Getting Around


We each had a horse growing up but it was not a pet, it was transportation. With five kids and a full time business, my folks were not about to transport each of us around. If we wanted to go somewhere, we hopped on our horse and disappeared. Cars in those days were approached the same way. They were something to hop on, but not necessarily in.

I used to wait for my uncle as he turned the corner on his way home from work. He never slowed as I raced his car, leaping at top speed on the running board. We visited and smiled through the open window traveling the last mile together, while I sucked in dust and the smell of tobacco from his cherry wood pipe. On warm summer evenings, we took my parent’s car down country roads with my brothers, sisters and friends lounging across the hood and trunk, hands behind our heads like a pillow, starring into open sky and tree branches. A license didn’t matter, we were in the middle of nowhere. Most of us learned to drive sitting on pillows so we could see over the steering wheel.

When my cousin Rip came home from the Navy, he built himself a car out of old parts. It was his Merry Oldsmobile, held together with bailing wire. It had no roof and no floor at all, so passengers had to hold their feet up when he drove. I used to love watching the road ribbon by underneath us.

Then in boarding school there was the unforgettable Monsieur Le Gurre, our French Instructor straight from Paris. When his Citroen finally arrived in the rolling hills of Vermont, he took our entire class outside to admire it. “Come, come, I will show you,” he said in barely understandable English. “I will drive you all!”  Twenty students piled on the hood, the roof and what little trunk there was. The rest stood on the bumper, overflowed the backseat, the front and hung from the windows. It was a sight one does not quickly forget. Unfortunately, the headmaster was watching and quickly dismissed Monsieur Le Gurre from future duties, but not before a spin around town.

As a young mother, I thought nothing of putting my kids in the boot of the car, their feet dangling over the bumper, tree branches propped inside to hold the trunk open. They sat together on a blanket and had a good old time watching the woods go by. I’m sure they sucked down plenty of exhaust, but didn’t seem the worse for it. I remember one couple waving scolding fingers as they passed, but I paid them no mind. What better time could a kid have?

Now, when we near the road to my house and my granddaughter wants to stand on the passenger seat, her upper body shooting up through the sunroof, hair flying in the wind and arms outstretched, I say, go for it! A big smile spreads across her face, and I know in that moment that she feels alive and engaged with life, not strapped in and confined.

Watching her embrace the wind reminds me of a couple I counseled a few years ago, who denied their parents access to their children because the parents took them around the block without seatbelts on. “They were irresponsible and can’t be trusted with our children.” I sigh, knowing that their parents, like myself are products of another era.

Open Wide


One of the ‘gifts’ of my lineage is having bad teeth. Every person in my family has been plagued by excessive treatment, leaving us all a tad fearful of the chair. No pain killers or anesthetics were offered where I grew up. The drill ran hot and our tears the same way. My mother having horrible dental treatment herself, dutifully marched five children up six flights of stairs to be tortured by the dentist, until he had a bad day and let the drill slip inside my sister’s cheek. Then she found a different dentist.

White knuckles clasped firmly around the red leather padding of his chair, as I repeatedly gazed through four large-paned windows. Masonry walls of a downtown building lined with gargoyles stared back, a procession of half beast, half human figures with open mouths, their presence forever associated with anguish and bravery. I looked into their eyes and they into mine as we both opened wide.

A black tube held a supply of miniature paper cups, which were periodically filled with water for spitting pieces of silver and tooth into a tiny porcelain bowl, where they were instantly swirled down an ivory drain. I braced myself. Time stood still after each rinse, as the dentist’s large hand lowered the spinning drill away from its stand and into my mouth, then audibly pushed new mercury fillings into place with masculine force before whirling again to round the edges. This experience became easier to endure when water drills were invented, or at least our dentist became prosperous enough to invest in one.  

My mouth is currently an archeological dig of dental history both good and bad. As an adult, when offered anesthetic, I declined, seeing the pain of a needle as an unnecessary addition.  I didn’t see the point, finding it easier to meditate, breathe deep and go to the gargoyle place in myself that learned to open wide and surrender. “This will be over soon,” I tell myself. “You can do it.”  People conclude I have a high tolerance for pain, but the opposite is true. I’ve just learned to be with the pain in each moment, then let go immediately.

When it was time for my latest crown, my friend Susan referred me to her dentist, who works from an office in NE Portland in a building that looks like a time capsule from 1970. The dentist, Doctor Southworth, his receptionist, Carolyn, and most of the clientele appear to be my age. As usual, I was quietly and privately terrified as I walked through the door, his assistant ushering me to a treatment room before my butt hit the waiting room chair. “We’re all ready for you.” She smiled. “Oh, but am I ready for you?” I quipped.

Doctor Southworth was a gentle man who asked how I was. “Scared.” I replied. He sat next to me. “Have you always been scared to go to the dentist?” I shook my head. “Oh yeah.”

 For a moment, I feared he’d be like the unicorn doctor I had six months earlier, who decided he was really a superpower dental therapist in disguise. That guy sat on the edge of a stool with magnified bulging eyes and an incredibly long scope of light running down his face where his nose should be. He wanted to have theraputic discussion instead of properly fixing my teeth. When he sent his bill, I refused to pay because he was so inept, but he said I had to, so I did.

No, Doctor Southworth was not Dental Therapist Unicorn Man, or the dentist I had before that, who seemed to be in a contest with his assistant to see who could crawl the farthest down my throat. 

Doctor Southworth was in fact the best dentist I’ve ever seen, and trust me, I’m an authority. It was all the little things, like making a cast of my teeth and deftly freeing it in seconds from my mouth, instead of cheering me on to do it myself, which feels like drowning in taffy and pulling my bottom and top teeth out by the root. Then there was the satisfied moment when he held the impression to the light exclaiming, “Ah, a thing of beauty.” He and his staff were quick, efficient, professional in every regard and obviously enjoyed their work.  I was in and out in record time completely without trauma, possibly for the first time in my life. How could I not love a dentist like that?


Putting down the hay


They say you can never go home again, but I can come closer than most, when I return to the village of Horseheads, New York. Oh, the winding gravel road that led to my uncle’s farm has been paved, and many cherished buildings and people have vanished, but the small town spirit of the place remains. These are tough farm folk who would give you the shirt from their backs but don’t want to hear you whine.

There was a complaint yesterday in the local newspaper, the Star Gazette, about sending children to school in 18 below zero weather. One reader’s comments summarized the rest. “Suck it up buttercup.”  

Horseheads is a place unto itself and must be experienced to be believed.

On my last trip I stopped at the Jubilee Market on Westinghouse Road, where a sweet old woman I had never met walked away from her cart, turned me around and slipped frail little hands in mine. “Can you believe how cold my hands are?” She said, completely baffled. “My circulation must be off. I can’t seem to get them warm. What do you think?”  

I smiled. “Yep, kind of cold, all right. Do you have gloves?”  She moved even closer. “No, don’t need gloves.”

“Maybe if you rub them together for awhile, they’ll warm up,” I continued. “Try sticking them in your pocket. That might help.”  She gazed into space for a moment, trying to figure out how to shop with her hands in her pockets. “Well, good luck,” I said, moving down the aisle. I glanced over my shoulder, enjoying her complete lack of boundaries and innocent air.

We met again at the checkout or maybe she was waiting for me there. This time she placed her right hand against my cheek. “Can you believe it?” She continued, “Still cold.” I was the long-time trusted friend she had never met. “Yep, still cold.”

The checker was busy going through my items one comment at a time. “Why ya buying aspirin? Ya got a headache? My cousin gets headaches and has one heck of a time getting rid of them. She likes Advil better. Have you tried Advil? She swears by it.  And Drano? Got a little clogged drain at home, huh? Better be more careful with what you put down there. You’re not shoving food scraps down the pipes are ya? Don’t do that. My husband worked as a plumber for awhile. Believe me when I tell you that nobody in town knows more about clogged drains than he does. He just retired but still goes out on service calls, you know, for friends. And neighbors sometimes, not that neighbors are not friends. Are these yours too?  I’m surprised to see you buying feminine products. You look well into menopause to me. These must be for someone else. Is your daughter with you, waiting in the car maybe, or did ya leave her at home?”

I grabbed the bag and left, wanting to tell her I was just visiting, and that none of the items were for me, but that would have taken another twenty minutes of explaining ancestral lineage, which I was not willing to do. 

My next stop was the graveyard to visit the men in my family. My eyes welled with tears as I stood by the cold stone slabs that marked their lives. I searched my pockets for tissue but found none. Another old woman stood near a grave a few yards away. I asked if I could borrow a tissue and she furrowed her brow. “Use your jacket. That’s what I do.” Then demonstrated by running her nose the length of her sleeve.   

My Aunt Ethel was typical of these coarse women, having her hair cut in the local barber shop, closing her coat with a giant safety pin and traipsing about in tall rubber boots covered in mud and cow manure.

Her words still ring in my mind: “When you go off to that fancy boarding school, don’t go giving yourself airs. Don’t come home callin’ cow shit, manure.”

And another favorite when I struggled with writing essays in school. “Honey, just put the hay down where the cows can get it, then you’ll be just fine.”


Hold it!



I attended a two room country school in upstate New York, walking two miles each way on a narrow-shouldered road. Being young and completely uncivilized, I stopped on the road’s edge, lifted my skirt and let it rip whenever I had to pee. I squatted and waved as cars passed and thought nothing of it. But one day, a friend of my parents drove past and reported me for bad conduct. I was instructed to use the bathroom at school before heading home and never to pee alongside the road again.

I was confused. I didn’t have to go at school. I had to go halfway home along the road. How could I regulate that?  I tried skipping my bathroom recess break.

Minutes before school let out I raised my hand to use the bathroom. In those days you had to indicate exactly what you planned to do in the restroom before you were excused.  One finger raised, in view of the entire class, meant you had to pee. Two fingers raised, meant you had to poop. I raised one finger and Mrs. Rathborn, (who lived up to her name by being full of wrath) told me that I could wait. But I definitely could not, so I did the only thing I could do and peed in my seat. When the bell rang I ran out the door, making it half way home before being summoned back. “Mrs. Rathborn wants to see you,” a school chum yelled. “You’re in big trouble and have to go back.”

Mrs. Rathborn towered over my chair, arms folded above her ample chest, gawking at the small lake that filled the carved wooden indent where a butt was supposed to be. “What is this?”  I hated it when people asked questions they already knew the answers to. We both took a moment to stare at the lake. “I had to go and you told me I couldn’t.”  

She glared at my wet skirt, then dispatched me to the girls’ room to retrieve copious amounts of towels.  “If you ever have to go that bad again,” she said, watching me clean it up,  “just excuse yourself and go to the girls’ room.”

Easy for her to say, a person didn’t just do what they needed to do with Mrs. Rathborn hovering.

Stolen car

tire tracks

He did it several times a month. Everyone was asleep, or at least he hoped they were, when he tiptoed into our father’s bedroom. I don’t know what excuse he would have used if my parents woke and found him reaching inside my father’s pocket. He might have had one ready or maybe not. With breath held he made his way over the brown linoleum, past their double bed and must have groped toward the closet like a blind man with arms extended, feeling his way in the dark. The keys must have clanged because they lived on a fat silver ring with many others, but Sparky didn’t care, or had perfected his deception, I don’t know which. That was my brother’s name, Sparky. 

I stayed up most nights cutting paper dolls, so I knew he was doing it. I begged him to take me along, and one night he did. There were three gentle taps on my bedroom door and a whisper. If you’re coming, come, cause I’m not going to wait.

My hair was a scramble, my eyes heavy with sleep, but I jumped from my bed eager for adventure.

I’m coming now. Don’t go without me.

He was 14, I was 11. My brother wanted nothing to do with me on my best day, so I was thrilled to be included.

We moved down the stairs, Spark looking over his shoulder to schuss me with his finger. My pajama bottoms dragged on each step, threatening to trip me and foil our escape. I pulled them up and followed, silently like an obedient dog.

Once outside he opened the door of the Chrysler Imperial and motioned to me. I slid past the steering wheel and waited, breathless and full of risk.

The engine purred, Spark lowered the gearshift on the steering column from P to D and we crept away.

Once we hit route 14, the main highway that ran in front of the restaurant, my brother slammed the door shut and let it rip.

Watch this, he shouted, as he drove into Mr. Palmer’s yard, up over his lawn and out the other side. I can do anything I want and no one can stop me.

He swerved to the right and we were back on the highway. Next it was Gail Allen’s house.  He headed straight for her mailbox and took it out with a quick, thump. Up and down we went over neighbor’s yards, through shrubbery, past loaded wheelbarrows and into flower gardens.

My eyes were round with shock and excitement. Just don’t tell anybody, he said, if nobody knows we’ll be okay. I sunk low in my seat, eyes in the sky, swallowing moonlight.

Eventually he tired and turned the car toward home, but home was not the way we left it. Every light in the house shone through the windows like a lighthouse, which welcomed and warned at the same time.

When we pulled into the drive my father was waiting, rage seething from every pore. He grabbed my brother and began beating him, as my mother marched me to my room. I listened, my ear pressed against the door, my heart frozen in my chest, hot tears running down my face for my brother’s pain. I waited for my turn, as Spark’s screams rose and fell again and again.

When my father reached my door, my mother blocked his path. That’s enough now, she said. That’s enough for one night.

The Dream

 the dream

I hurried through morning chores so I could be at the pool as soon as it opened. As a teenager, I lived to swim, swimming and diving were my life. I performed every kind of high board acrobatic: flips, back dives, swan dives, jack knives and anything else suggested. Completely without fear, I was the daughter of Neptune and the water was my home. My skills were openly applauded by spectators and lifeguards who passed time dreaming up new and different variations for me to try. I was willing and able to match anything they offered.

One hot summer evening I tossed and turned in my bed, unable to sleep. My mind was spinning and I couldn’t quiet. When I finally dosed off, I wished I hadn’t because I slipped into an alarming dream.  I was measuring my steps on the high board and pacing them off as usual; one, two, three. But in the dream, as I lifted my arms to take flight on the final spring, my foot twisted to the right, my head caught on the board and I fell unconscious and bloody into the water. The dream woke me, breathless and frightened. My white sheet fell to the floor as I bolted from bed and walked through the house attempting to rid myself of its memory. In the morning I dismissed the whole thing as indigestion.

But the next time I went to the pool, I became irritated, restless and uncomfortable. Dread hung over me like a cloud I couldn’t shake or identify – a nasty mood. I swam a few laps to free myself then dripped from the pool and made my way to the board. I wrapped my fingers around the ladder and climbed to the top. I held the side bars and began measuring my steps, creating a shadow version of the dive I would do. When I got to number three, a voice spoke to me. Remember your dream, it said.  I froze, as I relived the images of raised arms, the slip of the right foot and the unconscious fall into the water. There was no way I was going to risk anything with those dark images in my head.

I looked behind me and saw a long line of swimmers waiting to use the board. Too late to back down, I thought, so I jumped off the end, carefully, the way a beginner would jump – and slid safely into the water.

What was that? the life guard smirked.  I climbed from the pool and wrapped myself in a towel. The end of my career on the high board, I answered and meant it.


tree hugging

It was not unusual for me to greet strangers at the door of our childhood home completely naked – not that we had many visitors.

The grown-ups were too busy to protest or enforce rules, east coast summers were sweltering and humid and clothes were a bother. I went without a shirt in public until I began to develop and often drove the car shirtless as an adult. Since my curves were slight, I thought I could easily be mistaken for a man. This drove my kids crazy, so I stopped.

Because I wore my hair short, I had an idea that I looked like a man and believed strangers couldn’t tell the difference.  Some days I’d test my theory by going into a shopping mall dressed in a man’s suit and hat. Of course my skin was cream colored and smooth, and my figure thin and hourglass, but that never occurred to me. Sometimes I’d even glue a mustache above my lip to gain credibility. I did well if I kept my distance, but speaking was a dead give-away, so I would never answer a question, I would grunt or make deep guttural male sounds when a clerk asked if I needed help.

Well, I probably needed a lot of help, but not in the ways they thought. If I caught a clerk looking at me and giving me a broad knowing smile, I knew the gig was up, smiled back and made my way out the door. Must not look like a man today, I thought.

We went barefoot year round as kids. We were without shoes in all kinds of weather including snow. I imagined I would live my entire life without shoes until I stepped on a lit cigarette at the county fair. That left a lasting impression that changed my mind.

My parents ran an upscale restaurant, and customers often complained about our lack of shoes. You should supervise those kids, they’d say, or they’ll all have pneumonia.  My folks dealt with this by repeating their words, but there was never any threat or action. We were just kids being kids. They would report the conversation much like they’d say, Looks like Glenn’s cow is out. Guess someone ought to give him a call.

One afternoon I was walking back from the woods carrying my dad’s double barreled shotgun. It was a 20 gauge, which I liked better than the 12 gauge because that one recoiled and hurt my shoulder. I’d been doing some target practice and feeling good about my aim. We were all taught to use guns and to use them safely, it was part of living on a farm, but when a customer complained about a kid walking on her own through the pasture with a 20 gauge, my dad caved in. I never quite forgave him. I knew what I was doing and hated to be told I had to stop because someone else got scared.

It poured rain the other day. I was feeling stagnant and disconnected so I went outside in my bare feet for the first time in decades. I walked to a tree stump in the middle of the woods and let my feet rest in tall grass. I soaked the earth up through the mud and into my core. It was the perfect medicine, simple, immediate and right. Funny how a little thing like that could take me back to my roots and a clear remembering of the land that once held and defined me.

New York City


statue 5Every few years my parents treated us to a cultural week-end in NYC.  We drove four hours through vineyards and rolling acres of farmland to the heart of a cosmopolitan environment that was as different from our barefoot childhood as I could imagine. 

We stayed at the Hotel Astor, which in 1955 was the finest hotel in the city. The Astor embodied old world elegance, sat in the heart of the theater district and towered over Time Square. The Brooklyn Dodgers had just won their first world series and the city was alive with excitement. Cab Calloway and Fats Waller were hot stuff and the Cotton Club was birthing a new musical sound. But it was the Broadway shows that interested my folks.

Evenings found us in our finest clothes with fresh gardenias from a street vendor pinned to our coats. The smell of that delicate white flower can still bring back vivid memories of Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady, sinking into red velvet theater seats, watching chandeliers dim against a ceiling of gold and holding our breath as plush curtains whooshed back to reveal a magical world of song and dance. We sat spellbound by every theatrical gesture and perfected vocal score. Those performances began my admiration and love for the theater, and also spoiled me for anything less professional. 

I was ten years old when I watched long rows of women called the Rockettes, high kick in unison at Radio City Music Hall. They were wholesome family entertainment, while a trip to the Latin Quarter opened our eyes to the exotic. Women on flower-covered trapezes, descended from the ceiling wearing high heeled shoes, seamed stockings and little else. The undeniable points of attention were their breasts, where long tassels adhered to each nipple, leaving their fullness bare and exposed. The tassels were smaller versions of the fabric ends that held back the drapes in our living room. I was stunned! I could not take my young eyes off them – grown women who amused themselves by swinging naked from the ceiling of a darkened theater. Was that really okay? Was that what women did when they got older? Apparently it was not only approved of but applause worthy.  I began to wonder about stringing ropes in the hayloft and doing some undercover surgery on my mother’s drapes.

When the performance finished, my sister Kristen and I had to use the bathroom, but the lines were too long, so mother encouraged us to wait. We’ll be home soon, she promised. We hopped in a taxi, which vigorously whisked us through busy streets and hairpin corners. When we screeched to a halt, my father’s angry face matched the burgundy coat worn by the doorman. He was complaining about the driver as my sister and I pushed through revolving glass doors, past walls of glossy walnut, expensive paintings and potted palms. We jumped up and down in the elevator in our urgent need, reaching our fourth floor room before the white gloves of the elevator man disappeared behind us. Doors were never bolted at home, so we were stunned to find we’d been locked out.

I’m peeing my pants, Kristen told me. What should we do?

I had pushed my winter coat aside and was dancing up and down in a desperate attempt to wait.

We can’t pee right here, I said, it will make wet puddles right outside our door. We’ll surely get caught and get in big trouble. I have an idea. You run that way, and pee as you go. Run all the way to the window drapes. I’ll run to the marble statue. We’ll spread it out in long lines, that way nobody will be able to figure out what we did.

And so, on that eventful Saturday night, in one of the cities grand hotels, two little girls were pushing aside their fancy lace dresses to leave a bit of themselves in the lavish carpet at the Hotel Astor.


bucketElmer was one of the evening bartenders who worked in my parent’s restaurant. His shift began at five, but he walked through the parking lot door at four thirty dressed in black pants, polished shoes, white shirt and tie. His hair was combed to the left and his cheeks were scrubbed and rosy.

We lived above the restaurant, five kids, mom and dad, a crow, raccoon, dogs and too many cats to count.

I’d filled a metal bucket from the barn with cold water and hauled it upstairs slopping it wet against my bib overalls and over my feet. The bucket was cold and hard to grasp but I managed to hoist it to the second story window.

I was eager to try a trick I’d seen on a morning cartoon show, the one where the cat fixes a bucket of water over a door, so the dog that’s chasing him gets drenched when it opens. Now Elmer had done nothing wrong, he was not chasing me; I just wanted to see how this worked and he was the first person I thought of. I didn’t have long to wait, he was punctual. 

Elmer straightened his tie as he left his Ford and took a quick peek at his image in the side mirror, then gave a little grin of self-approval. I studied him like a hawk. When he put his hand on the restaurant door, I tipped the bucket and let it go. A perfect bulls-eye!

I’ll never forget the way his hair plastered against his scalp and the transparent flesh tones of his shirt. He looked up at me with wide eyes, and an expression of horror and surprise.

I hoped he might compliment me on my daring and ingenuity, but he took a different view. God Damn you, he said, you little unsupervised shit. He walked in the door of the restaurant, had a talk with my dad and walked right out again. Elmer took the night off. 

A few months later I was walking barefoot in tall grass when I ran across a rusty fish hook. It lodged in the tender fold between my toes and had barbs that made it impossible to pull out. I don’t remember moving, just hollering for help. Elmer was on his way to work. When he saw me, he just smiled and walked by. I guess he still had the water incident stored in his grudge pile. I don’t remember how that one was resolved, but doctors were as hard to get to as outer space so they weren’t called. Someone cut that thing off me, but I no longer remember who.

You might think there were consequences for my actions with Elmer, since my dad lost a bartender that night, but there were none. We were spanked a few times, but mostly it was a case of live and let live.


abbey near salzburg 

I have always loved the Catholic Church, not the religion, the philosophy, or the services, but the shelter of the sanctuary.

My level of sensitivity is extra-ordinary. A loud voice or shrill laugh can be physically painful, groups of people are over-stimulating. I can’t lay my head on a hotel pillow without knowing the character of the person who was there before me.

While other kids clamored from their desks for recess, I couldn’t wait to slip across the street into the quiet shelter of the Catholic Church, the only building that kept its doors unlocked, and welcomed all people at all hours.

Once inside I was transported into gentle stillness, a world I longed to live in and never leave. Light filtered through colored glass, frankincense and holy water filled my lungs, and banks of candles flickered in neat little rows near statues of Mary. The only sound was the occasional creak of golden oak yielding under the weight of a bent knee.

There were never loud voices in the church or groups pushing, shoving or competing. The people who came and went were few, and always internal and reverent. The Catholic Church was my oasis and sanity. It was a place I could breathe and rest until the school bell rang and I was summoned back inside to endure.

Last weekend I went to a baby shower. When it was time to return home, something in me recoiled. I pointed the car in the opposite direction and kept on driving until I reached Mt Angel Abbey, which sits high on a mountain with a panoramic view of pastures and forest.

Being away from civilization, computers and conversation was just the medicine I needed. I had not realized my exhaustion until I sat near the bell tower and looked out into the serene fields of the Williamette valley. The quiet was tangible; I could reach out and touch it. A few Benedictine monks walked by in silence like black shadows, humble and privately engaged, while the sun rested on my shoulder like a friend’s hand reminding me to unwind and let go.

That was all I needed. I picked up my cell phone and called my husband. I won’t be home tonight, I told him. I’m at the Abbey and it’s too lovely to leave.

Father Vincent was in the garden among a symphony of goldfinch. He was filling the birdbath as they darted over stalks of yellow and white iris, and on to the budding branches of mimosa trees. Father Vincent has been at the abbey for forty-seven years. He tells me he’ll arrange a room, so I go back to my car for my checkbook and hair brush, the only luggage I have. When I return he is gone. The woman at the gift shop hands me my room key. I ask how much I owe and she says she doesn’t know. It’s Saturday. Someone should be around on Monday. Call when you get home and find out. You can mail us a check then. I’ve gone to the Abbey for the past twenty years. It’s the way they do business.

The room is simple, a bed with white sheets and spread, cream colored walls and windows that look into a sky dotted with tiny cotton clouds. There is a desk and gold lamp. I look out and watch a red-necked hummingbird feed on small blue flowers nested in rambling ground cover.

 I unpack by placing my hair brush on the bathroom shelf and walk to the church for vespers. The monks chant five times a day. When I sit down, the sound of it travels through the pores of my skin and settles at my core.

I stand looking up at the domed ceilings, the pink front wall of the sanctuary and the aqua and purple colors that grace the side walls above arched chanting stalls. The room is full of white linen and candles above a foundation of marble and oak. The organ is one of the finest in the world.

Being there is filling me up, it’s filling an empty space I didn’t know I had. How strange to be so at home in a place I have no business being in at all.

Abandoning Ship


The plane landed in England where we were to disembark and spend a week sightseeing. Extremely uncomfortable with the idea of being herded around in a group, I got busy devising a plan of escape. As we claimed our luggage in the London airport, I went up to the tour director.

This is where we part, I said. Guess I’ll be seeing you later.

She looked at me in astonished wonder.

Oh, didn’t Mother tell you? We have relatives here and I’ll be staying with them now. I’ll catch up with you in Austria.

I had received a London address from my older sister for a friend she’d made when she was an exchange student in Denmark. I displayed the address with confidence.

This is where I can be reached if you need me.

The address was a good ten years old and I had no idea who lived there now, but I was like a horse too tightly reined, sensed freedom and was moving towards it. 

I waved goodbye as the others caught the bus from Heathrow. A great relief at being free washed over me as I stepped into a taxi and handed the driver my address. I planned to knock on the door, ask for my sister’s friend, visit and be off, exactly where I didn’t know. Or if I were really lucky, he’d be fun, handsome and interesting; maybe we’d have a night on the town.

The driver pulled over at the house. I reached in my travel bag to pay him, but he was not happy to see American currency and refused it. Payment became an ordeal as I convinced him to, first, find a bank that would exchange funds and then continue to drive around while I tracked down the missing resident. He reluctantly agreed; I changed my money and we drove from house to house to inquire. Turns out this fellow had moved some time ago, but it was a small village and everyone seemed to know someone who knew someone who might help. It became a rather expensive game.

Finally, I knocked on the door of a quaint English cottage. An older woman with carefully pressed curls, a plaid dress and flat black shoes stood in the entrance.

Yes that’s my son, she told me, but he moved away years ago.

I was becoming weary and travel worn; my adventure was wearing thin.

I bring regards from my sister, a friend of his from long ago.

That was all. I turned to leave.

Don’t go, she said. Come in and have some tea.

I dismissed the taxi at last and settled at a doily-covered table to visit.

I told her about my family, boarding school and being on my way to Austria to study music. She took golden framed photos from the fireplace, and dusted each one with her napkin as she spoke of her son and other grown children who were away at universities. When she asked where I was staying, I told her I didn’t know. I hoped she would offer her guest room and she did, but first she insisted we go to Western Union to wire my mother. When I wrote the telegram, I was careful to word the message about my safe arrival so my parents wouldn’t suspect my decision to abandon ship. 

That evening my hostess cooked one of the worst dinners I’ve ever had, which she made with great love, attention and care. I ate with appreciation, then excused myself and went to sleep – for twenty hours.

Food trays covered the floor when I woke. Plates and bowls were stacked on linen covered trays, which contained more unidentified dense, creamy, mushy stuff. They had been generously delivered for three missed meals for an entire day. I was recovering from the effects of travel vaccinations, jetlag and exhaustion.

The next day, I was introduced to people my age and asked to join them at political meetings, where they questioned me about the politics of my government, the Vietnam War and the recent death of John F. Kennedy. They wanted to hear my views, believing my thoughts represented the entire country. We had all grieved the death of the president, were alarmed by racial upheaval in the south, and wanted to get out of the war, but I had little knowledge of American policies, domestic or foreign. I wasn’t a watcher of television, and reading was no friend to me, so I came up disappointingly short, having known little more in my life than the interior of bedroom walls, mucking stables, music classes and boarding school. Government had been my favorite class in high school, but that was due to a hopeless infatuation with the teacher. Teenage sexual fantasies and exploding hormones had blocked the retention of any useful information. 

My hostess was proud of having a foreign visitor and openly announced my presence. This is my visitor from America, she said, like she was showing off a prize plant at the county fair.  Eighteen years old and traveling about on her own. She showed me off when we went in and out of shops, visited her friends, and met acquaintances on the street.

She was sweet and generous, but I became restricted by her good intentions and decided to head out on my own again. My brother had married a French woman and I had the name and address of her sister in Vincennes.  I thanked the dear woman, said my goodbyes and made Paris my next stop.


I was supposed to be studying music at the Mozarteum in Austria, but I couldn’t get myself to care. I had been sprung from boarding school in early June and boarded a plane for Europe shortly after. I was scheduled for a summer of study, before landing in another music school in Cambridge, but how could I study? I’d just been put in a cornucopia of new experiences and cultures. Why would I put my face in a book or run up and down musical scales in another academic world? 

The night clerk where I stayed was young and cute. He owned a red Vespa and offered to show me the countryside.

Show away! I said. 

salzburgI did show up for classes a few times, but when I walked into my German class, my instructor actually announced that he hated Americans. Well you know what, I hate ya back. You are just the excuse I need to get out of here.

Our group was watched over by Jesuit priests from Georgetown University. I found my favorite guy and told him a story about being overwhelmed and unable to adjust to a full academic schedule. He agreed to tutor me, so my class schedule was cut in half. The gates were open. I’d return home with half the credits, but didn’t care.

I still tell people I was in Salsburg when Van Cliburn won the international Mozart competition. He was amazing and wonderful, but the truth of my summer would be found more honestly in another place. I was the girl with hair flying free on the back of a red vespa.

One can never be too careful about the stress of academic overload.


pale-roseI was in my last year at boarding school before I picked up a book and read it from cover to cover. Before that, words were a collection of tiny line drawings in black ink, placed against a light background and bunched together in clusters of illegible form. Much of my childhood was spent alone in my room with one illness or another. School became a place I rarely went, so my mother hired tutors to keep me in the educational loop.  I didn’t fully realize that I couldn’t read, because I’d been taught the mechanics in school, I simply could not gain entry.

Tutors came to my bedroom and left stacks of books on the night table, with demands for memorizing and reciting to avoid failure. Bright pink markers guided me with clear certainty to mountains of exercises and reading assignments. I saw the tutors and the books as ugly intruders, the certain onset of a headache. I would look at the pages as one would look at a book of Latin or Greek, and put it aside. I wanted to comply but didn’t know how. Once, in my frustration, I copied the pictures I saw in pencil and ink. I made a great sweeping portrait of Mark Twain and handed it over instead of a book report. It landed in the trash with more threats and verbal lashings describing the dismal future I’d have if I failed to cooperate. If I had been brave, I would have torn the pages and filled my bedroom with paper airplanes, but I didn’t do that. I was not brave.

Reading was painfully slow, but I got better as I got older, better at faking my inability and better at recognizing words. I envied those who saw it as a source of comfort or escape into a better world. When we were assigned book reports in school I would ask others to describe the story or ask a librarian to talk to me about the book. I was able to slide by, but hiding and the extra effort made me weary.

When I was sent to boarding school to recover my health, my roommate gave me John Steinbeck’s  Of Mice and Men. She owned his entire collection which sat on a shelf between our beds. Here, read this, she said, as I lay in bed with a cold. It will help pass the time. I had never read anything that was not academic. I opened the book out of sheer boredom, expecting as ever to be turned away, either by dull content or its failure to allow entry. To my surprise and delight, I was invited inside. The words were easy and enjoyable. I could read it!  I went from cover to cover and wanted another. I was so proud of myself. I was 17 years old and it was the first book I’d read from start to finish. This Steinbeck guy didn’t seem so bad.

Unfortunately, the experience didn’t begin a love affair. I had too many year of seeing books as the enemy for that, plus they required holding still, which I didn’t enjoy either. After so many years of illness, I wanted to be out in the world, doing, not stuck in a room reading.

My character is not very different now. I do love finding a good book, but never suffer an author I don’t connect with immediately. I find beauty and comfort in language, especially in classics like Anna Karenina, and the well-met phrases of Shakespeare.  Dick Francis and his stories from being the jockey for Queen Elizabeth are other favorites.  And now, as miracles have it, I have my own book at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Who would have thunk? Surely not the little girl lying miserable and alone in her room, starring at the towering piles of books near her bed,  and wanting to burn each and every one.

The Key

suffolk-houseCrocuse and snowbells reached for the sun in the shelter of a broken foundation. Red-winged blackbirds made a racket from the branches of an ancient elm, as I surveyed the vacant property where the farm used to be. A stray barn swallow dove and swirled in the distance as if protesting the destruction of his home. I sat among the rocks where the milkhouse once stood and felt, for the first time, the fragility of life.

I saw myself as a young girl heading for the chicken house to collect eggs and being stopped by mean-tempered geese. I remembered bedding down my horse for the night after a dusty afternoon ride, and looking wistfully at the runners of the horse-pulled sleigh stored in the loft. Looking in the direction of the now missing barn, I remembered wrestling giant silver milk cans as big as myself, as I rolled and pushed them into place for the collection truck.

A great sadness welled in me at the impermanence of life. Everything I valued and loved about the farm, and the people who made it real, was gone forever. The only place it lived now was in me. I cried long and hard for everything in my life that was dying, but most of all for the farm and all it represented. It had been my safe place. The only one I had. Now it looked like a giant wind had picked it up and blown it all away.

I knelt near a pile of broken cement to admire the snowbells, and noticed a glimpse of silver wedged beneath the soil. I dug it out with my fingers, cleaned off its encrusted surface and discovered the long silver key to the kitchen door. I pressed it in my palm, turning it slowly in my hand.

Aunt Ethel was yelling at me through a closed door. I’m going to lock this door and you can not come in, do you understand? I was just big enough to see through the window and was devastated by her intentions. Every Friday she mopped the floor, and every Friday I forgot her instructions and went parading across the wet surface in muddy boots. She was determined to keep me out, and I was just as determined to be let in. In my youthful fury, I braced the offending boots against the front porch wall and shook the door for all I was worth. I couldn’t bear to be locked out by the one woman who cared for me. I yelled, screamed and pounded to let her know. Finally I fell in an exhausted heap against the door.

After what seems like hours she relented and came outside. I was so crestfallen I could hardly speak. Don’t lock me out anymore, I sobbed, I can’t bear it, not from you. We reached an agreement that day about muddy boots, kitchen floors and love.

Now some forty years later, I stood with the same key in my hand and was glad to have it. Actually, I was more than glad to have it. The child in me was literally beaming. I tucked it within the silk lining of my jacket as a treasured reminder of another life. She can never lock me out again, I told myself, because I’ll always have the key.

Boarding School

windowThe air was crisp and the trees wore the bold colors of autumn’s tapestry as mother and I drove to St Johnsbury,Vermont. I felt adventuresome, and excited to go to boarding school. It wasn’t until we went to bed that night that the reality of it hit me. I had been delighting in her company without fully realizing that the next day she would get in her car and drive away. I had felt deprived of her before, but now I felt abandoned and panicked.

She lay sleeping, her face turned from view. I studied the way her hair fell against the pillow and the gentle rhythm of her breath. Her nightgown of silken pink with satin borders invited touch, but I resisted. I was afraid to wake her, afraid to betray my intense desire for her comfort. I was her problem child, the difficult one. Everything about me took extra time and energy. She gave what little time she had, but I always hungered for more.

As I stared into nothingness, I fantasized that she would rise in all of her feminine splendor, lean over me, place her warm lips against my hair and whisper, Sweetheart, I’ve made a mistake. I could never leave you here. I love you far too much to be away from you. Let’s work this out differently because I simply can not bear having you gone. I pulled my thoughts back. That was not going to happen. I needed to be strong.

I met my housemother in the morning, Hazel Simpson. She was entombed in a closet-sized room near the front door. Welcome to Brantview, she said, attaching herself to my mother. We’re all looking forward to having your daughter with us, and what a lovely girl she is. My mother looked down at me and smiled, while Mrs Simpson squeezed my face between her thumb and chunky middle finger. We’re getting such good quality girls these days. Look at this one. She has the face of an angel. For years we had such troubled children, now that’s all turning around. She released my face and went back to exchange pleasantries, assurances and goodbyes with my mother. I said my own farewell amidst promises to write .

My room was on the third floor of the Brantview mansion. Mr. Fairview had been a prominent figure in the community, when he died his home became the academy’s dormitory for girls. The boys were not so lucky. Their building was cheap and small, sat on the edge of a traffic lane and was badly in need of repair. The Brantview mansion, by contrast had long rambling walkways, a tree lined drive, and an archery course. The building had turrets, balconies, winding cherry stairwells, stone fireplaces, two pianos, coves for retreat and perches with views of the town. The front doors were arched, grand and windowed with stained glass.

I met my room-mate tucked in a corner of the balcony, sitting in the sun hugging her knees. She was shorter than I, had long chestnut hair and a German heritage that showed in the structure of her face. I’ve already taken half the closet and chosen this bed, she said. You can have the other one. Her bed faced the window, while mine faced the wall. I picked up my suitcase and headed for the closet. To my surprise, it was large enough to be another bedroom, and overflowed with the most fashionable and expensive clothes I’d ever seen. A second wall was lined with shoes in rich shades of polished leather, while half-opened drawers revealed boxes of feminine finery. I drew back from the sight of it. Such opulent beauty. I’d never seen such finely crafted garments. I didn’t know they existed.

Nice things, I said.


Just thanks. That was it, like it was all nothing. I decided to unpack later.

I stretched across the bed and began reading the house rules:

No riding in cars. No boys in the girl’s dormitory beyond the front steps. Week-days the bell will sound at 6:15 AM. You must have your bed made, room clean and leave for the dining hall by 7 . You must always sign in and out indicating your exact location. Women must wear dresses at all times. Men require a jacket and tie. After school there is an hour of free time before going to the academy for supervised study. Lights out at 9:30. Rounds will be made by the housemother. Non-compliance will result in demerits. Accumulated demerits will result in loss of free time, or denied week-end activities. Week-ends can be spent away from school on special occasions only with written parental consent. The list went on.

To my surprise, the routine and structure of the academy were just what the doctor ordered, and the fresh air was good for my health. I marched through my days like a fine little solider, counting myself lucky. There was no way to do badly in school. Each evening we went back to study hall to complete our homework, if we didn’t understand something a teacher was there to explain it. My isolation and illness seemed far behind and I found myself embracing life for the first time.

Madame Schinnerea

conductorAt boarding school I traded gym class for music and went into town to study with the worldly Madame Schinnerea. She was accomplished, rigid, expensive and formally trained.  The woman managed, all by herself, to remove any joy I had ever felt for music. Under her training, music became cold and technical. If, at any time, she felt my work was less than perfect, she would cancel whatever engagements had been scheduled.

The minister from the Congregational church was especially put out by this. During my lesson he stopped by and demanded to know why my performance had been canceled.  Madame Schinnerea replied, she does not sing the piece as Handel intended. I won’t have a student of mine doing sloppy work.

The minister pleaded; couldn’t she just sing a simple hymn? It’s the beauty of her voice we love, not the sound of her jumping through classical hoops. She glared at him with all the impatience of a superior mind, dealing with the hopelessly ignorant. No, not even a simple hymn. It was over. I was to be perfect or not open my mouth. I tried; I pushed and pulled myself to become a gifted musical acrobat. I sang arias I didn’t understand in Italian, French and German – still not good. She gave me Hamlet to recite, in the hope of elevating my mind and thus my voice, but I could not please her. Finally I rebelled and joined the cheerleading squad where I screamed for hours in damp weather.  She was furious and informed my mother that I could have had a career on the concert stage, but lacked ambition.

I never had such lofty ideas. I was full of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, never Maria Callas.  Defying her further, I went to church every Sunday and sang hymn after hymn in the choir. I was their soloist, the only dormitory student, and was regarded with curiosity by the white haired ladies. We’ve never had a boarding student take an interest in the choir before. What an unusual young woman you are.

My best friend during those years was a beautiful Lebanese woman named, Susan. She was a townie, as distinguished from a boarding student. The academy was attended by local students, which saved it from being elitist or intolerably over run by the behavior problems of the wealthy. When I spent the night with Susan, I’d put on classical music and delight in the beauty of Chopin’s Piano sonatas, but she’d have none of it. I keep telling you, I don’t like that stuff. Put on something good, like Joni Mitchell or Bob Dylan. I didn’t know who they were, so she educated me. When Susan put Dylan on the record player I was very glad Madame Schinnerea was no where around, because I knew she’d die of a heart attack on the spot. I could imagine her gasping for air and clutching her heart at the sounds he produced. Why wasn’t somebody canceling his performances?

France and food

france-view1I must have been such a pain in the butt, but Elise was an exciting cook and I simply did not want to leave the table.

I was in Vincennes visiting relatives, Claude, Elise and their four year old son, Gilles.

Growing up in a restaurant, I was accustomed to good food, but was completely unprepared for the culinary delights of France.

Each morning I would follow Elise through open air markets, as she slipped fresh fruits, vegetables, fish and bread in the small string bag over her arm. I had never seen pastries like the ones displayed in the windows. They were works of colorfully displayed art, ready to be tasted and moaned over.

The baker was covered in flour as he stood in the door of the boulanger, smiling and looking satisfied with his work. Two years of high school French had not prepared me for conversation, but I felt the gist of community as he handed a baguette to Elise fresh from the oven. I was surprised to see them sold without the clear wrapping of breads at home. Customers carried them off on the back of bicycles, and tucked them inside packs with no regard for protection. Great chunks of artisan cheese made with whole unpasteurized milk were handed over the same way.

I had just left boarding school and had a summer before I began studying music in Cambridge. Elise and Claude wanted to show me the sights, which began with the famous Vincennes Medieval Castle which loomed above city streets. That summer we took the metro to Paris and saw the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, the Seine, Jardin de Luxembourg, Notre Dame, and the Arc de Triomphe, but I had little interest, because I had been hopelessly seduced by the cooking of Elise. It was all I could think of.

When Claude asked what I wanted to visit each day, I told him I didn’t care. I just wanted to eat anything Elise would make. She stood over her simple wooden table, chopped, whisked, and tossed, stopping only to wipe her hands and push a lock of black hair from her forehead. I was in a pool of sensual pleasure and hoped to drown.

Smells of fish sautéed in butter and white wine wafted out her window as fresh herbs splashed in and out of the pan making sauces I had never imagined. I was introduced to the exotic unknown flavors of saffron, shallots, fennel and leeks. She braised white onions and caramelized mushrooms, boiled a rich sauce with blood red burgundy, and served steaming bowls of boeuf bourguignon. Crusty loaves of bread ripped by hand soaked the juices.

Dessert came in white ridged dishes of golden-brown crème carmel, or chocolate mousse with gobs of rich cream on top. The house filled with smells I had never known each time she donned an apron. Elise did not seem a gourmet cook, I am not even sure she took pleasure in it. She was simply preparing the daily meals for her husband and child. In the end, her kitchen was the only part of France I wanted to know. She had ensnared my young taste buds and opened a whole new world of pleasure. I’m sure they were relieved when it was time for me to leave for Salzburg. I had been a ravenous freeloader.

I never forgot the sensual delights of my summer in Vincennes. After several weeks of over-indulgence and added weight, I flew to my school in Salzburg, where I traded the poetry and passion of France for a German class, where every word sounded like an execution.

Not my job

red-crossI am not a nurse. My father thought I should be. He saw my gentle ways and compassionate heart and declared me nurse material, but he was dead wrong.

Before that, he thought I should be an airline stewardess. In 1955 airline travel was all the rage. He was a world class flight instructor and had visions of me dressed in high heeled shoes, white gloves and a smart little tailored uniform serving gourmet meals to the elite few who could afford to fly. I tried to comply, but each time we became airborne, I turned white and threw up all over his career plans. We tried this repeatedly, thinking perhaps my queasy stomach and loss of breakfast was a fluke, but nope: airplane up, vomit, airplane down. I was predictable. No waitress in the sky job for me. 

I flew back and forth to a Vermont boarding school on holidays. I climbed the steep steps of a puddle jumper, the name given to a small plane with such a short distance to travel, (500 miles) that it didn’t bother with altitude. These flights were filled with business men in dark suits and polished shoes. They moved their fine leather brief cases out of range as I filled one barf bag after the next. When I finally stepped from the plane I was ill, weak and embarrassed.

These planes still exist, if you are ever in the mood to torture yourself. Anyone going into the Elmira airport can find themselves on a plane so small that there are no overhead compartments, one seat on each side of the aisle, and a flight crew that graduated at the bottom of their class. No matter what seat you were assigned, you’ll be asked to move to the rear, so the plane will have enough weight for take off.

The stewardesses and pilots assigned to Elmira flights are a different breed and take some getting used to, lest you think you are standing in front of a renegade nun brandishing a ruler that looks like a microphone.

On my last flight from Philadelphia the stewardess made the following announcements:

“If you have to go to the bathroom, I want you to hold it. If you get up and head to the toilet while we are in line for take off, the pilot is required to go to the back of the line. That would be bad for everyone involved. You don’t want to be responsible for that happening, so hold it.

Check for personal belongings before you get off the plane. On the last flight a man named Tom Harris forgot his divorce papers, left them right there in the second row seat. Don’t tell me he’s not going to miss those!

You’ll be happy to know the pilot did a real good job on take off last time and brought it down just fine too. He’s doing real well today, so don’t worry about a thing.

Soft drinks will be served after we reach maximum altitude, if you have exact change. Don’t ask before I offer. Also, hang on to them during turbulence, because the liquid jumps right out of the cup. Stay in your seats and you’ll have a nice flight.”

 I am tending my friend Susan today, who has been my non-biological sister and closest, dearest ally for 35 years. She just had a hip replacement and needs a live-in friend. Her attitude is always top-notch, even in recovery. She is a big Swedish optimist, whose laughter fills the house and whose love for me has never faltered.

I, on the other hand, am anxious and grumpy. I am a poor queasy excuse for a nurse, being traumatized by the sight of anything medical. The pill bottles, hospital bed in the living room and changing of bandages leave me nauseated.

This morning I took her chamber pot from her bedside (totally gross) and spilled half of it on my feet as I poured it in the upstairs toilet. That was lovely, both the moment and the cleaning up after.

A nurse will visit to draw blood this afternoon, take her temperature, blood pressure and peer into her raw incision. I’ll take a long walk around the block, breathe some fresh air and think that maybe being an airline stewardess on an Elmira flight might not be so bad after all.

Tall Grass

cottage2I loved lying in the tall grass as a child.  I loved the way I could hide beneath waving stalks of green blades moving in the wind like a song. I lay near the pond and looked into clear blue sky for hours. I loved that the sky had no boundaries, while I was snug, safe and invisible.

I wondered in that long ago far away place, if I would ever grow up. I wondered if my young body would ever take the shape and form of a woman, if I would ever move beyond mucking out the stables and become one of the people who drove by our house with great purpose and destination. I imagined that all those people in all those cars had busy important lives. I imagined them going to Senaca Lake to spend the day playing on the water, or to a cottage where they would do mysterious business things, while eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and strawberry sundaes. They could do that; they could eat whatever they wanted, because they were grown up and drove cars.  I decided that I would never, ever, pass an ice cream store when I was grown up and that I would eat chocolate ice cream cones all day long, because no one could stop me.

I examined the mud on my feet and the number of scratches on my legs from climbing the barbed wire fence as I pondered my future. This was interrupted on Fridays by my mother’s insistence that I go with her to the beauty parlor. It was her attempt to make me ‘more’, but it didn’t work. The stylist was very serious, how would you like your hair done today? Perhaps a little something off the forehead? Did you like what we did last time?

Do whatever you want, I’d tell her. It doesn’t matter to me – and it didn’t, because as soon as she was done, I’d run back into the woods, shake it all free and lay down in tall grass.

Sensible Shoes

The tall black stiletto heels, the sculpted leg leading to a short skirt, folds of silk draped in her blouse and hair falling in cascades of brown – she reminded me of myself at 18, although I’m sure she was closer to 25. I’d been living in Paris and fashion was everything, youth, beauty and fashion.

Paris transformed me at that age. The garter belts with shopping-bagsstreams of scarlet ribbons against black lace, fastened to hold seamed stockings in place. The lacy push-up bras allowing me to have curves I only dreamed about in my slow development. Men who followed me down the street entranced by my beauty; a beauty the boys back home never seemed to notice. Europe ushered me into an exotic womanhood; a womanhood far removed from my rural roots and the full bodied cotton underwear my mother provided, the multicolored ones with each day of the week embroidered on the side.

In Paris I learned to put on thick brown eyeliner that came to rest like little wings at the corner of each eye and to paint my lips alluring colors of bold sensuality. I was excited to move fully into the womanhood I had waited for as a child.  Paris was my launching pad. 

I stood near her, both of us rummaging the Goodwill for hidden treasures. I held my gaze a little too long, and she caught my eye as interest, connection, and smiles traveled through the aisles between us.

My shoes are sensible now. I never venture far from the ground or my arthritic toes would complain. My inner ballerina has left for the remainder of my life. But there she stood with all of life ahead of her, perched on those feminine control towers waiting to soar into the next great adventure, while I’ve become the older grey-haired woman wearing sensible shoes.

Surprisingly I felt no regret or sorrow. My life has been rich and full, my sexuality more deeply profound than the girl in me could have imagined. I didn’t know then, that it was not the trappings that made a woman. It wasn’t the glitter, the allure, or the package, although I loved it all!  It was self-assurance and lots of permission to be fully and completely who I am, whatever that might look like. Untangling my essence from the cultural web and the opinions of others has been a life journey, but in the end, the only one worth taking.


the-queenMy mother, Verse, is 93. She came to Oregon to visit for the last time when she was 88. I remember pushing her to the counter of the airlines ticket desk in a wheel-chair, while she dug in her oversized purse to find her passport. She was always smiling and eager to visit. She loved telling the adventure stories that lived behind each passport stamp gathered from around the world.

My mother is an amazing woman, so bright she skipped two grades in high school, graduating at age fifteen. She was academically gifted, but suffered from a painful childhood. As a girl, her mother explained that there was no such thing as love, and demonstrated by abandoning her in every way possible. She learned love from her father, but he left both the marriage and his daughter at an early age.

She sang in a big band before she met my dad, then left to manage a successful restaurant and motel. No, she did not manage it; she owned, lived and breathed it every moment of our growing up years, putting her dreams of studying law or medicine aside. My mother gave birth to three girls and two boys. All, without exception, worked in the restaurant below. It was a thriving business full of constant coming and going. It was the place to watch the World Series on the small screen television angled above the bar. It was a businessman’s lunch table, and the destination for every club and civic organization in town. The restaurant had the elegance to house wedding receptions and the warmth to invite family diners to return on a weekly basis. The travel-weary were given a warm welcome and the factory crowd brought their brotherhood to the bar. The romantic played the jukebox and danced, while teens drank cherry cokes and competed on the bowling machine.

I was her middle child, with a sister and brother older, and a sister and brother younger. I worked in the restaurant for years before going off to a Vermont Boarding School. During that time, I watched my mother make sure the meats being delivered were of the highest quality, the breads taken to the table were freshly baked, and the portions were plentiful and appealing. After a long day of work, she and I would sit at a small out-of-the-way table, her tiny shoes trailing built-up oven grease from the kitchen floor, her hands clutching volumes of receipts to be counted, her face drained of vitality and charm.

I don’t want this life for you, she would tell me. Go away from this place. Be more than this.

When she was finally freed of obligation to family, business, marriage and striving, she found her wings and began to explore. At eighty years of age, her gypsy blood bubbled to the surface.  With nothing to lose she decided to give herself as many adventures as possible. She tore across raging water on a jet ski in California, rode camels in Egypt, visited the Great Wall of China, flew across Antarctica, soared in a hot air balloon, took a safari in Africa, floated the Amazon river, and was the oldest woman ever to go hand gliding in New Zealand.  When we crossed the British channel, she was in the ballroom dancing in her new prom dress, while I stayed below, blue in the face from motion sickness. I think your mother is stronger than you are, the maid volunteered.

She waits in the airport wheelchair, beautifully dressed, her attitude full of determination and intention, but the clerk will not look at her. She addresses me instead. My mother does not exist for her. She is just an old woman to be patronized and called, Honey and Sweetie. Her passport is handed back quickly without a glance in her direction, its wealth of stories left untold. I watch my mother’s face fall as her existence is publically diminished.

The Test

walking-on-waterAs a child, I learned that God was both angry and male. At nine years of age, I decided to test him.

Okay, I challenged, if you’re going to strike me dead for swearing, let’s get it over with.

I cut loose with a string of words so crimson they could’ve blistered paint from our barn. Then I ran in the closet and prepared to die. I covered my head and crouched low, ready to meet my maker, ready to receive the punishment I had heard so much about.

I waited. Nothing happened. There must be some mistake. Maybe he didn’t hear me. No, I was sure he did. I shouted and took time in the delivery. He must have heard. But I was still alive. Still breathing. I was confused. Maybe there was a time delay. Could that be it? Not with God. He’s supposed to hear everything and act immediately. Strange though, I wasn’t dead.

I envisioned God the same way I envisioned Santa Claus, except God had flowing robes instead of a red suit. These guys seemed a lot alike. One could punish me by putting a piece of coal where a present should be; the other could make me an angel or burn me in hell.  Also the God-guy didn’t want us to have any fun. He didn’t even think dancing was good, but I knew for a fact that dancing was very very good.  Santa seemed less threatening, but didn’t get talked about as often.  “He knows when you’ve been sleeping. He knows when you’re awake.  He knows when you’ve been good or bad, so be good for heavens’ sake.”  I knew I could never be good for a whole lifetime, which is what sparked the confrontation in the first place.

I uncovered my head and looked into the forest of dresses that hung above me in the closet. They weren’t moving. Everything was still. Maybe he’s waiting for me to come out in the open. So be it!

I unfolded my young body, wrapped my fingers around the door sill and peered into the room. No vengeful God there. I didn’t get it. Why hadn’t a lightning bolt turned me into a pile of burning ash?

I sat on the rug in the middle of the room and studied the ceiling.

I waited for a sign. Nothing.

I was going to have to figure this one out for myself. Maybe, I reasoned, there was no God. I didn’t see him and didn’t feel his presence. He didn’t strike me dead when everyone said he would. Why hadn’t he killed me? I broke the rules.  Suddenly everything fit into place.  If I was still breathing, maybe people got it wrong about God. Maybe like the spirits that visited me, he was kind and not mean at all. And maybe if he was kind, I’d better stop swearing at him so he could have some peace and quiet. That’s what my dad always said he needed, For crying out loud, will ya just give me a little peace and quiet!  I figured God, being God, probably needed more peace and quiet than most.

Farm life


A brightly colored mural hung above the stable door, as I led my white Tennessee Walker, Nashua, out of the warmth of her stall and into the day. The mural was a product of my oldest sisters journey into the world of art. It was an abstract something, I didn’t know what, but I liked it, because it lent bright colors to an otherwise dull wooden barn.

I threw a western saddle over Nashua’s back and listened to the prancing of my sister’s horses, who were eager to be let into the pasture. My oldest sister, Mary Ann had a palomino named Lightning, named for his color, and my younger sister, Kristen, had a pinto named Nippy, because he was rude and liked to bite people. A horse named Nashua was a big winner at the Kentucky Derby last year, 1955, and I dreamed big, so I gave my horse a name to live up to.

Small ice cycles formed in my nose as I tightened the synch around Nashua’s girth, slipped my boots into the stirrups and grabbed the reins. I tucked a muffler around my neck and pulled a wool cap over my ears. I was amusing myself by blowing clouds of moisture into the air like cigarette smoke, when I saw Tubby’s big Oldsmobile pull in the parking lot. My parents had a restaurant nestled into the rolling hills of upstate New York, and Tubby was the cook. He was showing up for the breakfast shift.

Hey, Tubby, I yelled. Tell Mom and Dad I’m headed to the farm and will be back tonight or tomorrow. The body of Tubby’s car rose a foot as he lifted himself out. Without a glance in my direction, he raised his hand to let me know that he’d heard  and would tell somebody inside. Uncle Tubby, as he was affectionately known, was a retired army cook and his delicious military size portions were the reason the restaurant was so successful, that and the fact that my parents never stopped working. They had little time or energy to see how five kids passed their days, so at age 11, I ran wild and did exactly as I pleased.

I inhaled the fresh smell of snow as we made our way past a marshy clearing and toward the dirt road beyond. The crunch of each step left a well marked trail. Morning sun was peeking out of heavy clouds and the steam from each breath we took rose before us. We made our way over fallow fields, which would be impassable in another month. I knew from experience that a spring thaw would sink the horse fetlock deep in mud, her hooves making big sucking sounds as she worked to free them. Nashua made little grunts and snorts as she labored up the steep incline of the hill. Cars knew better than to drive this road in the winter. They had no chance, but a kid and a horse could make it every time.

The smell of leather and pine filled the air as sweat formed on Nashua’s hard working back. She made her way up the road stumbling, but always catching herself on the cinders and frozen gravel that clung beneath the snow. Once on top, a full mile was cut from the five mile journey by crossing a neighbors acreage. He was not a friendly man. We rode carefully along the encrusted bank of his land, around abandoned crops and under maples rich with sap. Barren branches held droplets of water as the day warmed and the sun rose in the sky, making a distinct outline on hanging branches and snow crusted thickets. Audible sounds of melting snow trickled near by as  birds chirped from tree to tree. We continued past the broken stalks of last years wheat, until we came to the main road. It wouldn’t be long before I’d see my uncle’s cattle pastures and hay fields. I brought the horse to a trot, eager to arrive.

sun-in-snowThe pond came into view on my left, and finally the buildings themselves. My uncle was standing in his heavy winter coat and cap, his hands in leather gloves, twisting and turning large silver milk cans on the platform for pick up. He was radiating good health and cheer as he caught my eye and waved. I watched him make marks on a clipboard, and hang it on a wooden peg before going back inside. Aunt Ethel was sitting on a three legged stool squirting the faces of six cats with warm milk from a cow’s utter.  They licked and pawed it into their mouths with looks of delight and satisfaction, then gathered around an old blue bowl which had been filled to the brim with cream. Ethel unlocked the last cow’s head from the stanchion, and sent her with a pat on the rump to join the rest of the herd. The last cow, Daisy, twitched her tail in response and lumbered down the stair into a fresh bed of straw.  Each cow had a distinct personality and names given according to their birth month.

Fur lined boots met my aunts bare knees, as she pulled against her cotton dress, found the hem of her apron and wiped the milk from her hands. I’ll be damned, she said. Look who’s here. Come into the house.

A large silver boot jack in the shape of a bug was attached to the floor, and  helped pull tight boots from layered socks. We hung our coats on the screened porch and shook the weather from our pants before entering. Glenn and Ethel had been up since 4 and were ready for a cup of english tea. The front door opened into a kitchen of ticking mechanical clocks. A french marble clock set on the kitchen mantel, above a gentle fire. Next to it, was a brass and glass regulator clock, a woodcased steeple clock and a Seth Thomas pillar and scroll. A multi-colored parrot screamed ‘Hell-oooo from an open cage, as my uncle moved to place a fresh log on the fire. Ethel had wallpapered the ceiling with brightly colored lilacs, and painted kitchen chairs a deep lavender to match. A nine foot hall clock stood next to an imported pianoforte in the living room, while an old school clock ticked above the free standing sink.

I counted the ticks and tocks of the clocks, as I lathered my hands and reached for a towel to wipe them dry. The smell of black tea filled the room, as homemade preserves and bread were added to a table set with blue willow china. We ate and shared news, until it was time for Glenn to transform himself into the manager of the Chemung County Airport. Excuse me ladies, Glenn said as he pushed back his chair, and delivered his cup and saucer to the sink. Time to go to work. He disappeared through the living room into the bedroom.

I looked at Ethel as she drained the remaining tea from her cup. Glenn was my father’s brother and Ethel was, to put it mildly, a thorn in the side of my mother. My mother was an astute business woman and spent considerable time each day tending her appearance, while Ethel was the only woman in town to get her hair cut at the barbershop. She wore a bright red coat she closed with a giant silver safety pin, and completed the outfit with black rubber boots. Make-up was out of the question.

Finish your tea, she said, Time to see what the future holds.

I obediently drained the liquid from the cup,  twisting and turning it, making patterns that I hoped would be many and varied. It took skill to use my teeth as a strainer and keep the leaves out of my mouth, but I’d had plenty of practice. When we were both ready, we turned our cups upside down on a napkin, gave them a few seconds to drain, then righted them again.

You go, she said, read for me first.

I gazed at the images left in the cup, the way one looks at cloud formations, and let my imagination soar. The best thing about this game, was that we were never wrong. Everything we saw was in the future so we could never be wrong. We had full permission to say whatever came to us, without being discounted or judged. It was something we always did after morning tea, in the same way my uncle always reached for a fine cigar after dinner.

I see lots of birds cold from winter, I told her, looking at huddled little clumps of tea.  They are ready for spring to come, so they can play in the cornfield again – and here is a letter coming in the mail, and a visitor, a man with a hat is coming to visit you very soon. A square grouping of leaves looked like a rectangular letter, and another resembled the profile of a man in movement, one knee raised as he walked. The letter part always seemed to be there. The postman drove in the yard most days so that perdiction was a sure thing.

The man with the hat is kind of skipping, I continued. He’s a happy man. You’ll like him. It will be a good visit.

Delightful, she said, smiling and clasping her hands together.

My uncle made his way through the kitchen in a tweed jacket, dark pants and cordovan shoes. He smelled of shaving cream and fresh straw as he bent to hug me goodbye. I loved nestling my nose into the warmth of his neck and lingered as long as I dared. In a moment, he was gone, the heavy spring on the door slamming it’s wooden frame back into place.

Alright, said Ethel, continuing our game. Let’s see what you have now.

She reached for my cup, curled her weathered fingers around it and studied its contents.

OH, my goodness! This is good news!

I perked up, sitting on the edge of my chair. What is it? What, what, tell me!

Sledding, of course. You’re going sledding.

She bent forward and showed me an outline of a steep hill, and what appeared to be seated people flying down the face of it, loose tea leaves spinning in their wake.

Yes, yes, I see it, I replied. It’s definitely sledding.

She closed her eyes for a moment in dramatic silence, then pushed back her chair and walked to the pantry. I have just the thing, she said, popping her head from behind the door. I waited in suspense, listening to drawers and cupboards being opened, searched and closed again. Finally she came out, delight beaming from her eyes, something hidden in the fist of her hand.

What is it?

Close your eyes and open your hands.

I did what I was told, while she placed something glass and cold in my right hand.

What is it? I asked again, opening my eyes.

Gold leaf, she whispered, full of intrigue and mystery. Gold leaf. We’ll paint your name in gold leaf across the top of your sled.

She unscrewed the cap. Golden glittered paint oozed from the small brush in her hand and dripped back into the bottle.

We’d better get busy painting this afternoon so your sled will be ready when you need it.violets

After tea and fortunes we went into her room and settled on top of the bed, where rays of soft morning light made intricate patterns as it filtered through lace curtains, coming to rest on a linen table cloth and rows of potted violets. I nested in her arms, pulled up the patchwork quilt and listened to radio shows, as I drifted in and out of sleep. A row of my uncles calfskin shoes were paired near the foot of the bed, all meticulously polished and ordered. I fought to stay awake.

The leaves don’t lie, whispered Ethel, again. Shall we paint your sled purple first?

Rock Creek

yaniThe Rock Creek Tavern is a family place full of tapestry rugs, original art and stained glass windows. It’s five country miles from our house, past tall red barns, flooded wheat fields and acres of horse-fenced hills. Every Tuesday they host bluegrass music in a non-performance environment. Being there is like walking into someone’s living room where a group of friends have gathered. There are no microphones, just kindred spirits coming together to play stand-up bass, mandolins, banjos, guitars, fiddles and dobro. It did not surprise me that most of the musicians were my age, because playing music in that way was such a strong part of our past.

After a hard day at work, my mother would lower her tiny frame on the piano bench and allow her raven hair to move free against her face. She would pour the sorrow from her heart into the songs she sang and lament in minor keys and sultry tempos. My older brother played guitar, my younger brother played drums, while my sister and I sang background duets.

We danced in the village once a week. Accordion music propelled us in great skipping circles as we learned to polka and follow the commands of square dance fiddlers. We swirled until we were out of breath and red in the cheeks. We never went to visit neighbors without migrating to the piano to play hymns, folk songs or show tunes. Schools required every student to play an instrument or go to choir. People played music on the porch after dinner, and children in elementary school had music day once each week.

I remember thinking, when I first worked in dinner theater, how odd it was that a whole room full of people would sit in their chairs, heavy from too much dinner and watch me do what we should all be doing together.

I am truly saddened by television, our cultural Chernobyl, because it put an end to all of that. Instead of playing music, singing, enjoying community and feeling alive, we became inert and comatose by comparison.

When did we forget how to dance?

When did we forget how to sing?

There are children leaning over the railing that divides the upper dining room at Rock Creek from the musicians below. The woman playing the stand up bass has stopped, and turned her attention to them. She invites the little ones to stroke the strings and experience the magic that’s created. The dobro player is telling them about his slide guitar, a cherry wood instrument with a shiny silver top. Her name is Rosie, he explains. She’s one hundred years old and lived undiscovered in a barn for a long time. I found her and brought her to life again. I take good care of her because she is beautiful and important to me.

The children are laughing and smiling, the wonder of music alive in their eyes.

Jesus Saves

stained-glassThe first thing I ever stole was from the Baptist church. It was Christmas. We were given sugar cookies shaped like stars, steaming hot chocolate and bible lessons. Brightly colored packages circled the tree in the entryway, one stacked on the next. Those were not for us.

After the final prayer the other kids exploded with freedom, pushing against tall wooden doors that opened into snow and afternoon light. But I stalled in the lobby, mesmerized by the tree. Surely, one of those presents was meant for me. I was drawn back to them full of longing and larceny. The lobby was still and quiet. Perhaps, I thought, I could take a tiny one, one that would not be missed. I bent down and helped myself to a small rectangular box. It was wrapped in green paper covered with snowmen wearing black top hats, buttons of coal, carrot noses and big smiles. Yes, I decided. This was the one. I buried it in the well of my pocket, deep beneath my mittens. Then I sprang from the door like Satan himself was chasing me. I ran through snowdrifts up to my knees, went bounding up the stairs of my home, down the hall and locked myself in the bathroom. I was breathing heavy, afraid the God police had been alerted. I listened for footsteps but no one followed. The house was empty, so I tore open my surprise and……. my heart sank. Inside was a tie clasp that said, JESUS SAVES in shiny silver letters. A tie clasp – for a man! I couldn’t take it back. What on earth could I do with it? In a moment of generosity, I rewrapped it.

My dad was tending bar in the restaurant below when I climbed on a bar stool and told him to close his eyes. I have a gift for you, I said.

Where did you get it?

From the Baptist Church. They were giving out presents for dads.

I placed the torn green snowmen in his hands.

Looks like you opened it.

I wanted to make sure it was right.

He lifted the tie clasp with JESUS SAVES in shiny silver letters out of the box and bellowed, Jesus Christ! What the hell am I supposed to do with this? For crying out loud, Karen. JESUS SAVES? What were you thinking?

There was a moment of tense silence before he clipped it against his shirt and tie.  What the hell,  he said and went back to mixing drinks.

Another Time

school-deskIt was cold in the winters where I grew up, in upstate New York. Cold and snowy. There was a one room schoolhouse on the corner near my Uncle Glenn’s farm. That’s where my older sister and brother walked to school. I came later. I had an expanded two room school house. When I went to school, you knew what grade you were in by what row you sat in. There were three rows in the ‘little’ room, housing grades 1, 2 and 3. There were three more rows in the ‘big’ room; 4, 5, and 6. After you made it past the 6th row, you were shipped by bus to the village, which was not something to look forward to, because your dog could no longer go to school with you.

Every Friday the Bible lady came and told stories on a felt board. On Wednesdays we sat on top of our desks, rocked them back and forth like wooden horses, and sang songs. The rest of the time was reading, writing and arithmetic.

I was hopeless with numbers, so I’d line my body up perfectly behind Johnny Horton, hoping to become invisible. Other times, I’d stare out the long length of windows that covered the east wall looking at broad leafed maples, studying the heavy length of chains that held our wooden swings, and waiting for recess. It was difficult to sit in school with a vision of my aunt pulling a fresh lemon cake from the oven, and cats pawing warm milk into their mouths at milking time. There were trees to climb, tractors to steer, ponds to skate and horses to ride. What the heck did I want to be in school for?

My Uncle Glenn and my father, Doug, started the Elmira airport. Glenn managed it, while my dad offered bi-plane instruction. They began with a  quonset hut, an open field and a pioneers love of flying. My dad dressed in leathers, loved dipping down into tree tops and doing daredevil rolls in the sky. Glenn did the business part. He wore tweed suits, fine leather shoes and a broad brimmed hat. I can still smell the oils he used on his shoes and see them lined up in his closet like beautiful little soldiers waiting their turn. Cherry-bowled pipe smoke lingered in the air when he passed.model-t

I’d wait by an old apple tree near the school house for Glenn to come home. I wanted to ride the last mile on his car. As he turned the corner, I’d make a run for it, leaping and landing on the running board. He’d slow enough to reach out and grab me. We’d ride home that way, smiling, laughing and visiting through the window. Me, with rolled up jeans, bare feet and dirty face in the summer: fur lined boots, winter coat and same dirty face in the winter. Blonde braids trailing the wind.

Post Holiday Blues

sunset-rideIt’s not like I want to live in Los Angeles. I never could, but there was something wonderful about being there for Thanksgiving. Sunshine and warmth for starters. I was with my son, Clayton and his wife, Khrystyne. He is six foot three and wears extra large shirts, she is a tiny Vietnamese beauty who perches on his lap like the little bird she is. Clay took me along Mulholland Drive to the base of the Hollywood sign on his bright red motorcycle. I loved every minute. Riding with him is one of my favorite treats. He has been racing and riding motorcycles for as many years as I can remember. I place myself in his hands with complete confidence, but when he rides with no hands or on one wheel, it’s Khrystyne who’s on the back and not me. 

His other love is skateboarding. Clay has built a half pipe in his backyard. Friends roll back and forth becoming airborne under propane lights with mariachi or soul music pouring from neighboring yards. Clay lives in The Hood where folks are awake and active without apology. 

Thanksgiving at my growing up house was elegant and formal, fine dining at its best with imported wines, fine china, crystal glasses and cuisine that still lingers in memory. Chateau brignon, prime rib, lobster and scalloped potatoes were artistically arranged with fresh flowers, fruits and good silver. That was the gift of owning a restaurant and having a mother who appreciated fine things.

It was different at my son’s house. The only table sat near the wall, covered with computers, monitors and work orders. We cleared that off, sliding the table to the center. Then we washed off lawn chairs to make enough seating. There was no tablecloth. I drew the line at paper plates. I asked for music to dine by. Clay put on a collection of old Beatles songs, followed by Snoop Dogg.  I could not help but contrast our meal with the way I grew up. 

I’m proud of my son. He dropped out of high school and lived lost for a long time. After his daughter was born, he stabilized and followed his love of graphic design. He is thirtyeight years old now, and sought out by CNN, People Magazine, Sports Illustrated, the Oscars and others. His visions are unique and bold. He has not forgotten how to play and still loves his mama. No candles and linen tablecloth could ever replace that happy ending. I could not ask for more, well, maybe more sunshine in rainy old Oregon.

The Telephone


I was in my late twenties when I got a job as an Artist in Residence for the city of Portland. They sent a woman to my house to tell me the good news because I didn’t have a phone. Do you think, she asked, now that you’ve been hired that you would install a telephone?

Sorryit has nothing to do with money, I don’t want to live with a telephone.

Phones and I have never been friends. Don’t really know why.

Maybe because I have to stop whatever I’m doing and give them my complete attention, whether I want to or not. Maybe it’s the disembodied voice and lack of visuals that unsettles me – or maybe it was gathering my courage as a child to tell the operator that I needed the phone number for Walt Disney because I wanted to join the Mickey Mouse Club. I think he lives in Hollywood. That’s some place in California.

She dashed my dreams in one short sentence.  Quit playing with the phone kid. Click.

I didn’t give up. I wrote him a letter. One year later I got a postcard. Thank you for your interest. We’re glad you enjoy the show. Click.

benzDidn’t they understand that I was one of them? Didn’t they get how good I’d look in those ears? They should send a big long car immediately to snatch me out of my nowhere life and take me to my destiny. I could picture the uniformed guy stepping out of the driver’s seat and ushering me inside. He would put my meager suitcase in the trunk, as a souvenir, because the back seat would already be filled with my new, expensive, fit-me-perfectly Mickey Mouse clothes. Of course, I would miss my parents, but oh well, I’d get over it. What was wrong with those people anyway?

Maybe it was being sent to boarding school where telephones were off limits, although letters were allowed. I’d pour out my homesick heart and have my letters returned, misspelled words circled in red. Click.

My Aunt Ethel was a lifeline. She didn’t like phones either. She had her parrot answer hers. He was a huge colorful bird who toe nailed his way around an open silver perch. When the phone rang, she held it near his face and he’d scream HAIL OOOOOOOH. It was great.

Sometimes I carry a cell phone (to please my husband) when I can find it and it’s not dead. He is very modern and wants me to be. But I don’t like to take it. I like to lose it, because when it goes off it alarms me, sending me into the air with such force others assume I’ve been stung by a bee. It’s either that or fumbling for glasses, searching for the right button, and snap. Missed the call and took my photo instead.

My granddaughter, Isabella, asked how old her mom was when she got her first phone. Isabella thought perhaps she was being cheated by having to wait until she was out of elementary school. I wanted to tell her about phone operators who knew where your neighbors went and when they’d be back. I wanted to tell her about party lines and how each farm had a different ring and how you could spend hours listening in if you wanted to, agreeing or disagreeing in the middle of another persons conversation, but in the end I decided to leave it alone. She already calls me old school and asks what life was like before Christ.


 It was 1955. I was ten years old and having another surgery. I knew the routine, count backwards from ten while men in white coats pushed portable tables, readied fine instruments of gleaming steel, and placed a black ether mask over my face. I never counted past five before the light from the mask pulled me out of my body, away from the table and up to the ceiling. My spirit hovered, seeing and not being seen. I watched and listened as the people in white leaned over me, ready to cut. I moved outside, with no conscious thought of moving, just abstract desire and then being there. I was the air and the wind and the trees. I was everything and nothing, as I watched people come and go down hospital steps, car tires crunching snow, windshield wipers frozen and glittering. I watched men and women in long heavy coats, hats, mufflers and gloves huddled together talking and laughing below shards of soft glowing light. I watched and listened without anxiety or worry, cocooned in safety and a blissful feeling I’ve not known since.

These journeys are burned in my memory, vivid and stark. I often long for that welcome expanse of invisible light where I became nothing and everything – but not the moments of darkness before being slammed back inside a room, bed and pain-filled body.

For decades I believed there was a light in every ether mask. I thought it was designed to open a tunnel and lift surgery patients safely out and away. How surprised I was when I examined one as an adult and found nothing but molded black rubber. This can’t be it, I said. There is no light inside. 


Unsupervised kids can do anything. We cut our own hair and each others.

I once took scissors and went straight up the back of my sister’s young head, all the time telling her to trust me. The result looked like a hillside stripped wide for power lines. She didn’t speak to me for awhile.

I  used to bleach my hair with hydrogen peroxide until it turned corn silk white. When I did it again, it got brittle and turned the yellow you’d associate with bad dental care.

My sister, Kristen, (whom I named my daughter after, because I loved her so much – and because she still loved me after her hair cut)…and I used to spend money on hair dyes. Probably money lifted from the folds of my father’s pocket during his afternoon nap. We bought a dye called, Coffee, which was a drastic disappointment, since we both pictured coffee with cream and sugar. Turned out the manufacturer took his straight up black.

She and I were friends and life-lines. I had her stand on my bureau once so she could gaze down at my chest. She swore I was not developing, but I insisted that if she could only look down, the way I could, well, she’d see the budding promise of breasts so apparent to me. She saw nothing, at any height. Oh well, a pair of well placed socks would do the job until the real thing arrived.

We used to daydream, she and I, about our grown up lives. Would we still live close to each other? Still sleep together when we came to visit? Still draw an imaginary line down the center of the bed to divide her side from mine…cross over and die? What would we name our children? That’s when I promised to name my first born after her. (She didn’t keep her end of the deal.) We knew we’d have to stay in really close touch, especially if we were going to get married and do-you-know-what with a man. Gross!