we drank the expensive water in the fridge. Our cards were all declined, as before. I tried calling the bank, but all I got was a prerecorded message in Spanish, which I couldn’t understand.

            The hotel clerk also called, got the same message, which was that our cards were declined.

            We needed money to get to the port the next day. Only Chilean pesos would do. Mike did have some cash, which we could exchange.

            After allowing us to check in, we walked several blocks to a shopping center that had an exchange. We got there, no problems, but no one that I approached at the mall spoke English! We kept wandering, from one floor to another, eventually stumbling into the exchange!

            No one there spoke English! Fortunately a nice customer offered to translate, so we ended up with enough pesos to pay for transport and to buy a little something to eat.

            McDonald’s was expensive! So all we got was four thumb-nail sized nuggets for me and a small cheeseburger for Mike.

            Back at the hotel, we arranged transport, but we had no money for dinner and no working credit card. I called our son Tim who is fluent in Spanish.

            He put together a three-way call to our bank. Our cards had been frozen due to suspicious activity. That was the good news.

            The bank gave us twenty minutes to get to an ATM and withdraw pesos. Tim somehow found an ATM around the corner from our hotel! The bank also agreed to keep my card active until we got home.

            What a relief! We had enough pesos to buy a little dinner and to get me a sweatshirt in Punto Arenas. We had credit to purchase excursions to see the penguins in the Falklands and to go to a ranch in Buenas Aires, which would also take us to the airport.

            After that experience, we now know to get money before leaving the airport. We know not to trust a nicely-dressed man at the end of the line, but to look for an actual taxi.

And we also know that our bank caught the attempts to steal our money!

We were hoodwinked, yes, but we survived to live to share our story.

Grandma’s House

            My Grandmother Williams lived in southeastern Ohio near the town of Gallipolis. She grew up poor, with her parents and later her husband working as poor tenant farmers. She was uneducated in terms of schooling, but knew a lot about cooking and working on the land. She and my grandfather together raised seven children, only one of which attended high school. Most of the others made it through eighth grade, which was a one-room schoolhouse at the time.

My grandfather borrowed a mule and wagon from a local farmer. Every morning he hitched them together and rode out along dirt roads to a hunk of land that he leased. There he grew corn and beans, staples of the family’s diet all year long. As they became more prosperous, my grandparents bought a house on a hill overlooking the Ohio River. That is the home that I knew, the place where we would come annually for a visit.

It was not a fancy house. Out back was a pit toilet that I despised. Not only did it smell atrocious, but it contained numerous spider webs dangling from the roof and swarms of flies buzzing around the “seat”. Heat was from a coal-burning stove that took up a sizable chunk of the front room. The roaring flames terrified me. When the door was opened to shovel in more fuel, I thought for sure that I was looking into the depths of hell.

My grandmother cooked on a wood-burning stove. How she created such marvelous meals with such primitive tools, I never knew. Even as a child I recognized that her task was not an easy one. On top of that, she set aside fruits and vegetables grown in her garden for consumption later on in the year. This was the time of year that we came for a visit: so that my mother could help with the grueling task of canning all that my grandparents had harvested. I did not have to help except for the shucking of corn and the snapping of beans, thank goodness, but I was expected to stay in the boiling hot kitchen until the task was complete.

The outcome was shelves full of glistening jars of a variety of tasty treats. No matter when we came to visit, there was always a something special to be opened and food to be shared.

            At home my mother carried on the tradition. Out in the backyard was my mother’s garden. She grew tomatoes, strawberries, corn, green beans and many other vegetables. A neighbor had fruit trees, and so we picked apples, peaches and pears from her yard. It all meant work. Almost every day throughout spring, summer and fall there was something to be canned. As a young child, just as at my grandmother’s, I participated minimally, but when I became a teenager, my mother expected me to stand at her side and work as an equal. I hated it.

            The work was hard. It meant endless hours of standing, peeling, pinching, pulling, plucking. My fingers ached. My feet and back complained. Perspiration streamed down my face and neck. There was endless washing of jars and sorting of lids. Standing over a hot stove, stirring whatever the product was at that time. Eventually it was poured into jars and the lids screwed on.

            The next step was the most challenging. The jars were gently placed into a pot of boiling water. Then we waited for the water to return to a boil and for the sealing to take place. There could be no talking, no music, no noise of any kind. One by one the lids would “pop”, signaling that the seal was complete. If six jars went into the pot, then we waited for six “pops”. Sometimes there were only five or four. Then my mom had to test each jar until she found the ones that refused to seal. Back into the pot they went, this time with new lids. The entire process lasted not just for hours, but for days, until every last piece of fruit was canned. Every day was the same: working, stirring, waiting for water to boil.

            I grew up thinking that this was a woman’s duty, albeit a tedious one. The rewards were obvious. As fall turned into winter and the snows fell turning the world into a crystal palace, all we had to do was walk into the garage and bring in a jar of treasure. Summer would blossom forth once again as sweet strawberry jam covered out toast or tasty green beans filled out plates. My mother’s efforts were welcomed and appreciated.

            When I became a stay-at-home mom, I accepted that the tradition was now mine to embrace. I decided to can so that we would have jams and fruits all year long, just as I had from my childhood. I got out a cookbook and found the directions for canning.  I went through all the preparation steps as carefully as I could. Each piece of fruit was peeled and cut. If I was making jam, then the fruit went into a giant kettle for cooking. I stood over the pot, stirring continuously to keep it from burning. When the pectin thickened the mixture, it was poured into jars. Lids were carefully applied.

            The jars went into the pot of boiling water. And I waited. And waited. Sometimes I would hear a pop, but most times I didn’t. I re-boiled the errant jars. And waited and waited. Some days it felt as if all I was doing was waiting for the water to boil.

            While I did not can as much food as my mother or grandmother, I did put aside applesauce, strawberry jam, pickles, tomatoes, peaches, and apricots. The problem was that I didn’t trust the safety of my work. What if the water wasn’t hot enough? What if I had become distracted by a good book and didn’t hear enough pops?

            All that waiting for water to boil, for what? Uncertain products and the possibility of poisoning my family. Nevertheless, I canned for several seasons in a row. At no point did I feel that my results were as good as those of my grandmother or mother. Nothing reminded me of home and nothing seemed worth the effort.

            Fortunately for me, my husband did not expect me to can. He realized that I was a better mother than a cook. On top of that, it was so much easier to blanch vegetables and then put them in the freezer. It required much less work, was safer all around. And no waiting for water to boil was involved.

A Halloween Memory

            The only part of Halloween that I ever liked was the endless pursuit of free candy. From the time my brother and I were in middle school, we roamed miles from home. We walked on streets whose names I never knew, knocking on the doors of anyone with lights still on. It took us hours, and at times our pillow case sacks were heavy that we had no option but to go home, empty them out, then head out again.

            I hated wearing costumes. Perhaps because I wore glasses, masks blocked my sight. I detested makeup and most of all, despised trying to come up with something to wear that could become a costume. My fallback was that of a hobo as all I had to do to play the part was put on my well-worn overalls.

            When I was thirteen my middle school decided that for Halloween, all students had to dress in costume. I immediately panicked. It was bad enough to traverse my neighborhood under cover of darkness, but now I would have to parade about campus under the horrific glare of fluorescent lights.

            I stewed over this for days.

I was a painfully shy, the girl who never raised her hand to ask or answer questions in class. I slithered down in my desk seat, my nose skimming the top of my desk, believing that if I couldn’t see the teacher, she couldn’t see me.

Dressing up at school had the potential to sink me even lower on the social scale, especially if I appeared in an unpopular or outmoded costume.

            When the day arrived, the only thing I could come up with was my mother’s WAC (Women’s Army Corp) uniform from World War II. It fit a bit snug, but I figured I could tolerate anything for the length of the festivities.

            In the morning I squeezed into the uniform, then trudged off to the bus stop. I was used to belittling looks, so the shrugs and smirks had little impact.

However, what seemed like a good idea in the morning, quickly became a terrifying experience at school.

            My teacher, thrilled to see the old uniform, made me stand in front of the class and share my mother’s story. Unfortunately, I knew little about her service.

I pronounced that she enlisted because her family was poor, a fact. That she chose the WACs because her older brother was in the Army, also true. I did know, only because of the few black-and-white photos she shared, that she was stationed in Florida where she learned to work on trucks.

            I figured that when my time was done, I could slink back into my desk. Not so. To make matters worse, my teacher sent me up and down the hall, into every single classroom, upstairs and down.

I was so terrified that I squeaked out only a few words, and wouldn’t have even got them out if it weren’t for the prompting of every teacher.

As the day progressed, the uniform seemed to get tighter and the heavy wool brought out as much sweat as a humid summer day. Perspiration pooled under my arms and down my face. It soaked the collar and the waistband of the skirt.

When lunch came, I was allowed to change clothes.

            It was such a horrible experience that I did not go out trick-or-treating that night and for several years after.

Scars

            Some scars are invisible but powerful nonetheless. Because they can’t be seen, no sympathy is offered, no concerning questions asked.

            But what happens when you are told that your scars will be easily seen? Do you have the procedure or not?

            That’s the choice I faced when I investigated cosmetic surgery after losing eighty pounds.

            The scars on my arms would run down the backside. They might fade with time or they might remain as deep red lines. I didn’t care. I hated the flaps of saggy skin that smacked the water when I swam, so loudly that I could hear the whump, whump as the bags smacked the surface, despite wearing earplugs and a cap.

            I believed that if I could hear it that clearly, then so could everyone else.

            I hated the way my arms looked in short sleeves: huge bags of quivering flesh. I was embarrassed, humiliated and my self-esteem suffered.

            The surgery would remove the bags. I chose self-esteem over scarring.

            After recovering from that operation I investigated additional cosmetic surgery to remove the roll of skin that had pooled around my waist. Even though it was always hidden under my clothes, unless I wore an overly baggy top, the bulge was visible.

            Once again the surgeon said there would be scarring, most likely a deep red line that encircled my waist. My response? I told her that the only one who would see it was my husband. The benefit of the operation would be clearly visible: no roll of excess skin.

            Granted my scars are visible, but the surgery removed the psychological effects caused by extreme embarrassment, by my disgust of my body.

            After recovery, every time I looked in the mirror, I was shocked. Who was this woman looking back at me? She had no flabby arms, no roll of skin.

My new identity was hard to embrace.  Months went by and I still did not recognize myself, did not connect that reflection with who I was now.

Two years later I am still surprised. The scars are there, but they are badges of honor, not of shame.

Cooking Malfunctions

            My mother tried to teach me how to cook, but I was not interested. She made me sit next to her while she prepared the meal, but I did so with a textbook in my hands.

            When I left for college, I could fix a sandwich, and that was it. Because I lived in a dorm my first year, I had no need to cook. The next year I applied for and was accepted into a house operated by the Soroptimist League. There were ten girls in my house, ten more in the second. We took turn cooking.

            At first, I opened cans of soup and offered plain white bread and oleo. This did not go over well with my housemates who were used to more elaborate meals. I found an easy-to-use cookbook in the university book store. It became my bible.

            Even armed with recipes, however, my staple ingredient was hamburger as that was all I could afford. I served hamburgers and meatloaf. Past with ground beef. Eggs with hamburger patties. They complained so badly that I was not permitted to return the next year.

            My senior year I moved into a complex for older students. I shared a suite with three women. We ate no meals together, a huge relief. I still relied on cans of soup and vegetables, eggs and toast, jelly and hamburger.

            My brother, who attended the same university, heard about a dented can store. We became regulars. I bought boxes easy-to-fix pastas, cake mixes, pancake mix, bisquick mix and a variety of canned goods. My meal options improved considerably.

            After college, when I could afford my own apartment, my repertoire was still limited to what came out of cans and boxes. My boyfriend introduced me to frozen, battered fish. He cooked most of our dinners, thankfully, as he was great with a barbeque. All went well until after we married.

            I now had a variety of cookbooks for the cooking-impaired. Searching for something new, I came across a stuffed zucchini that seemed doable. I prepared it the night before, put it in the refrigerator. The next night I heated the oven and put in the dish. It cracked, ruining the meal. I cried.

            I fixed pancakes that weren’t done, bacon that was fried to a crisp, overcooked vegetables and dry biscuits. My husband, being a good sport, never complained.

            Over the years I continued to ruin food. We bought a house that had a pear tree in the backyard. I made a pear cake that was so bland that it was inedible. I made pear jam that was equally bad. We also had an orange tree that I used to make somewhat edible cakes and jams.

            I relied on sales and additional cookbooks that I found at thrift stores. The first time I fixed game hens, they were pink inside. Every time I cooked chicken, unless it swam in sauce, it was the same.

            I made a pretty decent meatloaf and using boxed pizza dough mix, got pretty good there, as long as you didn’t mind thin, soggy dough.

            I quit experimenting and relied on those meals that I could prepare with some degree of success. Unlike naturals cooks, I never knew if there was enough salt, seasoning, water, or too much of all of them. I could not substitute or vary the recipe in any way.

            My family almost always ate what I prepared, but the nights when my husband cooked, they devoured the meal.

            No one went hungry except by choice, even when the meal was barely edible.

            When my husband retired eighteen years ago, he took over cooking. What a relief!

Since then, I have never prepared a meal for anyone except myself. I can microwave veggie burgers and frozen lunches. I tried cutting my own mangoes, but I found it easier to buy them pre-cut.

            Prepared salads are a staple in my diet, along with yogurt, fresh fruit and microwavable oatmeal.

            I do wonder what would happen to us if something prevented my husband from fixing dinner. Most likely I’d get in the car and go buy something from a restaurant. And if I can’t drive anymore, I’d learn how to use a food-delivery app on my phone.

            My family survived my cooking disasters. If I ever have to return to cooking, we’d survive again, although relying on already prepared food.

The Invitation

            I was not a popular kid. I never received a single card on Valentine’s Day even though we were supposed to give one to every classmate. I attended no birthday parties and was never invited over on a play date.

            I don’t blame the other kids. I was a deeply unhappy, troubled girl who couldn’t hide those feelings. My face was in a perpetual frown. My lips were thin white lines. My eyes fought to restrain the tears that poured seemingly on their own accord. I never smiled, laughed or even when on the playground, ran about as joyfully as others.

            At that time, I would have been labelled a sad-sack. I was Grumpy the Dwarf from Cinderella.  I was the cartoon character who went about with storm clouds overhead. I was Eeyore.

            Later when I became a teacher, I understood how my own teachers had failed me. In today’s world a miserable student like myself would have been referred to a school nurse or the psychologist or even Child Protective Services. The stories I could have told would most likely have landed me in a foster home. But that never happened.

            Instead, I moped my way through school, the kid no one invited to anything.

            Until one day in fourth grade a girl handed me a pretty card. She watched with bright eyes as I opened it and read. She wanted me to come to her house for a sleepover!

            I didn’t want to go but my mother insisted. She took me to the store to buy new underwear and pajamas, toothbrush and toothpaste. She made me call the girl and tell her I was coming, get the details as to what time to arrive and what time my mother was to pick me up the next day.

            As time drew near, I became increasingly anxious. I’d never slept anywhere but home. I was terrified about the logistics: where would I sleep, would I have to brush my teeth in front of others and what would happen when I had to go to the bathroom.

            I feigned illness when it was time to leave. My mother made me go.

            To my surprise there were four other girls there. None of them were friends as I had none, but all were in my class. I knew their names, but had never spoken to them.

            We gathered in the girl’s bedroom, clustered on her twin bed. Because I was the last, I got the foot of the bed. I barely fit.

            I don’t remember much about what happened that night, except for the magazine. The girl brought out one of her mother’s magazines. The girls passed around the magazine, taking turns ogling the models and the fashions. All went fairly well until they decided to read the stories.

            The only one I remember was a test to see if you were a lesbian. I didn’t know the term, so had no idea what it meant. As they took turns reading the “signs”, I realized that I fell into that category.

            I had no interest in boys (although, truth be told, I had none in girls either). I was a tomboy with muscles instead of a girly figure. And, worst of all, dark hair on my arms and legs.

            The girls began teasing me, calling me names and scooting as far away from me as possible. Although no one pushed me off the bed, I somehow ended up on the floor.

            The teasing was so bad, so insistent and so cruel that I ran downstairs and told the mother that I was ill and needed to go home. She must have called my mother.

            While I feared my mother and really didn’t like being with her, when her car pulled into that driveway, I was very happy to leave.

            Looking back, I wonder if the girls hadn’t set me up. If they hadn’t planned on taunting me. If that hadn’t been the only reason that they had invited me.

            After the disastrous party, the girls returned to treating me the way they had before. They never spoke to me, played with me, invited me to parties.

            That one invitation could have opened doors for me. Instead, it solidified my place in elementary school society. How sad!

Stepping Out

            When I transferred to the University of Southern California at the end of my freshman year of college, I had no idea what to expect. I had visited no college campuses during my last year of high school, had never seen a residence hall (we called them dorms in the 1970s), and had chosen a major in math just because I found it easy.

            USC was not my first choice. I really wanted to go to Ohio State and live with my grandmother. I didn’t know if her neighborhood was safe, how far she lived from the campus and whether or not public transportation could get me there. My primary purpose was to escape my dysfunctional family. Going to Ohio was about as far away from California as I thought my parents would let me go. Plus, I figured, living with Grandma would give my parents peace of mind.

            They refused.

            Thanks to a full scholarship from the State of California, I could attend any college in the state, tuition-free. I wanted San Francisco State College because they had an excellent teacher-preparation program. I had always dreamed of being a teacher as the classroom was the one safe place where I wouldn’t be hit, spanked, or ridiculed. Teaching, was to me, an honored profession, something to aspire to.

My parents thought differently. They believed that I didn’t have it in me to teach. Intellectually, socially, psychologically. Considering had backwards I was back then, they were right. So, once again, my parents refused. The excuse they gave was that they didn’t want me living on campus and they were terrified of public transportation Their fears made no sense to me.

            My brother also received the state scholarship. He applied to and was accepted to USC as an Engineering major. Because my brother would be there, that was the only college my parents would allow me to attend.

            When September rolled around, my parents drove us down to Los Angeles. My first glimpse of USC was of towering, impressive-looking buildings. Everything was huge. So huge that I saw myself drowning. But I nodded, telling myself that I wouldn’t let that happen.

            After unloading my brother’s stuff at his dorm, I was taken to mine. My room was on the fourth floor, with a great view of what I learned was called the quad.

I wasn’t dismayed by the tiny size of the room as I had been sharing a comparably-sized room with my sister for most of my life.

There were things about it that I liked: the closet was the right width for my limited wardrobe. The bed looked like a couch until it was pulled out from the wall. It was comfortable enough, but then I was only eighteen and so thought anything that wasn’t a floor was okay.

I had a desk and shelves. Wall space to decorate. And more drawers than I’d ever had.

Everything about my new living situation pleased me except for the trek required to get to the communal bathroom. Sharing a bathroom for private affairs was a bit of a shock. But I was okay because it wasn’t home.

My roommate was a haughty, unfriendly rich girl. Her mother arrived every week with a rack of brand-new clothes with tags on and wrapped in plastic bags. A hair dresser appeared like clockwork every few weeks and cut her hair in our room! I couldn’t imagine such wealth until I’d come face-to-face with it.

Shortly after classes began, my brother decided to pledge a fraternity. I seriously doubt that he knew any more about fraternities than I did about sororities. We knew no one who had gone to college and so had no experience with pledging and all that entailed. I wasn’t going to let that stop me. I figured that if he could do it, so could I.

He got accepted into the house that later I learned was for nerds. It wasn’t his first choice. He’d yearned to be at the jock house even though he wasn’t a jock. The only fraternity that accepted my brother was the one for the smart, geeky guys that couldn’t get in anywhere else. Despite the disappointment, my brother grew to love it. For the first time in his life, he was surrounded with nonathletes whose academic goals were lofty.

Next door was a beautiful southern-style building that was home to a sorority affiliated with my brother’s fraternity. They called themselves Little Sisters.

I convinced a rather plain looking girl whom I had befriended in the dorm to go through rush with me. We spent many dinners at that sorority, hoping to be accepted. Looking back now, I bet the sisters laughed at my wide-open eyes each time I sat to eat.

It was my first experience sitting at an exquisite dinner table with rows of utensils on both sides of the plate. Tablecloth and stark white linen napkins. Getting gussied up for a meal. Surrounded by pleasant conversation swirling about. It must have shown, yet they invited me back, time after time.

I was overwhelmed each time. There was no arguing, no belittling, no being punched or kicked or smacked.

I badly wanted to be there, to be one with this wonderful group of young women. My friend was eventually dropped. I understood, even though it made me angry. Her face was covered by acne scars, so many that her skin was permanently dimpled. Her voice was nasally and her wardrobe was as inferior as mine. She was hurt when she was asked not to return. Even so, she encouraged me to continue to try to be accepted.

As time passed, in order to prove my worthiness, I had to participate in a series of activities. The first was a fashion show for a group of women donors. We had to wear our own clothes.

That’s when I noticed how badly I fit in.

The others had designer outfits. Tailored dresses for all occasions. Perfectly cut pants with matching blazers. Scarves and expensive-looking jewelry. Casual clothes that spoke of money.

Only my underwear came from a store: my mother had made every dress, skirt and blouse.

Prior to the show we practiced sashaying down a pretend runway. I was awkward to say the least. I blushed at the thought of swaying my hips. I had difficulty breathing just thinking about parading in front of anyone. (I’d never done that at home as my mother thought such behavior was vulgar.)

Two days before the show we had to submit a 3×5 card with detailed descriptions of each of our three outfits. We were supposed to name the designer, the fabric, the trims, the details so as to wow the audience.

What was I to do? Name my mother? The cheap cotton of my dress? The discount fake-lace and ribbon? I tried to “sick” my way out of the show, but was told that it was a condition of my potential acceptance into the house.

The day arrived. I carried over my arm an A-line dress made of white cotton, trimmed with fake gold around the neck, a plaid plain-looking skirt with a matching cotton blouse and the only pantsuit I had, a bright orange cotton, bell-bottom affair that probably glowed in the dark.

Behind the stage we were given racks to hang our clothes. Except for high school PE, I had never changed in front of other girls. As I watched them get dressed in their first outfits, I realized that they were skinny and I was fat. There was no way I’d fit in with these girls!

I picked up my clothes to make a hasty exit, but the house mother blocked my way. I was told that under no terms was I told I had to go out on that stage.

With tears in my eyes, I put on the dress and stood in line. Slowly it inched forward as impeccably dressed girls went before me. When only two girls were before me, I had a clear view of the stage, the walkway and the room. To my eyes, I believed there were at least one hundred richly dressed women in the room.

My turn came. I took a deep breath, squared my shoulders and walked out on that stage. As instructed, I stopped next to the emcee. As she read the description of my homemade dress, I felt my cheeks blush and my eyes fill with tears.

I knew by then that I didn’t belong there, that I would never belong and that I was foolish to think that I could. However, I couldn’t runaway, so I took a deep breath and stepped out.

I did not sashay. I did not swirl or twirl or even plant my hands on my hips. I did not stop when I got to the end, but spun around and not-quite dashed to the back of the stage.

I changed into my next outfit, knowing that it only served to show how very poor I was. When my turn came, I stepped out once again. And then did the same for my third outfit.

When the fashion show part of the luncheon ended, we found seats at the tables, surrounded by wealthy women. I don’t remember the meal, but I am willing to bet that I ate nothing. I probably only offered cursory responses if anyone bothered to speak to me. I probably sat there with tears streaming down my face.

On the way back to campus, I berated myself for being so foolish to think that I could be a part of a sorority. My poverty, my poor upbringing, my complete lack of exposure to wealth, meant that if I was invited to join, it would only be because they needed a poor girl as a token representation of their efforts to diversify.

Stepping out on that stage was one of the most difficult things I’d done, but I did it.

Wished-for Treasure

            My family didn’t have a lot of money when I was growing up. We always had a clean place to live, even if it wasn’t in the best of neighborhoods. We always had a car, although never a new one. My mom was a frugal cook, so there was food on the table and while you might feel a bit hungry, you never starved.

            When we got our first television when I was twelve, I was exposed to commercials for the first time. That’s when I became aware of all that I was missing. There were dolls and soldiers, board games and sports equipment. Sweets of all kinds and varieties of cold cereals that made my mouth water just dreaming about that first bite.

            We watched about an hour of television a day, but it was enough for me to notice what people wore and didn’t wear. They didn’t dress like me in hand-me-down threadbare clothes. They didn’t wear conservative clothes that covered a body from head to foot.

            When a commercial came on for a Barbie doll, I salivated. Oh, how I wanted one! The girl across the street who sometimes played with me had one. It was so beautiful! So fashionable! So desirable!

            One time when we were going to the local five-and-dime, I brought my saved allowance. The store sold Barbie dolls! But they were too expensive. There was a cheap replica which I could afford, so I bought that one. I understood that it was a fake, but it looked enough like a Barbie that I could use the patterns for the real thing to make clothes for this one.

            Every afternoon I carried my sewing supplies out to the backyard where there was a shady place along the back fence. I made my doll skirts, blouses, pants and dresses. When I had what could have been considered an ensemble, I worked up the courage to carry it across the street to the girl’s house.

            I was pretty proud of what I had done. She destroyed me when she laughed at my cheap plastic replica.

            When Christmas rolled around a few months later, all I asked for was a real Barbie. I didn’t get one. But my younger sister did. My parents explained, as I wiped away the tears of disappointment that streamed down my cheeks, that I was too old for a doll.

            I didn’t dream of owning anything else again for a long time.

            A television program came on with a doctor in the lead role. It was a good show, one that was popular with not just my parents, but with my peers.

            One time when we went shopping, a “doctor” blouse hung on a rack. Oh, how I wanted one! School had started by now and many of my peers had them. I knew that I had almost enough saved up to buy one for myself. My mom wouldn’t buy it then even though I promised to pay her back when we returned home. Instead she made me wait until the next trip to the store.

            I don’t recall how much time passed between trips, but when we did return to the store, the blouses had been marked down. I was so happy! I finally got my “doctor” blouse.

            Imagine how proud I was to wear it to school! I pictured my peers recognizing that I was finally wearing something that was popular. But, oh, that did not happen. You see, styles had changed. The other girls had moved on to whatever the newest fad was. That’s when I discovered that things on a clearance rack were there for a reason.

            Around that same time my dad learned of a bargain store a good hour’s drive from home. I had little expectations of finding anything there of interest. I was right. There were car and bike tires, car parts, miscellaneous household goods and clothing that a worker would wear, such as overalls and jumpsuits.

            We returned several weeks later. I remember that it had snowed but the roads were clear. Mounds of snow were piled along the sides of roads and along the perimeter of the store’s parking lot. Once again I knew there would be nothing there that I would want.

            Imagine my surprise when just inside the doors of the store was a circular rack holding a variety of white and black “leather” coats. When I touched the sleeve of one, it felt so soft that I found myself salivating at the thought of wearing it.

            When I showed them to my mom, she informed me that they were not made of real leather. They were fakes. I didn’t care. I still wanted one.

            She told me that I’d only get it dirty, that I’d ruin it by spilling something on it and it was be a complete and total waste of money.

            I didn’t care. I still wanted one.

            My mom refused to buy it for me even when I begged. I promised to work jobs around the house to earn enough money to reimburse her if she bought it right then. She refused.

            I cried all the way home.

            I had never had a new coat or one that mirrored what other girls wore. I had seen girls wearing similar coats, so in my mind I pictured myself walking the halls of my high school wearing that jacket, feeling proud as all eyes smiled with appreciation.

            No matter how much I begged or tried to finagle a way to pay for it, my parents refused to take me back to the store.

            Dreams of that coat haunted me. It was all that I cold think of, all I wanted. My hopes for popularity depended upon having that coat. I sensed its power deep inside.

            The next time we went to the store, the coats were still on the same circular rack, but there were none left in my size. I walked about the store with tear-filled eyes.

            Christmas arrived a few weeks later. My gifts were needed, but boring: underwear, socks, a toothbrush and toothpaste, a new comb and other necessities. Nothing frivolous. Nothing fun.

            After all gifts had been unwrapped, my family gathered around the television to watch a Christmas show. I don’t recall what it was because I was heartbroken.

            We ate dinner. Don’t ask me what it was.

            It was time for bed. I changed into my pajamas, brushed my teeth and came out to tell my parents goodnight.

            My parents demanded hugs, which by then I felt too old for. I hated being wrapped in my mother’s arms, but it was even worse being hugged by my dad. He had a way of giving me the creeps.

            This time, when I approached my dad, he pulled a large present out from behind his chair. He said he’d found it in his closet.

            I sat on the floor, wishing upon wish that it was that which I most wanted. I wanted to rip the paper to shreds, but that would have been a sin. Every bow, every piece of ribbon and paper had to be saved for the next Christmas.

            I carefully slid my fingers under the ribbon until it came undone. I rolled the ribbon up into a ball, an expected action that had to happen before moving on. I used a pair of scissors to cut the tape on the paper. When it fell off the plain white box, I folded the paper along its creases.

            The box was taped shut. Once again the scissors broke the tape.

            I slowly removed the lid. Pulled aside the tissue paper.

            It was there! The coat of my dreams was inside that box. I didn’t believe my eyes at first, thinking it was a mirage.

            When reality hit, I pulled the coat out of the box and put it on. It fit over my fat body! I could button it all the way from top to bottom. The sleeves were the right length. It was as soft as I remembered. I was speechless.

            I wore that coat until bedtime. When it was time to take it off, I hung it in my half of the closet.

            Every day I wore that coat, even if we never left the house. I stood taller, held my shoulders squarer and my head higher. I knew that when school began, people would see me for the first time. Instead of being the fat girl who wore hand-me-downs and homemade clothes, I’d be the girl in the white leather (fake leather) coat.

            When school began in January, I wore that coat even though it was well below zero and too cold for a thin jacket. I didn’t care even though I was shivering when the school bus finally arrived.

            I smiled as I climbed the three steps into the bus. I nodded to the students already on board. No one returned my smile.

            At school when I walked the halls, I was still smiling. Not a single student or teacher acknowledged my new coat. As each class ended with no change in my status, I seemed to shrink a little bit more.

            By the time I boarded the bus to go home, my new-found confidence was shattered.

            To make things worse, sometime during the course of the day I had encountered something that left a mark on the sleeve of my coat. My mom was right: I wouldn’t be able to keep it clean.

            I had learned important lessons: don’t ask for things, don’t dream of having things, don’t think that owning something would improve my social status.

Shopping for a Phone

            At first I was proud of not having a cell phone. It was like a badge of honor. Both my husband and I felt that if someone wanted to call us, they’d use our landline. It worked just fine and there was an answering machine attached to it.

            Then I went away to a writer’s conference. It was a long, five-hour drive south. Portions of the road were desolate: nothing out there for miles. Potions took me past cities and growing housing developments. I was only slightly worried about what I would do if something happened to my car.

            The next conference took me north into the redwoods along California’s coast. For the most part I was on a freeway that passed through cities where help could be found if needed. The last stretch was a winding, twisting narrow road toward the coast. It anything had happened there, I would have been dependent upon whoever took pity on me. It was a sobering thought.

            During the 2010 Census my husband got hired and had to spend hours in the field. He needed to be able to make and receive calls. We went to a provider and he bought a cheap phone (less than $20). It did the job so well that we went back and got one for me.

            While I seldom used that phone, it was, after all, for emergency use only, I soon discovered the joys of being able to call my husband whenever I was away.

            About two years ago we switched providers. A commercial appeared on television that said I could add a cell phone for $10 a month! I was overjoyed.

            I researched the various phones that the provider sold and settled on an iPhone SE. It was all I’d need.

            We went to the store, I held the phone and knew it would do. But…it was sold out. I panicked. I knew that if I didn’t get a phone then, I might never get one. So I chose the phone closest in price. It was not an iPhone.

            From the time I got it home I hated it. It was slow and awkward to use. It took forever to come on, it was hard to take pictures with it and it was slow when making phone calls. Texting was sheer torture. So I seldom turned it on.

            A few months ago I researched how to trade it in for an iPhone with our provider. It wouldn’t be all that hard and I’d get something in trade. But when I suggested to my husband that I wanted to do this, he said there was nothing wrong with my phone. (He had never tried to use it!)

            So I kept the thing in my purse but didn’t use it.

            Recently my daughter had an opportunity to check out my phone. She confirmed all of my complaints. It was slow and awkward. It jiggled when you took photos. It was hard to punch the right circle to make it do what you wanted it to do.

            She also told me that I could get an older iPhone for a little over $100.

            I was in agreement and after hearing my daughter’s complaints, my husband finally understood.

            While on vacation my daughter arranged for me to try out a phone that her Bishop was selling. I loved it! I am used to an iPad, so there was no learning curve as there had been with my current cell phone.

            There was one problem, however: you could only hear the person on the other end if the phone was on speaker. I hate speaker phone, so this was a huge problem.

            Thus began an online search.

            I discovered a trusted vendor sold phones that carried a 90-day warranty. My daughter and I perused the offerings. I’d find one, then it would be sold. She’d find one, then it too would be gone.

            This morning we finally found what I wanted! An iPhone 6s Plus is now on the way! I can hardly wait to for it to arrive.

            Way back when I panicked and bought my current phone, I should have taken the time to look at what iPhones they did have in stock. If I had, perhaps I would have been using my phone like other people do, as an extension of my arm instead of something stuck in my purse.

            It goes to show that panic buying is not the best choice.

            This is an apt metaphor for life.

            Anytime a person makes decisions on the fly, there’s a good possibility that she might later regret not taking the time to analyze, to be rational and careful.

Regret is a powerful emotion. Often times such decisions cannot be undone. They can cause irreparable harm, destroy relationships, cause a lost job or friendship.

It’s better to take time and make the right decision from the beginning.

I wish I had.

Blood Red Days

            Children aren’t supposed to get sick.  Romanticized images picture little darlings running, jumping, climbing, laughing, living life as freely as a butterfly flitting from flower to flower.  Even in prayer, when most solemn, those cherubic faces glow with rosebud color.  So it should be, forever and ever.

            Unfortunately strange diseases invade, causing any possible varieties of illness.  Most we understand.  Tonsillitis, ear infections, colds, cuts, bruises, and even the occasional broken bone fall into that realm.  Kids are susceptible to germs, primarily because they play with “germy” things, and so we expect them to fall ill. But we pray that those times are few and far between.

            When your four-year-old child’s urine turns the color of burgundy wine, however, the only normal reaction is fear.  So it was for my husband and I when it happened for the first time to our six year old daughter. 

            When it occurred, we tried not to panic so as to not alarm our daughter. What we did do was make phone calls followed by tons of doctors’ visits.   We began with our regular pediatrician who thought the bleeding was caused by a bladder infection. The prescribed dose of antibiotics seemed to work.

But then it happened again. More antibiotics were given. And then the same thing, over and over.

 We were referred to a urologist who was used to treating senior citizens who would willingly allow tubes and prodding. He had no experience with a five-year-old.

Our daughter fought him with the strength of an army, clenching shut her legs and refusing to budge. I didn’t blame her. I thought the doctor a little too interested in seeing what was between my child’s legs.

At my insistence, our pediatrician referred us to a pediatric urologist/oncologist.  Imagine the fears those words triggered. Oncology. Cancer. Curable or not? We didn’t know or understand what was happening or what the doctor would do. How he was going to make the determination as to the diagnosis? The person setting up the appointment offered no reassurance, but because the bleeding continued, we went to his office.

By the time we finally got to see him, months had passed. The color of her urine had deepened to a deep, dark red. It was frightening, not only to us, but to our daughter. Even a small child understands that urine is not supposed to be that color.

            For my daughter’s sake, we put on happy faces, attempting to disguise our deep-seated fears.  When she was out of visual range, we allowed ourselves to cry.  Of course, we prayed.

            There were days when her urine was a healthy golden color and so we tried to convince ourselves that she was cured. That the newest round of antibiotics had worked. We wept with joy and gave thanks to the Lord.  But the space between those times slowly shrunk until it was pretty much guaranteed that we would see red, and only red.

            Even the strongest antibiotics had proved to be ineffective, and so the pediatric urologist ordered x-rays to search for the still unknown cause.

            We went to Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley, California, one of the finest hospitals in the Bay Area.  For the exam, our daughter was placed on a cold, metal table.  She was given huge quantities of liquid to drink.  The x-ray machine was lowered until it hovered above her lower abdomen.  She was told to urinate, right there on the table, in front of five total strangers.  She couldn’t do it and I didn’t blame her.

            They inserted a tube to allow the urine to flow.  Pictures were taken.  We went home and waited, impatiently, to hear the results.  When they came, we were terrified and confused. Because of the way her bladder was constructed, it was unable to fully close.  Surgery was recommended to insert a tube to narrow the urethra.

            Shortly after the recommendation we drove to Children’s Hospital in Oakland, arriving just as the sun was beginning to peak over the hills.  It was a peaceful scene which helped to somewhat ease our nervousness. It was short-lived, however, for immediately after completing the required paperwork, our daughter was whisked away by an efficient, yet friendly nurse. 

            My husband paced the floor of the waiting room, talking to himself.  I prayed, placing my daughter’s life in God’s capable hands. 

            This operation was a success. Her bladder would now allow her to control the flow of urine. However, during the surgery, the doctor discovered that her ureters did not enter the bladder at the correct angle.  Not only that, but the flaps that prevented urine from moving into the kidneys were missing.  Another operation was planned.

            Despite the negative news, my husband and I eagerly took our little girl home, hoping that at least there might be some reprieve from the tinged urine.  It was not to be.

            Within hours after getting her settled, her urine had turned from a healthy golden hue to a blood red, bone-chilling liquid.  Several phone calls later, another trip to the doctor’s was scheduled.  She was again put on a regimen of antibiotics, hoping to stem off any invasion of germs that might interfere with the next operation.

            Good Friday found us, once again, in the waiting room of Children’s Hospital.   My husband paced while I pretended to read.  Both of us turned our hearts over to the Lord, begging Him to watch over our daughter. 

            In the midst of one of many recitations of the Our Father, I felt a gentle touch on my right cheek.  A calm washed over me, settling in my heart.  I nodded, and whispered, “Thanks.”  My eyes filled with tears of joy, and a smile burst through.  I knew, then and there, that everything would be fine.

            When the doctor came to us still dressed in his surgical greens, he was smiling. While he was looking inside our daughter’s bladder, he discovered a blood vessel that was weeping, something it was not supposed to do. He cauterized it, forever stopping the flow of blood into her bladder.

            Because of the severity of the operation, however, she had to spend a week in the hospital.  It was scary for us. Imagine how frightening it was for her, spending nights without her parents nearby. Our sons stayed with a relative so that my husband could go to work and I could go to the hospital.

Every day she got stronger and her urine became clearer.  I gave thanks to the Lord for giving my daughter another day of life.

            Those were trying times, for sure.  I had no choice but to rely on my faith, as even the most highly trained, respected pediatric urologist had had no idea what was wrong.

Even years later, I still believe that the Lord stood by, watching, whispering advice in the doctor’s ear.  How else did he find the exposed vessel, the incorrectly seated ureters, the missing flaps, and the enlarged end of the bladder?

            While the likelihood of her bleeding to death had been slim, she could easily have died of kidney failure.  If we had known about this earlier, we could have acted sooner.  For some reason, the Lord kept her alive long enough for medical science to rise to the occasion.

Faith kept me sane.  Faith allowed me to put aside my fears.  Faith was my constant companion. That operation solved the problem which allowed our daughter to grow up into a college graduate, wife and mother.