River of Light

I’m thinking about the women in my bloodline tonight, women I loved, often disagreed with and unfairly judged. I’m thinking about my mother having five children because there was no birth control and how her dreams of personal fulfillment were dashed by that responsibility. I’m thinking about the talk we had one evening in the back of the restaurant, as I followed her from the kitchen, her tiny high heeled shoes tracking grease along the dining room floor. We sat together, her hands overflowing with end-of-the-day receipts, black curls stuck to her forehead from the heat of an industrial stove. “I don’t want this life for you,” she said. “Be something better. Be something more. Get out of this small town. Go far away.” 

I listened to my mother’s lament and left my rooted place. In fact, I traveled as far as I could without falling into the sea. I made a life 3,000 miles away, a life I think she’d be proud of, although she never understood it during her lifetime, the words, psychic, healer and artist falling dangerously far from accepted norms. She needed familiar occupations, like doctor, lawyer or business owner, titles to give her bragging rights with friends as they gossiped about their children over glasses of evening wine. 

Her words and desires dance in memory, as I look into her life and the lives of those before her, acknowledging that I stood on the back of her broken dreams to make my own. I think of my mother’s mother, Ada, and my father’s mother, Lottie, and their mothers before them, and their mothers as far back as I can imagine. I try to sense their radiance and gifts, ambitions, sorrows and longings as a river of light, each life flowing into and through my own, each person’s existence a kind of sacrifice for the next and the next and the next, each new foundation an expression of hope.  

Disastrous Doctor



Windshield wipers beat in frantic tempo as trucks splashed great rivers of water onto the hood of my car, forcing me back from the torment of my mind. My years at music school translated their dance into sixteenth notes, slap, slap, slapping their rhythm in long lines of slow-moving traffic. The relief was welcome. I’d been stuck in a spin cycle of unsettled dreams and all that was wrong with my life, mucking about in one negative scenario after another. Tail lights shone in blurred crimson and orange as I fingered the leather steering wheel, stole a glance in the rearview mirror and turned up the classical music station – 89.9 FM.

I was headed south to Salem for a doctor’s appointment, a new fellow who came highly recommended. Having spent much of my childhood in hospitals, I had little trust in doctors and none at all in conventional medicine. But I was stuck. My body was rebelling. I needed to change my life but felt powerless. My immune system was shutting down and my belly tied in knots. In short, I couldn’t stomach my life. I arrived in a torrential downpour, found a plastic bag in the backseat, held it over my head and ran from the parking lot to his office. A large sign on the front door read:

 Leave your animal in the car until it is time for their appointment. (My first missed clue to turn and run.)

 I dripped inside, smiled at the receptionist and grabbed some paperwork. My friend had said the doctor used, “innovative muscle testing to diagnose difficult problems,” and I saw myself as a difficult problem.

It was warm in the office. I took a courageous breath and sat down, looking around the room for distraction from my constant upwelling sadness. There was a small wooden table beneath the window supporting a giant television set, but no magazines in sight. Reading material had been replaced by a large television screen, where an older man demonstrated the doctor’s healing technique.

“Don’t you have anything to read?” I asked the receptionist.

“Oh no,” she said, looking up from her appointment book. “The doctor wants patients to watch the television program so they’ll understand what he’s doing.” The woman smiled a very grandmotherly smile and went back to work. “He’ll be with you in just a moment.”

I hated television. It reminded me of the Orson Welles film, 1984, and his depiction of a totalitarian world, government surveillance and the voiding of citizen’s rights. In the film, the government learned that it didn’t need to monitor people to control them. They simply needed to make the box entertaining and citizens would become brain-washed of their own free will. If I’d been alone I would have turned it off.

A door cracked open, drawing my attention. A four-legged fellow stuck out his black furry head and wet nose. A female hand with red polished nails pulled him back. The doctor was running late with his last patient.

I sat for a moment in disbelief, than rose and approached the receptionist. “Excuse me, ahhhh, does this doctor treat dogs as well?

The receptionist looked up again, her grey hair done in a tidy bun, fingers fidgeting with her pen.

“Oh dear yes. You would not believe how many animals need adjustments. They are just as much in need as humans, you know. He won’t be long now, just a few more minutes. Take a seat.”

I went back to my uncomfortable chair, the steadiness in the woman’s voice an anchor against bolting from the room. A middle-aged woman dripped in and sat across from me, rain gleaming jewel-like on her plastic cap. Her dog would have the appointment after mine. “Just checking in,” she hollered at the woman behind the counter. Obviously a regular.

I can be broadminded, I told myself, but inside I was screaming, “Dogs, dogs, I’m seeing a doctor who sees dogs? What the fuck!”

I paced the polished floor, stuck between the moving images of the television and the sudden awareness of canine products on a display shelf. I was jolted back by the voice of a lanky man dressed as a cowboy. His boots were snakeskin, his jeans tight. He wore a string tie over a brightly colored shirt, his thinning hair cropped short. Blue eyes penetrated as he extended an indifferent hand. 

“I am Doctor Bristol,” he said. “Come this way.” I noticed with some relief that we detoured the dog room. I was invited to sit on a low rounded stool inside a pale blue room, blinds closed on the window facing the parking lot, a massage table filling the space. He sat across from me, running a finger over the answers I’d penned on the intake form.

“Lots of surgeries as a child?”

“Yes, but that was obviously long ago.”

I usually lied about that part by leaving it blank.

He narrowed his concentration. “You clearly eat well, exercise and take the right supplements.”

A sensitive body made me an expert on self-care, that and the training I received from living with a naturopath and helping in his office. The doctor continued reading, flipped the sheet over and moved his thin finger to question number seventeen.

“This is my favorite question,” he laughed. “How can we make you happy? I like the way you answered it, a plane ticket to Italy or Hawaii. Well, we can’t do that but maybe we can get you well again.”

A surge of hope stirred in my belly.

“Oh I see we share a common accident,” he said, “falling from a horse. I have horses too.” I could feel him wanting to talk about himself, wanting to be admired. The woman who recommended him said he was amazing. I was beginning to understand that he thought so too. I sat in silence studying the small brown hairs that sprang from his fingers, waiting for him to get back to the reason for my appointment as he went on and on listening to himself talk. Eventually the light dawned in his eyes and he remembered why I was sitting in front of him.

“In the presenting issues column you write that you can’t get well, that your immune system is weak and that you’re just getting over shingles. Have you had any unusual stress?”

I resisted the urge to answer immediately, measuring my ability to trust a stranger against my desire to get well. Rain pounded the window as I gathered my thoughts, the sky appearing purple through the blinds. When I spoke it was from a core of deeply resigned sadness.

“My mother died two days before Christmas; I’m dealing with a difficult family situation, her will and belongings. On top of that, I am signing divorce papers from a man I still love. I moved to a retreat house in the middle of the forest five years ago because I was depleted from seeing too many clients. That’s been productive because I’ve written books and recovered my energy, but now it feels too isolating. It’s time to move again, but I don’t know where.

“My daughter and granddaughter are here and friends I’ve had for nearly forty years. I love the people, but these unrelenting dark, wet months are killing me. I guess I’m dealing with big decisions and a lot of letting go.”

“Sorry about your mother,” he said, as if inquiring about my zip code. “Let’s talk about diet. How do you feel when you eat bread?”

An abrupt change of subject, but I could follow.

“I don’t eat much bread. I usually buy sample crackers from New Seasons that are very thin. I eat those instead.”

His eyes flashed with unexpected anger. The room went still. “That is not what I asked. I am going to say this one more time and I want you to listen carefully.” He stood up and glared with impatience, as if dealing with the mentally challenged.


“Well, I don’t eat much bread, but I guess I would say I was okay when I did.”

He looked down from his superior position. “Do you remember a, 50’s television show called, ‘Dragnet,’ staring Joe Friday, the detective?”

I nodded.

“Just pretend I’m Joe Friday. His famous line was, Just the facts lady, just the facts. Please narrow our conversation to essential facts.”

I felt sickened and thought immediately of my neighbor, whose job it was to counsel medical doctors. Only last week she’d reported teaching them to take their hand off the doorknob while speaking with patients. Research showed that patients responded better when they thought doctors were more interested in listening, than running to the next consulting room. What a huge flash of insight that must have been!

Dr Bristol asked me to lie down on the massage table and pulled at my feet. “These are some boots you’ve got here,” he said cheerfully.

Their large size and fur linings made them worthy of Alaskan wilderness. I wanted to tell him about buying them in Los Angeles while visiting my son, Clay, but his command to “narrow conversation to facts” silenced me – my eyes misted over.

The doctor continued muscle testing as I stared at the ceiling, feeling detached and unhappy. Maybe that’s why he works with dogs, I thought. They can’t talk back and are happy to please their master. I watched his lips move while I fantasized revenge. If I were a dog, I decided, I would grab his ass on the way out the door and tear a big hole in his cheek, leaving his denim pants flapping in the wind and threads dangling near his fancy snakeskin boots.

Doctor Bristol completed his testing, placed his hand in the center of my back and pulled me to an upright position, exam paper crinkling beneath my hips. “I bet you were wondering what I was doing,” he said, eager to explain.

“No, not really. You’re not the first person I’ve seen who works this way,” while thinking to myself, “although you‘re surely the worst.”

His smile dropped, clearly disappointed to miss an opportunity to showcase his knowledge.

“What did you find out?” I asked, wanting a serious answer.

“I’ll need to study your case. Make another appointment later this week. I’ll give you my findings at that time.”

“Can you tell me anything?”

He stood erect in full cowboy mode and made his declaration. “You’re behind the eight ball. There is no way to get rid of the stress you’re dealing with; you just have to do the best you can.”

The old woman behind the counter sat in the muted glow of a computer screen as I opened my wallet. Writing his check was painful, like flushing money down the toilet.

“No, I don’t know when I will schedule next. I’ll check my calendar and call.” A cold day in hell, I thought. I longed to tell him what an incredibly insensitive doctor he was, but didn’t want to spoil my friend’s relationship by creating tension. Besides, his next patient was already annoyed and barking in the adjoining room.

I stepped into the assault of rain-pounding, sideways-blowing wet that could only be understood and endured by Oregonians. It was the kind of unrelenting weather that had folks from California, who bought houses in the summer, running into real estate offices everywhere screaming, “Sell, sell, sell. I don’t care what it costs. Just get me out of here.”

(Dr. Bristol is not his real name, obviously.  There is no money for a lawsuit in my budget this month.)

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.


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 Clasp

I never had the money my sisters had. I never chose a sensible career path or sheltered in the safety of a solid relationship. I rode the crest of a wave ~ crashing, picking myself up and getting on again. My path has been bruised and alert, never fitting the mold. The Goodwill was my Neiman Marcus, junkers my transport.

I am not a gift giver or anyone who appreciates material things. They get in my way, need tending, replacing and are cumbersome to manage from the crest of a wave. But my mother loves things that sparkle, and grace her neck and ears with beauty. She belongs in the scene of a British movie, where the husband tiptoes behind her, gently kissing her cheek as she sits at her vanity. His starched white cuff is all that shows on screen, as he flips open a velvet hinged case to release diamonds which drip from her neck and cascade from each ear. That is my mothers role. She is the feminine bird fixing her hair and fluffing her ruffles for an evening of elegance and polish.

I know this about her. I want to please, to care for her, to fill in her empty places and so I shop. I shop without knowledge, money or experience. I shop for the child in her who delights at surprise.

I always buy jewelry because she can’t have enough. I imagine she will wear my gifts for a few years, feeling my love as she fastens the clasp across her wrist, around her neck or over each lobe. What I did not account for, is that she would keep my gifts year after year, attached to each one more completely than we bonded as mother and daughter.

How shocked I was to see the gifts from my days in poverty still owned and worn, the price I paid betraying itself in the green tinge on her finger or the dull marks on her neck.

Oh mother dear, forgive me. That was the best I could do, when you deserved so much more.

written 10-16-08

The Purse

My mother is a tiny woman, fragile and small. She loves fashion and style. She loves fishing but never without lipstick, jewelry and attractive attire. My mother is an expression of opposites.

This small woman who weighs less than 100 pounds, still carries a purse that weighs 62. She has always carried this albatross like an anchor, holding her little body firmly fixed in time.

Grown men, large strong men, longshoremen-kind of men have complained about the weight of her purse, but she will not be without it; she won’t trim it down.

Her purses are custom made of imported leathers and have several zipper compartments in which you might find nail clippers, a screw driver, address book, make-up, wallet, checkbooks, hair combs, hand lotion, dental floss, car keys, extra car keys, silver hair clips, fishing line, department store receipts, pens, pencils, cell phone, stamps, calculator, paperclips, needles with thread, toothbrush and perfumes. If she is headed out for the evening, you can add white gloves and jewelry. This is only the surface, the part I might recognize from a glance.

I have offered to carry her albatross over the years, especially during periods of frail health, but tire after a few short blocks.

Mom, you can’t continue doing this. You have to carry less. Surely, you don’t need all this stuff!

She smiles and takes the bag from my arms. It’s okay honey, I’ll carry it now, I’m used to it.  She shoulders her leather anchor, moving forward with ease.

At the end of her medical appointment, the doctor picks up her purse, loses his balance and stumbles from the weight. Verse, what have you got in this thing? For heaven sake!  She pays him no mind, slips it over her shoulder and walks out.

I suppose we will bury her with that purse. I can’t imagine her doing without it.

 written 10-16-08

Death Visits

Death is around my mother now like an energetic cocoon waiting to merge with her physical body and dissolve its solidity into an expansive freedom.

It doesn’t stand by the door the way it does during childbirth. It is more a curious observer there, wondering if mother or child will pass beyond the edge of reality and need a companion to guide their spirit home. No, it is not that kind of death that awaits my mother. That kind of death comes for an otherwise healthy body. Its occasion is sudden, accidental or unexpected.

The death that waits for my mother is slow and subtle. Each day it sucks away minuscule amounts of desire, until her once-active body can no longer will itself to turn the pages of the latest mystery novel arriving in the mail.

The slender hands that once fashioned silky strands of childrens hair into intricate french braids, now struggles to hold a comb or press the spring that fastens her silver hair clip.

The morning reunions she enjoyed with friends at her favorite breakfast café, have been replaced with bottles of painkiller and a glimpse at the newspaper before returning to bed.

This was the woman who danced, sang heart-felt blues at the upright piano and raced around the globe in search of adventure and inspiration. She has no desire to die. Her grasp on life has always been full and present, holding as much of it in each hand as she could manage.

But now she swallows anti-depressants so she can stomach her reality, the reality  of having life’s brilliant dance move farther and farther from her feet. I am not living. I am only existing, she admitted with sadness and resignation. My mother does not believe in complaining, finding fault or dwelling on the negative. She has never referred to herself as old, and continued wearing prom dresses into her eighties.

Death has not claimed her yet, but has moved close enough to examine her breath, weaken her heart and shrivel her body. Her mouth is flung wide in sleep, her breathing open and labored. I know she is fighting. She is thumbing her nose at death and saying, You will not close my mouth or steal my connection to life. Witness the strength of my breathing. Witness the power of my will.

But death does not come at her like a warrior or an avalanche. Death is patient and quiet. Death has time and the confidence that comes from assured victory. It moves slowly, taking back a tablespoon of vitality here, a cup of life force there. It has already stolen the radiance from her smile and precious memories from her heart.

Can she hear death whispering? It is coming closer every day. It’s okay to sleep, death assures her. Let your bed comfort you now. The world is too fast and too noisy. Enjoy the softness of your sheets, the twilight haven of your room. Feel your chest move up and down. There is nothing else that’s important. Just watch your breath move in and out. Begin to surrender. Begin to think about letting go. I have you. As soon as you’re ready, I have you. There is nothing to fear.

One day soon my mother will free herself, like a ship coming untethered from the shore, and we will have her no more.

written 9.25.2008

The Hospital Room

White coats and surgical coverings, sharp shining silver tools designed to invade, ether masks filled with gagging head splitting recovery. Alone, alone, alone, in dimly lit rooms where I wake full of pain, and half conscious awareness. Wheeled to other sterile rooms with metal beds lined up in rows. Jokes from a waitress who visits to explain that my mother is too busy to come. Are those pork chops you’re having for dinner, she asks, looking at the tube of liquid dripping into my arm. I smile feeling some responsibility to both appreciate and amuse her.

Later my mother comes with new pajamas, little rose buds living in creamy soft flannel. She smells like fresh air. The outside world clings to her clothes, the scent of the day lingers in her midnight hair. I want to eat her up, whole. I want to take her inside me to satisfy an unspeakable appetite. She tells me about the restaurant while painting her lips in fire engine red. I want to grab those lips, ask her to swallow me. I want to live within her body. Take me home, I want to scream. Take me to another place, eat me alive, but don’t leave me here.

Visiting hours are short, her schedule is full. I am one of the lucky 5. I am sick, so I get to see her. I have her undivided attention for about half an hour. New pajamas and the memory of sunlight playing on her ear-rings stay with me long after she closes the door. Now it’s me and nothingness. Tomorrow the janitor will mop my room. I like him. He comes everyday. The floors are not dirty. I don’t know why he comes. He has bags tied balloon-like over his shoes, as he mops clean over clean.

written 3-11-08