Losing Uncle Mitch: an Excerpt

Summer vacation was interrupted by sad news. Uncle Mitch had been found dead in his recliner, a bag of peanuts on his lap, the empty shells strewn about the floor. Mitch rarely missed a day of work, so the neighbor had noticed his Ford Galaxy 500 sitting idle and had checked on him, only to find his dead body.

I had been staying over at Monica’s, but because of the tragedy, we were expected back at the Sandyhook house. When we arrived, the upstairs sat glum and vacant. We went down to Star’s apartment, and the same morose quiet seemed to be emanating from her front door.

“Where is everybody?” Monica asked as we entered.

The smell of cabbage wafted from the kitchen, and it took us a moment to notice that Aunt Alice was sitting in the beige rocker-recliner, still as death.  We both started upon realizing she was there.

“Oh! You frightened me,” I blurted. The familiar yet weathered Mediterranean face was not a consoling one.

“Sit—both of you,” she said abruptly, the lines in her crepe-like skin deepening with disapproval. “Sit down and think about Mitchie.” There was a bite in her voice that disguised any sadness about her nephew that I thought might lie underneath.

“We’re going outside, Aunt Al,” we disagreed in unison, making a move for the door.

“Sit down!” the words erupted from Alice’s lips like a burst of lava from a volcano, and it was in that moment I realized I had never really seen her smile. Yes, I had beheld a semblance when she posed for photos, a prim uprising of the corners of her mouth, but I had never observed her serious face painted with an authentic grin and could not imagine an unabashed guffaw emanating from the depth of her belly.

With that, I sunk into a straight-backed chair across from her, Monica following suit. Aunt Al’s forcefulness had weakened our knees.

“Monica,” I began, thinking I could break the heavy silence with some chatter, but Alice interrupted, her magnified, bespectacled eyes enlarged further by the fervor of her message.

“No talking! Be quiet and think about Mitch. We sit.”

All day? I wondered and glanced sidelong at Monica who had a bewildered expression on her face. Didn’t she know that teenagers couldn’t sit still very long? But we knew not to provoke her. She had lived in Bridgeport for most of her life, the town Daddy had once called “the armpit of the nation.” Her neighborhood was rough, and Alice lived alone after her husband had passed away, but she refused to move and adapted her routines to accommodate the increasing crime in the area. She didn’t drive and was in the habit of walking to the corner market every week with cash for groceries hidden in her shoe.

“I’ve got mugger’s money in my pocketbook, but my grocery money is in my shoe” she once told me, gesturing toward her orthopedic lace-up with her cane. “I just carry a few dollars in my pocketbook. I get mugged once in a while, you know, and what is it you never do when you’re mugged?” she asked, suddenly turning to me, expecting an answer.

I shook my head, unsure.

“You never show them that you’re scared,” she answered her own question and bobbed her head up and down as she spoke as if to hammer that bit of wisdom into my memory.

“I face them and open my bag,” she continued, “and they take the money and leave me alone. They never think to search my shoes.” She let out a rare, chortling noise that sounded like satisfaction.

Alice was frail but formidable—a cane-wielding, streetwise senior. We knew better than to mess with her, so we sat, heavy air sheening our faces with sweat and the weight of Alice’s grief resting upon our shoulders. I didn’t want to sit and think about death. I didn’t even like to go to hospitals, into sick rooms where death rubbed at my ankles, but I sat obediently and, as instructed, let thoughts of Mitch stream in.

Only last year, while waiting at the doctor’s office, I had come across an old issue of the New Yorker. The cover had caught my attention; it was a cartoon picture of a yellow school bus. I leafed through it, thinking of the Sunday paper and looking for comics. There were political cartoons, which I had trouble understanding, and poems, which I liked. There were advertisements for Maker’s Mark Whisky and Irish country hats, and there were articles written in small print. I thumbed through, looking for something I might like to read, and spotted the words “Electro-convulsive shock.” Surprised, I looked closer. The article was called “As Empty as Eve.” It was about a woman named Nancy Parker who had suffered from depression after some disfiguring orthodontic work. She had finally agreed to her doctor’s persistent suggestion that she spend some time at a psychiatric hospital for a brief respite—a rest cure. However, without her consent, the physicians at the facility gave her electric shock therapy, the same treatment that Uncle Mitch once had. The woman in the story lost a large piece of herself from ECT. She said, “There weren’t just gaps in my memory. There were oceans and oceans of blankness” (96).

I read the story in fascination, literally sitting on the edge of my seat, paging through the woman’s explication. For the first time, I had an explanation about what Uncle Mitch had been through. The article said that the idea for electric shock therapy came from doctors’ desire to restore mental patients to health. It was thought they could be shocked into rationality. Primitive forms of the treatment originated with using prank-like scare tactics—throwing patients into a lake or surreptitiously shooting a gun off behind them. Eventually, after many trials, what was considered an evolved form of treatment emerged—administering electric shockwaves to the brain. I was fascinated by the article’s description:

“Electroconvulsive therapy is usually given in the morning, and the patient is prepared for it as if for surgery: he is allowed no breakfast, and false teeth, if any, are removed. He is positioned comfortably in bed on his back, and given an intravenous injection of a muscle-relaxant drug and a complementing injection of a hypnotic to maintain normal respiration. An electrode is then placed on each temple, and an alternating current of (usually) eighty or ninety volts is passed between the electrodes for a fraction of a fraction of a second. In that stupendous instant, the brain is so raced that the mind cannot function, and it is from this eerie quietus that the beneficial results of the treatment appear to spring….The states of mind of most patients emerging from the post-convulsion sleep are similar. There is a harrowing sense of confusion, and then a full awakening in the midnight dark of total amnesia. The patient has no idea who he is or where he is or what has happened to him. He is often also weak, unsteady, and dizzy. Nausea, sometimes with vomiting, and headache are not uncommon. Some sense of identity soon and spontaneously returns, and from the attending doctors and nurses the patient learns his whereabouts and the nature of his situation. At that point, reorientation slows, and the deepest amnesia remains. The distant past—the past of childhood and adolescence—is the first to gradually reappear. The middle past is more difficult to recover, and the immediate past—the weeks or months just preceding treatment—is almost always irretrievable” (90, 92).

I was astounded. Mitch, quiet Mitch, always there but keeping to himself. What had he lost? What had it been like for him? I closed my eyes, blocking out the heat and the presence of others in the room. Cascading before me were images of my uncle, flashes of his life, some real and some how I imagined they could have been.

Yearbook photos of him appeared on the screen of my closed lids–Mitch playing high school basketball, his senior picture, snapshots of him dressed in his army uniform. He was in World War II, the Philippines, cooking in the kitchen, humming, finding comfort in the songs his mother had sung to him when he was a child, while his boisterous, hungry comrades in the mess hall waited to be fed.

There he was again, kneeling under leafless palm trees, green fronds lying on the ground as lifeless as his friends who lay dying around him.

And again, home from the war, with memories he could not shake off, flying behind him like the tail of a kite. Yet, home offered no solace, its walls ringing with the newfound absence of his mother–gone, dead in her thirties.

Intertwined with his mourning–Mitch becoming aware of a difference in himself—like a switch had been thrown, a glaring brightness in his mind that burned the backs of his eyes even when he tried to sleep. An altered self remained within, someone he could not recognize, a man with a nervousness that would not be tamped down even with long draws from cigarette after cigarette. He had imagined that leaving the island would allow him to shed his agitated self as easily as he had shed his worn uniform. He had hoped, when he got home, he would find his former self waiting, that the intangible, powerful experience of his pre-war life would act as elixir to revive him and make everything normal. But with reluctant clarity, he realized that his new self was him—a motherless war veteran, forever changed by the things he had seen and the deaths of those he cared about.

And, there, my mind saw him again, going to Fairfield Hills, a bent figure walking small inside that vast institution, wanting help but scared of the electrodes attached, like redback spiders to his skin and the doctor’s detached voice droning in his ears. The electricity went through him with such certainty, he swore he could see it inside of him, traveling through the corridors of his mind like a jagged path of lightning joining with his own insufferable light, pushing it back into the dark space of unconsciousness.

Afterward, with no concept of time, in antiseptic rooms he sat, waking up, feeling like he had been hit by a truck, his muscles sore, his nerves achy, but feeling strangely full of energy. Soon, he lost count of how many times it happened, but the shocks no longer scared him, Instead, he was fearful of something else he couldn’t quite put his finger on, something that had to do with the jumbled quality of his memories and thoughts, splayed out like a turned-over box of snapshots—vivid and motionless and impossible to arrange.

My disturbing reverie was interrupted by Aunt Star’s entrance, and I was glad to leave it. Sitting still caused me to think too much, I thought, and thinking could be painful.

“We’re holding the funeral this weekend, so you’ll be able to go,” Star said, knowing my return flight to California was imminent.

I nodded, Star and Alice started talking, and Monica and I escaped outside.

That Saturday, we carpooled to the funeral home, an unobtrusive building situated on a busy side street. Inside, the receiving room was pungent with the scent of flowers and the mingled colognes of attendees. Against the back wall, a modest stage stood empty except for one, tall microphone standing center. Rows of metal, folding chairs faced front.

People maneuvered through the space, visiting, consoling, hugging, speaking in low tones, making the room sound like a roar of whispers. I thought about what a shame it was that some of the only times people came together was after someone’s death, when you had to push the excitement of seeing acquaintances down out of respect for the solemnity of the occasion. People I hadn’t seen for years converged, moving toward me, commenting on how much I had grown. Others lined up, waiting their turn to view Mitch’s body.

Mitch lay, conspicuously, in an open casket in the front of the room. When I reached him, I stared. He looked like he was sleeping, but instead of having mussed up hair, it was neatly combed back. His eyebrows were even groomed. I touched his cold skin. I wouldn’t have been brave enough to do so, but Monica’s dad, Gary, who made jokes out of everything, was in line before me. He patted Mitch on the cheek, talking to him like he was alive.

“Heya, Mitch. Wake up, will ya?”Gary said and laughed.

I felt surprised by his impertinence. For me, it wasn’t a joke. This was the first time I had stared death in the face, and it was a face that looked so much like Daddy’s. Mitch’s suit was grey with pinstripes, and the silk fabric of the coffin ruffled up around him like angel’s wings. I had never seen him in a suit except in my parent’s wedding photos. With one finger, I touched his cheek gently. It was cold and waxen, and the feel of it made me realize that this wasn’t Mitch at all, that his body was a mere shell, the physical remains of who he once was, his warmth, his spirit flown somewhere else.

Daddy hadn’t had an open casket; he had been cremated, his ashes put into a box that was buried on Grandma Penelope’s grave—a ceremony that had been performed without me. As usual, the grownups had been trying to protect me, but what they didn’t realize was their omission took away my sense of closure. I never saw the finality of his existence, like I was witnessing with Mitch, but here was finality staring me hard in the face, impossible to ignore, with all its dizzying connections swirling around me—the all-encompassing notions of what past and present, existence and non-existence might signify.

I sat, sandwiched between cousins in the second row, as the pastor spoke about life and death. His words weren’t just about Mitch. They were universal words meant to comfort anyone who had ever lost someone dear. Raw, unexpected emotion began to swell in my throat, and I tried to push its surprising magnitude down by swallowing gulps of the air that seemed to be thickening around me. My desperate attempt to keep the surge of feeling from rising within me was futile, and the air I had sucked in came up and out in a hiccupping sob. I sat, senses inundated, feeling lightheaded amidst the fragrance of flower arrangements, perfumed relatives, and the faint smell of formaldehyde. I had loved Uncle Mitch, but I didn’t cry for him. Instead, for the first time since the day of his passing three years before, I cried for my father, about the unfairness and bitter pain of death and the terrible knowledge that I had to live the rest of my life without him.

Gimpy Taught Me to Drive: an Excerpt

My identity was shifting as well, especially because it was a particular Thursday in August 1981, my sixteenth birthday, and Mom and I were driving to the DMV to get my license. I had been well aware of a change in myself since moving to California; I felt my independence keenly—an only child in a new town with an ill mother and heaped with the responsibilities that brought. I felt unique in this regard, with an outlook that really only looked inward, never realizing there might be thousands of other children in the world in the same situation as mine, taking on big obligations, trying to become adults before their time.

I wanted adulthood desperately; I wanted to prove my capability, my ultimate distance from childhood and, in doing so, reassure myself and everyone around me that I was self-sufficient, that I did not need anyone, especially because I knew the people I relied on could disappear in an instant. Why allow myself that kind of dependence and expose myself to that kind of hurt ever again?

Getting my driver’s license was my next step toward independence. I had already been driving for months with my permit, and Mom was glad that was I was able to. She had developed cataracts, and it was getting harder for her to see when she drove. My permit allowed me to chauffeur her around town and on long-distance trips, take her shopping, do errands. My permit gave me a preliminary taste of my upcoming autonomy. But the license! The license was the whole bite. It was an emblem of freedom—a pass to go anywhere and do anything without a supervisory gaze upon me—another way to take control of my life.

Mom and I parked in front of the red, cinder-block DMV building, and I anxiously stepped through the door, got in line, presented my paperwork, and waited for the examiner. Uncharacteristically, I didn’t have to wait long. He strode out, tall, slender, and thin of hair, with a clipboard in hand, and asked me to follow him outside.

He climbed into the passenger’s side of Mom’s pale blue ’69 Dodge Dart, and I started her up, the V8 rumbling under the hood.

“Let’s go,” the examiner said, making sure to buckle his seatbelt securely. The DMV was on a backroad in downtown Sonora, where streets were San Francisco-style—narrow and steep. We pulled out onto West Jackson, parked cars lining both sides, and I putted along slowly, trying to keep an even speed. The parked cars thinned, and the examiner interrupted my concentration.

“Stop here,” he said. I’d like you to parallel park in that space.” He gestured to his right. The Dart was pointed downhill at what seemed to be a 45 degree angle. Did he really expect me to parallel park here? I wondered, trying to contain my surprise, to defy stereotype and be the calm, cool, collected teenager. I had practiced parallel parking many times in an empty parking lot under the tutelage of my high school Driver’s Ed. instructor, but I had never tried it on a hill. The air inside the car seemed be getting hotter, and I wondered if it was me or the summer weather. The examiner looked over, waiting for me to take action. I turned the air conditioner up a click, threw on my blinker, and looked over my shoulder. Thankfully, the street was a quiet one, and there were no cars coming.

Cut the piece of pie, I thought. I turned the wheel, triangled into the space without nicking the curb or the adjacent cars, and straightened, proud of myself for doing reasonably well. The examiner opened his door, checked my proximity to the curb, wrote notes on his clipboard, and told me to drive on.

He’s a quiet one, I thought, wishing for a little input. At least Gimpy had given some advice beforehand–“Don’t make him push on his imaginary brake.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“If your driving is worrying him, he’ll push his right foot down, trying to hit the brake even though he doesn’t have one.”

So I intermittently checked the examiner’s foot as I followed his directions, driving all over the downtown area, fast and slow, entering, exiting, using turn signals, obeying the yellow and red at our town’s one stoplight, and never allowing the Dart’s 351 Cleveland to have its head, willing it to propel me along, tame and steady. All the while, the examiner observed me, surveyed the road, wrote notes.

Finally, we returned to the DMV parking lot; he handed me my scorecard, and exited the car.

“Just go inside,” he said, “They’ll take care of the rest.”

I looked down at his circles, scribbles, and notes. I had scored a 91. The reason for the nine-point loss was notable, splashed across the top of the page in all caps—“POSITION OF HANDS!”

I went inside, excited that I had passed, but contemplating my mistake. The clerk took my paper and looked at it.

“You passed. Good for you,” she said. “Ten and two, though. Remember ten and two.”

In the driver’s handbook, I had read about positioning your hands on the steering wheel as if you were grabbing the numbers ten and two on the face of a clock. But, as diligently as I had studied, that point had not sunk in. Instead, I drove the way Gimpy had taught me, which had become my default driving style.

“Get in,” Gimpy said, moving toward the passenger side of his robin’s-egg-blue Datsun pickup. I had never driven before, except for once, secretly trying to back Mom’s automatic out of her parking space, just to see if I could do it. I had backed up a foot, felt unsure of myself, and pulled forward again, too afraid of getting into trouble. So it was with excitement that I climbed into Gimpy’s driver’s side bucket seat, put my hands on the wheel, and eyed the mysterious-looking stick shift.

“Ya see those three pedals down by your feet?” Gimpy asked. I nodded. “The right one is the gas, the middle is the brake, and the left is the clutch. Now push that clutch all the way down with your left foot, and push on the brake with your right.”

I pushed, the clutch sank to the floor, and the truck moved a little. I pressed firmly on the brake.

“Good. Now fire ‘er up,” Gimpy instructed.

I knew how to do that much. I turned the key, and the engine flared, then settled down to a rhythmic purr.

“Okay, lookie here at the stick shift,” Gimpy continued. “It’s already in first gear, and that’s where you need to start.”

I had noticed stick shifts in cars before; they were similar to video game joysticks, but I had never really looked at one. On examination, I saw the numbers one through four at the base. The arm of the stick shift sat near number one.

“Now the trick is,” Gimpy told me, “to ease up on the clutch while you slowly push on the gas. Don’t let off the clutch too quick.” But I already had; the truck lurched forward and died, and I looked questioningly at Gimpy. “That’s okay,” he said, “turn the key again. I stepped on the pedals and fired the engine again. This time I concentrated on letting the clutch out more slowly.

“Now give it just a little gas,” Gimpy told me. I did so, and the truck moved forward jerkily, stirring up dust on the gravel drive.

“Where do we go?” I asked, unsure of Gimpy’s plan.

“Get on the road, girl,” Gimpy said, pointing at the isolated two-lane in front of his house. “Take a right.”

The road! I thought. We’re already going on the road.

I turned onto Rawhide, still in first gear, and crossed a cattle guard, the metal rungs ringing under the tires.

The engine was winding up; the truck felt like a horse straining against the reins. “Do I put it into second gear?” I asked.

“Nope. Stay in first,” Gimpy said. After about fifteen seconds of slow travel, he pointed at a dirt path that led to the cow pasture. “Turn here.”

I rotated the wheel, and Gimpy directed me to drive out into the field. “This is a good place to practice,” he said.

The field was rutted, full of cowpies, and patched with early summer grass. I drove from one end of it to the other over and over again, bumping along, turning, backing up, and learning how to smoothly let up on the clutch as I pushed down on the gas.

Gimpy was my cow-pasture driving teacher over the course of several days. I had gotten up to second gear on the field, and the next time I showed up for a driving lesson, Gimpy said I had graduated.

“You can drive down to the end of the road, but don’t go past third gear yet,” Gimpy warned.

I passed the usual turn to the cow pasture and headed further down the narrow curves, toward Melones Lake. In places the sides of the road dipped down into low gullies that sprouted grass like hair from old men’s ears. Table Mountain rose at my left, striated, flat-topped, and majestic. Despite the scenery, I kept focused, my hands gripping the steering wheel, diligent in my efforts to stay between the lines. In a few minutes, I came to the end of the road and circled around.

“Hold up,” Gimpy said. “You’re doing good, but you’d be more comfortable if you put your right hand on top of the wheel. He placed his wide mitt on an imaginary steering wheel in front of him. “See how I have full range of motion in this position?” He arced his hand back and forth widely in demonstration, simulating a left turn, then a right. “Try it.”

I placed my hand top-center and drove forward, mimicking the movement he had demonstrated and navigating the curves fluidly. “That’s nice,” I told him, and drove back to his house, feeling like an expert.

The Reason I Can Fly

I used to think it could have been Sister Bertrille, Sally Field’s character in The Flying Nun, that gave me the idea I could fly. As a kid, I was always trying it—straining to get enough height, jumping off my twin canopy bed repeatedly with arms flapping. I was fascinated by the cartoon series The Superfriends because of Wonder Woman’s invisible plane and Superman’s ability to take off in a single bound. And, for the last 45 years I have had no trouble flying myself; in the terrain of my dreams I can lift off easily, fly for the sheer sense of freedom or merely to impress bystanders. I’ve read that, as we grow into adulthood, we often lose the ability to fly in our dreams, but that has never happened for me. I have been able to keep the belief alive, in slumber and wakefulness, that I am capable of accomplishing anything I choose to.

It was my father who instilled that belief in me. For the eleven years he was in my life, he gave me gifts that have lasted four decades. What can you know of a father in eleven childhood years, when perception is a kaleidoscope of images with facets that change with the twists from infancy to toddlerhood to preadolescence?

I know one thing—I never looked up to him, and by this I mean that I literally don’t remember physically looking up to him; he did not tower above me like a distant authoritarian. Instead, we were always eye to eye.

My first memory is sitting next to him on diamond patterned kitchen linoleum setting up toys—little things like miniature doll chairs, superballs, building blocks. Systematically, we set up at least a dozen objects, each spaced about six inches apart. My two-year-old fingers had already mastered spinning jacks—the four-pronged metal stars that twirled and danced with the snap of thumb against forefinger, and this was the game. We took turns spinning a jack, watching it pirouette between the toys, bouncing off one to another like a pinball. Whichever items the jack hit were ours to keep. The more torque you could deliver meant the more likely the jack was to twap, thip, thud into a multitude of prizes before its momentum petered.

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We are a thirty-two year old and a four-year old sprawled out on living room carpet on our bellies, propped up, elbow to elbow, sharing one coloring book.  The wheat-colored paper holds a bushel of apples that I am intent on outlining in Crayola red. Dad uses Pine Green for leaves and Raw Sienna for wicker basket.

“You don’t need to press so hard with the crayon, honey,” he advises. “Watch.” He angles the Green and stays in the lines with light pressure and even strokes of the crayon. I continue to outline in hard red lines but color the centers softly like he showed me.

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Three years later we are across from each other on the same beige carpet, opponents sitting six feet apart, legs forming Vs–walls that protect intricate patterns of marbles. Ten cat’s eye marbles, clear with ribbons of color inside, are arranged in front of each of us. It is our decision how best to place the front nine, how best to protect the giant “Dodo” in the back because, God knows, you don’t want your opponent to capture the Dodo. Dad takes ten more marbles out of the red velvet bag that houses them, hands me five and keeps the same for himself. He sets an orange-swirled shooter in the crook of his finger, and his large thumbnail flicks it expertly, with enough force to move it furiously across the low piled carpet that wants to impede its progress. He grins at me when he hears glass click against glass. I roll his shooter back to him along with the marble he won.

“It’s only a front-rower;” I say smugly, “my Dodo’s still safe.”

I clamp my shooter a bit awkwardly, my smaller thumb lacking the power of Dad’s but am excited to see it travel the length of the room and make a satisfying double click, sideswiping a front-rower and also hitting one behind. Dad rolls all three back to me, and I see concentration come into his eyes, a little smirk working at the side of his mouth. His thumb seems to move in slow motion; it flips forward and twists, putting spin on his marble as it moves through the front row gap he created last turn and angles past my second row. It delicately clinks the Dodo, as if in toast to his success.

“No fair!” I cry, and Dad shrugs, grins, and waits for me to roll his prize over.

The game is not over, though. After my next turn he decides to use the Dodo as his shooter, a move that usually resembles King Kong mowing through a street of parked cars, but the giant actually misses, flies right to me without a sound and, triumphant I take the game piece back into my pile.

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Dad is five inches away from my face, staring at my teeth.

“There they are! I told you. Those are your sweet teeth.” He points to two on the top, the pointy ones that aren’t quite next to the front teeth.

“See how they’re just a bit more yellow then the others?” he asks. I look in the mirror, and he’s right—they are more yellow.

“That’s because the sweet tooth absorbs all the sugar you eat. See mine?” He opens his mouth in a grimacing smile, and I see his two pointy top teeth, a bit more discolored than the rest.

“We match!” I say. I’m not sure if he’s joking or not, but I think I believe him. Mom told me he hides cookies under the bed, and I know he has to have dessert every day, so he must be an expert.

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The grownups are all seated at our round, maple dining table, piles of red, white, and blue chips stacked in front of each. It’s a boisterous bunch, bellies full of my mom’s lemon meringue and chocolate cream pies, telling clean jokes loudly, and taunting each other about their possession or lack of poker faces.

“Can I play?” I ask tentatively, knowing it’s my bedtime.

“You better head to bed,” Mom says, and my lower lip pushes forward, the classic pout that I developed in infancy.

“Let her stay up, Carol,” Dad tells her. He pats the chair next to him. “Come sit here, Pumpkin,” he says to me and, to everyone else, “We can deal her in. She’s only seven,” as if to reassure his audience that I am not a threat. But Dad and all his nephews have played cards with me as far back as I can remember, teaching me rummy and poker, and after an hour of the game and the good grace of the deal, the majority of chips are piled in a slurry of color before me.

“Aw, okay, honey,” Dad smiles at me, his bushy eyebrows raising with his words, “it looks like it’s time for you to go to bed.” The grownups laugh and tell me goodnight, but I think they are also a little bit relieved as they divvy up my chips between them.

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No school—it’s summertime, the June light lingering late into the day, and Dad and I are in the green of the backyard. His hand clutches a softball, and he has his arms around me, positioning the bat in my hands. He shows me how to stand, how to hold my shoulders, how to bend my knees, how to swing straight, how to follow through.  I try it on my own, the small wooden bat feeling a bit heavy, but I am able to copy the fluidity of the movement. He backs up and tosses the ball. I miss, we repeat, and I keep missing.

“Keep your eye on the ball,” he says, speaking to my frustration, “don’t worry about the bat—just watch the ball and swing. Don’t give up. You can do it.”

He tosses the ball again. I am tense with my desire to hit it, and this time, instead of focusing on my swing, on the movement that is now becoming familiar, I stare at the ball arcing toward me. It is spinning; I see the red laces and react, feel the smack of leather against wood, see the ball fly above Dad’s head and soar over the chain link fence into the neighbor’s yard. Dad is giddy, laughing, jumping over the fence, retrieving the ball. He runs back to me and his excitement is infectious.

“I knew you could do it,” he tells me, and I beam back at him.

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On September 29th of this year, my father will have been gone for forty years, an amount of time that seems an impossibility. His departure from this world along with my mother’s decision to move across the country, away from the family that was my support group, created in me a belief that I was alone. Beginning at age twelve, I learned to do things entirely on my own, first from necessity and later from habit, and long after I discovered this wasn’t always the healthiest way to approach life, I have struggled with asking for help from others, believing that I do not need it, that I am fine, indeed better off, propelled by my own power.

However, last year, I had a dream that reminded me of the truth. I dreamed I was walking on a field, or fairgrounds, or grassy plain. There was blue sky, sunshine, people milling about. As I moved through the scene, a Native American man fell into step beside me, someone I did not know but recognized as wise, and we walked companionably, talking.

“What should I do about this problem?” I asked him, regarding something that was going on in my life at the time.

“You do not need to worry about it,” said the sage, “The problem will resolve itself. You just need to keep moving forward like you always have,” and, at that, he took my hand, twining each of his fingers between my own, and I began to lift off the ground into the familiar state of flight, moving from vertical to horizontal, extending my arms out to my sides, my body at his shoulder, my hand still in his as he continued to walk.

In every flying dream I have ever had, I flew solo, but the power I received from this man’s grip made me realize that he was the source of my flight. In curiosity and amazement, I turned and looked at him more closely. I took in the sight of his black hair, his dark skin and eyes, and the dawning realization of who he was, for here was my father walking by my side, believing in me, existing as he always has, right next to me, eye-to-eye, the reason I can fly.

Aunts, Uncles, the Ozone Layer, and Other Protective Forces

I wanted to lick the beater but Aunt Star wouldn’t let me. We had mixed the cream cheese, sugar, eggs, and vanilla to a stiff creaminess, and Star immediately grabbed a white, rubber spatula and deftly scraped the mixture onto the graham cracker crust we had earlier pressed into a springform pan.

She took the beater from me, its silver color glinting in the lenses of her cat-eye frames.

“The batter goes into the pan. You can eat some after it is baked,” she told me in a no-nonsense tone capped with her signature chuckle. She put the cake into the oven, the muscles of her large arms flexing as she bent forward.

Star was my dad’s sister and, being much older, had raised him alongside her own four sons. And Star’s sons lived within miles of her. In fact, for many years, the most important people in my life all lived just a few miles apart, as if Star was the root of a vine whose tendrils reached outward with the power to curl her family toward her.

Her house sat up against a wood, rich with fallen leaves, slugs, and privacy. Sandyhook itself was a maze of private, winding, dirt roads and maple trees. Following the steep incline of the stream behind the house led to Lake Zoar, a shining circle perfect for skipping rocks. Crossing the stream and trekking west revealed neighbor’s abodes nestled within, and venturing just a few minutes beyond led to Uncle Ted’s. (Technically, Star’s sons were my first cousins but, because they were older than me, I always called them uncles).

When I was nine, Ted married Debbie, a petite, platinum blonde; her hair color had showed itself at birth and never darkened. She hadn’t been able to resist my swarthy, half-Greek, half-Italian uncle whose full mustache never muffled the clever things he had to say. Debbie was his perfect counterpart, liberally giggling at his sarcastic witticisms and setting him straight if his word play went too far.

I often found myself at Ted and Debbie’s house, and they generously included me in their doings.

“Why don’t you come jogging with us?” Debbie asked me one morning. It was early summer, and I was out of school. The morning was still New-England cool, and they had both already donned their trendy jogging attire—white cotton shirts and white, short shorts piped with orange trim. Ted’s calves looked like Popeye’s bulging forearms. A stranger would have thought he jogged doggedly up steep hills for hours to attain them. But I knew that large calves came with the family; you didn’t have to work hard to get them, but you could develop them further if you wanted to.

I agreed to jog; I was an energetic twelve-year-old and thought it would be fun. Ted’s brother, Dennis, joined us, his outfit more conservative but his calves matching Ted’s, and we set out at a steady pace, working our way through the neighborhood, breathing easily in the shade of the tree-lined streets. We jogged past houses, the school bus stop and, as we continued, turned onto paved road. Our soles sounded louder, pounded the harder ground, and the sun began its ascent. Dennis and Ted pulled ahead as we approached our first hill and my calves, their size diluted from my mother’s genetic contribution, began to burn as did my forehead, beaded with sweat from the rising heat.

Debbie and I watched the men’s figures get smaller with distance; she stayed beside me, a sweatband absorbing her effort and her perky nature propelling me to match her gait. An hour later, we completed our loop and, when we reached their house, I collapsed onto the couch. Debbie brought a large bowl of sliced cantaloupe and set it in front of me. I took a bite, still catching my breath, and the gentle, sweet flavor of the melon enraptured me, tasting better than I remembered any melon tasting. I sat, chewing on the peachy flesh, and secretly thought that jogging wasn’t for me.

“Hey, Ma!” Dennis called.

We had come home, and Star was hunkered down, hands in the dirt of her vegetable garden.

“What, honey?” she asked, turning her head sideways to look at her bespectacled, second son.

“Lydia needs your help when you get a chance.”

Star gently placed a seedling into the dark soil.

“Okay, tell her I’ll be over in a bit,” and she turned her attention back to her tomatoes.

Lydia was Debbie’s sister, her hair a shade shorter and a shade darker. She had married Ted’s brother, Dennis, the two blondes juxtaposed against the olive skin and dark hair of their husbands. Dennis and Lydia lived upstairs from Star and Jim and had taken my mother and I in after my dad died. Mom and I each had a room on the west wing of the house—the side closest to the creek and its restful gurgling.

I had been allowed to pick out a new bedspread and curtains to decorate the tiny room and chose cheerful orange leaves that vined against a white background. My cousin, Monica, a year younger than me, often got to spend the night, and we always stayed up long past our bedtimes talking.

When Monica’s dad, Gary, stayed late visiting with his brother, he would often throw our door open unexpectedly to check on us, always unsurprised that we were not asleep.

“What are you two doin’?” he asked. “Shootin’ the breeze?”

Gary installed carpet for a living and had thought it a worthy endeavor to lay shag carpet on the floors, walls, and ceiling of his Dodge Maxivan. Monica and I loved riding in it. Gary was the youngest of Star’s sons and perhaps the wildest. It was the era before mandatory seatbelts and, quintessential cigarette dangling from his lips, and black, wavy hair blowing back from the force let in by the open window, he would speed up on the freeway and then hit the brakes hard and brief, speed up and do it again and again as Monica and I laughed with uncontrollable abandon and tried to keep from flying off our seats.

“Do it again!” we screamed when he slowed down, and he laughed his thin, throaty laugh and pushed on the accelerator.

Sometimes, Gary dropped us off at his brother, Buster’s, house. Buster was the oldest brother of the four. He worked at a bakery and seemed to be the more serious one of the bunch. His wife was Jeanette. What I remember about Jeanette was her gentleness; she was a person who exuded common sense and kindness. In the evenings, if Monica and I spent the night with her daughter, Penny, right before bedtime, Jeanette lined us up on the bed.

“Every night, you need to brush your hair one-hundred times,” she told us seriously. She had a soft boar-bristle brush and took turns brushing our hair from scalp to ends, counting aloud as she went.  Jeanette always kept her own hair very short and straight and told us it was important that we brush ours every night. Sometimes I would try to do so at home, but could never make it past fifty strokes. It was better if Jeanette brushed it for me.

Of all our aunts, however, Monica and I spent the most time with Lydia and Debbie. They were both adorable—Debbie with her turned-up nose and commitment to healthy eating and Lydia with her easy humor and charming naivete. (We often had to explain risqué jokes to Lydia, and she once admitted that, until she got married, she never knew men farted).

Debbie made us laugh too. It seemed that every summer weekday found Debbie, Lydia, Monica, and me at Newtown Lake. Surrounded by a swath of sandy “beach” and encircled by parking lot, Newtown Lake was manmade and graced with a couple of docks, diving boards, and a “Snack Shack” that sold summer necessaries like French Fries and Frosties. The lake’s lack of scenic vista was a non-issue pitted against East Coast mugginess June through August. With dehumidifiers working overtime at home, and the humidity averaging in the 90th percentile, all anybody wanted was a cool body of water to dip into.

Every day, we piled into Lydia’s station wagon, expectantly awaiting the timelessness being near water brings and, upon arriving, unloaded yellow Igloos icing bologna and cheese sandwiches and Canada Dry gingerales, gathered shovels, rakes, and pails, and spread out blue-sea-horsed towels and gingham, quilted blankets, setting up “house” for the day.  We quickly stripped off clothes to reveal bikinis underneath, and Debbie and Lydia sat close, talking, watching us in the water.

“What do you think of this?” Debbie called over to us. We turned, and she had her arm raised, ribbons of white-blonde curls waterfalling from her armpit. She had been growing it for months, a try at European habits.

“It doesn’t look bad, does it?” she queried.

“Shave it off!” Monica and I replied in unison, shrieking at Debbie’s daring and unaware that, at age eleven and twelve, we had already absorbed the social norms set for females in our country.

Monica and I spent hours in the water, swimming, splashing, standing on our hands for as long as we could hold our breath, doing cannonballs off the docks, and watching the older boys show off as they tried to execute swan dives off the too-low board.

No one we met at the lake guessed that we were cousins. Monica shared the same tawny complexion and blue-black hair of her uncles. I, on the other hand, had different coloring. I likely glowed when my mother birthed me, my skin as pale as an albino frog, my hair platinum. And though my father was full Greek, my mother’s DNA, which she described as “Heinz 57” and consisting of Irish, French, Dutch, German, and Choctaw Indian, found some recessive light-colored individualities of my father’s and joined them in defiance of his dominant, darker traits.

Even so, after hours and days and weeks in the sun, we never burned. It was the late seventies, and the ozone layer was still largely intact. And this was part of the glory of it—aunties by our sides, we never wore hats, or sunglasses, or sunscreen; we just soaked up all the water and sun and summer that we could.

When you’re a kid, you think that everything around you is static—that the repetitive movements life makes will always stay the same. Growing up, my family were constants, moving in and out of my periphery, but always within reach. And, at the time, the living, breathing certainty and sameness of these days seemed like they would never leave me.

There were more aunts and uncles besides–my dad’s brother, Andy, who married a Puerto Rican woman named Adene, a woman who never lost her thick accent and rapid diction and who loved the color red. Every room of her house was decorated in red; she never tired of it—red curtains, red furniture, red dishes, red bedspreads.

There was Aunt Alice, my father’s aunt, who wore large glasses that magnified her hazel eyes to enormous proportions, who spoke with a Rumanian accent and unfailingly made spanakopita from scratch at all our family get-togethers.

And Uncle Mitch, my dad’s brother, a kind, quiet, shuffling man, who came back from World War I but didn’t really survive it, his PTSD resulting in electric shock treatments prescribed by doctors who thought they knew what was best.

This precious menagerie of people surrounded me in my childhood and, despite their variance, they all had one thing in common—they treated their children with fierce protectiveness and care. I have seen it played out from generation to generation, and I felt it unwaveringly—that I belonged, that I mattered, that I was loved—a feeling that, to this day, lays curled up, contented and purring within me. My family was indulgent, but I never think of them as spoiling me. They were the let’s-get-you-a-comic-book, let’s-stop-for-ice-cream kind of people. They were fun, they wanted to make life fun for the kids, and they wanted to have fun themselves. They participated—they stood alongside me with their own strawberry-dipped cones, bought me novels they had read and wanted me to read too, taught me pinochle and rummy because they were savvy at cards and wanted to pass that on. It was a glorious childhood. At that age, I never knew that growing up would move me out of that world, that the shield of the ozone layer was dissipating, that I would eventually grow beyond the protective embrace of my uncles and aunties. I just existed beautifully, part of the vine whose root curled me in toward its center.

 

 

 

 

 

Suicide, Migraines, and other Silver-Lined Catastrophes

Should I start by doing something I tell my students never to do in their writing—use a cliché?

“Every cloud has a silver lining.”

The saying originated from poet John Milton in the 1600s and literary types latched onto the idea and perpetuated it. Of course, this is what happens with all clichés; each was once fresh, original language and communicated an often metaphorical truth that people recognized as something profound and universal, so they repeated it, and repeated it, until civilization became so used to hearing it, its meaning got somewhat lost. Just think about “Stop and smell the roses.”  This came from the mouth of golf legend, Walter Hagen 70 years ago, and isn’t it still true? Aren’t we always telling ourselves we need to slow down and enjoy what’s around us because life is so, so short? Yet, we become numbingly accustomed to hearing certain phrases and they lose their oomph; we no longer ponder them on a deeper level.

Still, it doesn’t change the fact that the kernel of truth within clichéd words remains. So, yes, every cloud has a silver lining; good things inevitably come out of bad, and being able to absorb this truth as part of our psyches, to automatically recognize that the pandemonium of stomach-knotting, forehead-creasing, body-grimacing experiences that wash through us in the course of our lifetimes can, if we let them, shape us in positive ways, is essential for our sanity and grace.

A friend of mine pointedly brought this lesson to me several years ago, when she asked, “How did your father’s suicide benefit you?” The question absolutely shocked my system; I was utterly offended.  Benefit me? Was she serious to think that the most gruesome, painful event of my life held constructive properties? Yet, I couldn’t stop thinking about her question; it was a mouse gnawing at my consciousness, skittering, niggling, upturning, seeking its answer.

My first thought was that, well, I have become an empathetic person. I’m not a person who shies away from conversations about death. I’m not someone who doesn’t know what to say when a friend suffers a loss. I am able to help people that way, and my empathy often materializes in my dealings with students. It’s accurate to say that there are students who make excuses for not turning their work in but, as a teacher, it’s usually easy to spot those who are truthful. If I have a conscientious student who always shows up for class, who always gets her work in, who loves to learn, who comes to me and tells me about a catastrophe that is preventing her from turning an assignment in, I believe her. I am not the teacher who says, “Well, too bad; that’s life. Accidents happen; disease happens; death happens. In the real world, you have to perform what is expected, and no one will make allowances for you.” I know the premise of that statement is often the case, but that doesn’t make it a good premise. Who are we if we cannot make allowances for the suffering of another human being? If we measure a person’s potential or worth based only upon their ability to perform flawlessly, to meet outside demands during or despite cataclysmic events, what does that say about our humanity?

One of my students experienced the suicide of her father last year, and my unequivocal and automatic response was that she could turn in assignments late for as long as she needed to. Yes, I am vigilant on maintaining equality and integrity to students, not favoring one over another, but this was not favoritism. This was human kindness. This was me knowing that she might have to quit school to process her calamity, might lose the whole semester of work she had put in. This was me knowing that staying in school might be a protection for her, an avenue to keep her busy, to help her mind focus on something other than the avalanche of grief that had cascaded on top of her. This was me knowing that there are times when all of us, as human beings, cannot perform what is expected. We might live up to the highest expectations we and others put upon ourselves 364 days a year, but there will always be that day when life punches us and leaves us splayed on the ground, bloody, and wondering if we can possibly rise again.

My student turned in all her work before the end of the semester, but she said I was the only teacher that made any allowance for her. She said it was all she could do to keep up with her classes, that she couldn’t think straight, that assignments that used to take her a short time took her hours to get through. She said that, if it wasn’t for my consideration, she would have had to quit school that semester. I was so proud of her for persevering and happy that I could be the exception that helped her continue.

So, empathy—for years this was my answer to that difficult question; my father’s death engrained empathy within me. But, recently I realized there was more.

I’ve been experiencing migraines for the past few years. I never had headaches until my forties, but they came into my life with the deftness of Ali knocking out Foreman. Migraines supposedly constrict blood flow/oxygen to the brain and, as the pain comes, your body goes down in a fog, looking for dark, quiet places. Light sources feel like ball peen hammers hitting the forehead. Sound uses ear canals to deliver tinny blows to the temples. The pain brings nausea and sometimes vomiting. Medications sometimes help but often don’t. The last time I had a bad migraine coming on, I broke down crying. I don’t know if it is the onset of pain or the anticipation of the complete debilitation. My son came over and massaged my neck and scalp, and I laid in my big chair for hours, drifting in and out of sleep. In my bleary, waking moments, I would actually think, “It would be okay if someone just put me down. It’s been a good life.” But life continued, and the headache invaded sleep, reaching a crescendo of pain. Any position I could put myself in; any configuration I could contort my body into; any pressure I could create with the force of palms against temples was useless. When it finally subsided, I was left with a hangover that didn’t include a festive, inebriated beginning but ended in a fruit-juice-craving tiredness that made me rethink all of my life choices. Should I change my diet? Do a liver cleanse? Offer up my riches to any available god of healing? Is there a patron saint of migraines, and does he take credit cards?

Yet, because of the intensity of the pain, because it is now my nature to whittle a useful toothpick out of a piece of driftwood covered with seagull shit, the same gnawing question returned to me. How do my migraines benefit me? Damn positive thinking, but there it is yet again—something to try and make sense of. Through this long path of discovery, I find that the second component of my answer is gratefulness, because now, every day that I don’t have a migraine, I think, I am so grateful to be clearheaded; I am so grateful that no pain is lurking behind my eyes; I am so grateful that, despite what difficulties I experience, whatever losses I incur, I still get to witness and participate in the beauty of life.

And isn’t life ever-beautiful? We might have to endure some hellacious, visceral, soul-aging stuff, but whatever our personal shit storm, we are inimitably shaped from its force and, if we choose to let it, if we have the grace to interpret our crises wisely, they can give us a wealth of meaning. We can become filled with empathy and gratefulness.

Picking Up Buttons

Recently, we bought a house and, for four months, almost everything I own has been in storage. During that time, my husband and I (mostly my husband) have torn down walls, demolished kitchen cabinets, jackhammered brick fireplaces, peeled off several rooms worth of forty year old wallpaper, scraped down popcorn ceilings, taped, textured, and painted, nailed on trim and baseboard, installed toilets, hung doors and, though we have a multitude of projects left, to crown the current events, we, to my long-awaited and glorious relief and delight, installed laminate flooring throughout the house.

I had refused to move in furniture before the floor was in. Living on subfloor is like camping on the side of a dusty road. The combination of sheetrock dust and sawdust powder all surfaces, suck the moisture from feet that dare to walk bare, violate lungs with a cough coating. And what’s the point of moving stuff in when you have to move it back out to put flooring down that ultimately allows you to move it all in again? So my belongings remained in the shed until the finished floor signaled my opportunity to unpack.

The amount of stuff we, as human beings, accumulate during a few years, much less a lifetime, is astounding. After living for months without the items in storage, sifting through boxes filled with my material possessions made me realize how much I needed to throw away or donate. I was ruthless as I perused the contents of my life, dumping knickknacks, books, even unwanted old photos. And then I came across the tin of buttons, blue metal emblazoned with a tempting pictorial array of butter cookies. I popped open the lid and, staring at the contents, I realized that, though I rarely use, much less look at the buttons, they are something I will never get rid of, for they are reminders of unforgettable people.

I couldn’t resist the urge to plunge my hand in; the buttons cold, like pebbles falling through my fingers, and I was transported back to my five-year-old self.

I am sitting on my parents’ freshly made bed, my mother’s back to me as she rummages through her chest of drawers. She pulls out a piece of aquamarine fabric, a needle, a spool of thread, and a glass jar of buttons. She hands me the jar. It’s a Gerber baby food jar, likely recycled from the mashed sweet potato and applesauce phase of my infancy. I twist the lid, dump its contents onto the quilted blue bedspread, and I am mesmerized. I see candies, marbles, trinkets, colored jewels, circles of light. I pick them up in bunches and let them fall in a waterfall of noise. I pick them up individually in examination; there are enormously sized buttons that look like adornments for the clothing of a giant; there are buttons so miniscule I don’t think a grownup’s digits could manipulate them into a buttonhole; there are multiples of some type of buttons and, of others, there is just one of a lone design—an azure-colored button with a three-dimensional, red stripe across that looks like a licorice rope, a white button with a red and blue tennis racket painted on, a gold button that is swirled like the top of a lemon meringue pie. I wonder why these buttons are alone, if their contemporaries are lined up under the chin of a fashionista, if the mismatched buttons are lonely in the jar, missing the siblings lucky enough to get sewn onto somebody’s stylish active wear. I wonder where my mother got these buttons. I’ve never seen any like them on her own clothing. How did she end up with this one, the seaworthy, silver one with concentric circles of rope underlying an anchor? Or the antique brass button with what looks like an ancient family’s coat of arms? I decide that I love them all, though maybe the one with the licorice rope is a favorite. I have always loved miniature things—doll house furniture, little plastic insects, Fisher Price wooden boys with plastic baseball caps. I love miniatures enough that they don’t need a purpose; their purpose is only to be collected, to be looked at, their colors and shapes existing for the sheer amusement of the viewer.

My mother sits beside me on the bed.

“Look,” she says.

She has the aquamarine rectangle of fabric in one hand and a threaded needle in the other, its white thread neatly knotted at the end.

“Watch,” she tells me and plunges the point into the cloth. It appears again, poking up from underneath the fabric about a quarter inch away from where she started. I watch her make a uniform line of straight stitches along the edge—little white fishes in a sea of blue.

“Now, you try.”

She smiles and hands me the materials, helps me position the fabric and poise the needle. I like the opportunity to handle what feels like grown-up tools. She is entrusting me with something that belongs to mothers and grandmothers, something sharp that I have seen her use to hem skirts and patch socks with. I realize she believes I can handle these objects; she trusts in my ability to understand and master something new.

I concentrate. The needle rolls between my fingers; I push it through carefully, peek underneath the fabric to find it, grab and pull it through the other side, watching with awe as the thread follows obediently. I try to measure a distance comparable to my mother’s example and poke the needle upward towards me. It appears like a bird darting from its nest. I repeat the moves, and they begin to feel more familiar as I continue and marvel at the small, white footsteps of thread walking across the brushed, blue background.

I show my mother my progress with no attempt at suppressing the elation I feel at being able to create the simple pattern, and she looks at me proudly.

“I knew you could do it, honey,” she says.

When Mom passed away, my grandma and I put together a yard sale comprised of her belongings because we didn’t have enough to pay for funeral expenses. I remember walking around the front yard, looking at all the things that had belonged to her—dishes, pans, picture frames, potholders—so much like the things I am surrounded by in this shed as I sort through my life’s accumulation. I didn’t keep most anything of my mother’s; there was nothing I needed, but I did keep her pearls, her cameo, and that Gerber glass jar of buttons.

I stored the jar safely inside my sewing kit and interestingly, over time, more buttons came my way. Years later, I was visiting the grandmother of a friend of mine, and she told me she had been sorting. After ninety years, she was passing on things she felt someone else might better use. She pattered into her spare room and emerged with a round, blue cookie tin of buttons.

“Would you like these?” she asked me, pushing the offering forward with the gesture of her hand.

“Yes,” I said immediately, accepting as if I had been written into her will and was being given a priceless family heirloom.

I took the tin home and perused its contents. It was similar to the button inheritance I had received from my mother—random varieties, fantastical shapes, a menagerie of colors. I rummaged in my sewing kit and found the glass jar. I dumped it out on the low pile of the carpet. There was the tennis racket painted on; there was the licorice rope still looking ready to eat. I scooped them all up and added them to the bigger tin, letting the old mingle with its new companions. I was rich with buttons, and it dawned on me that what I had was part of a bygone tradition. It was the early 2000s, and I knew button jars were something the youth of America didn’t collect.  Button jars are from an era of people who valued frugality and practicality, who, through necessity, searched through their options and found what they could to stitch onto a secondhand coat missing a clasp, or sewed clothes cut out from Butterick patterns and stitched in the hours after work to make themselves a sorely needed shirt or dress.

Of course, I wasn’t of that era either. I wasn’t a seamstress and didn’t use them, but I held them in high regard, and buttons continued to come to me.

I started the hobby of beading. I found a terrific little bead shop on the main street of town. What made it terrific was its owner. She was a Crow Indian in her forties who beaded for a living. She sold her work to stores in Yosemite Valley who valued Native American originals and, as she created her designs, she let me sit beside her, taught me beading techniques with expertise, and never charged for lessons. Patiently, she showed me how to thread the beading needle with thread made from deer sinew. showed me intricate patterns, guided me in color and bead combinations and, through this process, I found out her life story and she found out mine. She not only listened to my experiences but cared about them. She was one of the kindest human beings I have ever met and a mother to all who knew her. And as I talked and beaded and learned, over days and weeks and years, she generously offered what she had, which were the gifts of good advice, beautiful beads, and the occasional vintage button. The buttons were used as clasps for necklaces and were a beautiful accent to a handmade piece.

As I continued to make jewelry, I went in search of antique-looking buttons and, to my surprise, found that a single button worthy of this honor was quite expensive. It was there, standing in the fabric store staring at row after row of overpriced items, that I remembered my own neglected treasure trove hidden in the depths of my closet. I went home and dumped it out, fanning my hand over the top, spreading the buttons out, looking at them with new eyes, realizing that they actually had monetary value, even though that value would never surpass the realm of sentimentality I had placed them in. I found silver engraved with magnolias, basket-weaved gold, paisley-patterned brass and made them part of the creations that I make for others and myself, the buttons now part of the pieces I wear to remind me of the people I love who cared about buttons just as much as I do.

Menstruation, Menopause, and Other Celebrations

In creation myths across cultures, she is the first woman—progenitor of all people, source of the feminine, link to the divine. The Apaches call her Changing Woman. Having survived the great Flood, Changing Woman emerges from an abalone shell. She is courted by earth’s elements—Sun and Rain—the fathers of her children. She is guided by the spirits to establish rites of puberty for the daughters of her people, to instruct them in ritual, to guide them through the journey of womanhood. And, as in many cultures, the entrance into womanhood is one of celebration.

Apache girls who experience menstruation for the first time participate in a communal Sunrise ceremony. They engage in a ritual reenactment of the Apache Origin Myth. For four days they dance and run, starting toward the east and ending in the west, running in four directions to represent the four stages of life—infancy, childhood, adulthood, and old age. In between their physical exertion, they are given massage to help mold them into Changing Woman; the progenitor’s mythical physical and spiritual powers are thought to imbue the girl’s bodies and, for four days afterward, the girls are looked upon as healers. The event allows them realization, a glimpse of budding self-confidence, an initial discovery of their power and worth.

Those who complete the ceremony are embraced by the Apache nation as women and receive gifts from the community who wish for their wellbeing, fruitfulness, prosperity, long life, and healthy old age.

Other cultures also have coming of age ceremonies. The Hispanic people have the Quinceanera to celebrate their daughters’ entrance into womanhood, the Jewish honor their daughters with the Bat Mitzvah celebration, and Muslim girls celebrate Khatam Al Koran.

Despite traditions that rejoice womanhood, it seems to me that while the American culture values the younger stages of a female’s life, they often fail to continue celebrating their worth as they enter their elder years. If you live in America, you cannot deny it; you’ve likely witnessed it; maybe you’ve done it yourself; we shelve our elderly.

Sociologists and anthropologists give us a clue as to why Americans lean toward this behavior. When naming the most prevalent American worldviews, they agree that Americans’ social sense is individualistic. The individual’s needs and aspirations are considered more important than the group’s. It is appropriate for children to function independently of the group—to move out, get their own apartments, get jobs without intention of contributing money to the family. In other cultures, these behaviors would be considered disrespectful if not outrageous. The only difference is how people view the person’s role in society. In America, that role focuses on providing for oneself and learning to function independently from the family. It is not a heartless role; it is one that we groom our children to take. However, the individualistic worldview contributes to America’s tendency to undervalue their elderly.

In addition, Americans’ sense of time is futuristic; as a whole, we tend to focus on the future rather than the past and value youth more than we do age. In American culture, it is deemed proper to save for retirement, plan schedules months in advance, and plan children’s education years before college. To do so, to us, seems wise and normal behavior. However, in many cultures, the past can be valued more highly than the future. For example, a family might spend a substantial amount having a monument built for an ancestor rather than put money toward their children’s education. Doing so places value on the past, action that shows children the importance of honoring their elders. An investment such as this, to an outsider, might appear a waste of money. We could assume that spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on a material object does nothing to promote a child’s future welfare.

Yet, even though college funds may be lacking, if children are taught the value of their ancestors, the importance of honoring their elders, what kind of care might they give when their parents are old? Are they likely to house them in a rest home or will they put forth greater effort to care for them within their own homes? In keeping them close, might they gain more knowledge from them? In honoring them, might they more often seek their advice, recognize their wisdom, follow their experienced guidance? And, in light of this, isn’t the parents’ original investment in the past really an investment in the future after all, not only in their own future wellbeing but an investment into the ethics and character of their children? Might emphasis placed on the importance of the accumulated experience and subsequent wisdom of elders change the way society functions as a whole and change it for the better—teaching them to value instead of to discard?

Having recently turned fifty, I find myself examining my own view of age. I have no intention of being shelved or of viewing myself in that light. Instead, I look at my own shifting identity and find determination to make my entrance into this decade and the ones beyond into a positive.

The age fifty itself is equated with menopause, a signifier of “drying up,” and so often I have heard terms representing this phase of life spoken of derogatively. I didn’t realize how much I had absorbed these negative connotations until recently when I was talking to a friend—a doctor who is close to seventy. I was mentioning signs I’d noticed—precursors of menopause—and he said, “You’re becoming a crone.”

The word took me aback. I had only heard it in one context, an insulting one—an old crone, and my mental picture was one of a wizened hag.

“What do you mean?” I asked, caught off guard by the reference.

“A crone is a wise woman,” he told me, “something to celebrate. You are entering a special and powerful time in your life.”

I hadn’t thought of turning fifty in this way before. As it is, age fifty is a new snapshot to peer at, a new identity and one that doesn’t seem to fit quite right at first. I so easily remember being twenty, thirty, forty. How did five decades go by and find me here, a bit worn for wear but strong, more assured, unafraid of disapproval, knowing myself, knowing who and what I will put up with and who and what I won’t tolerate? The passage of time might confound, but here I am, and I’m feeling good. So, what if becoming a crone is not something to dread but something to embrace, something to value, something to celebrate?

Instead of becoming subject to thinking that older age is something to look down upon, or bemoaning the idea that we have outlived the decades of our youth, we need to view cronehood as the beginning of a cumulative self—a trinity of the three women we possess within—maiden, mother, and crone. We have become what the coming of age ceremonies only hint at when they mark the beginning of our journeys—women who have come to know the endurance we can exhibit, who recognize our strengths and master our weaknesses, who know the dark and light forces of our natures and own them, who face trials with tenaciousness and dignity, who have come to know our own power and sacredness as well as our connection to all people, past and present.

We are keepers; we own wisdom like keys to each precious stage of life, and we have been molded into leaders and guides for the youth that proceed from us. We have lived through years of celebrations, from becoming women, to mothers, to new and wiser selves.

Having arrived, we find that cronehood is a gala. It is a time in our lives when we embrace all aspects of ourselves—perpetual beings connected to both youth and old age. We are part of a never-ending circle just as the first women in all cultural stories of the world, just as Changing Woman who, when she becomes old, walks east toward the sun until she meets her younger self, merges with it, and becomes young again. Repeatedly, she is born again and again. She is always with us and within us.

I’m Not Afraid of Hospitals

I am sitting in St. Joseph’s Hospital cafeteria eating a surprisingly fresh deli sandwich. My husband’s wedding ring is on my middle finger, sitting next to my own.  Growing up, hospitals were not my favorite places, my mother frequenting many from the East coast to the West from the age I was six to when she died when I was twenty. She suffered from Lupus and episodes of psychosis caused from a psychotic break she endured a few years after my dad’s suicide.

Psychosis can be triggered by non-biological factors such as severe stress and depression left untreated, which I believe is what occurred in my mother’s case. It can cause radical yet sporadic personality change and a distorted sense of reality. People suffering from it can experience hallucinations or delusions that they believe are real. The first time this happened to Mom, I was in eighth grade. It was just after school, I walked into our little two bedroom apartment and set my books down, and she pointed to a brimming paper grocery bag that was sitting on the floor.

“That needs to go to the trash,” she told me.

I didn’t question that it was unusual for there to be a bag of garbage in the middle of the living room. I just picked it up and headed out the door, walking towards the big dumpster on the back lot. I didn’t glance at the contents; it was not my habit to examine the trash. Instead, I absentmindedly walked along the sidewalk, engaging in something common for me, the act of doing chores and daydreaming at the same time.

There was a boy my age that lived in the apartment complex. He was a tall, gangly American-Indian with big brown eyes and black hair. We had slow danced once at one of our school dances. Of course, we had never touched before that, but there we were, 70’s music drifting around our swaying bodies through a crackly speaker in the darkened cafeteria/gymnasium, a place where we normally would be eating salisbury steak, or playing basketball, or climbing up pegboards. Sometimes, he would be out at the tire swing in the afternoons, and I looked for him, but he wasn’t there, so I turned to the garbage bin and started to put the bag in when I noticed something familiar sitting on top— my hot pink blowdryer.

“Odd,” I thought, “This isn’t broken.”

I pulled it out of the bag, thinking my mother had made a mistake. Underneath, there were more of my belongings—brand new nail polishes, a tube of Chapstick, a hand mirror, hairbrushes and combs, my clock radio. Bewildered, I gathered it all up and started for the house. I couldn’t imagine why Mom would discard my belongings.

Our front door led into the main room, which doubled as a dining area and living room. Mom’s recliner was at the far corner and, as I came back in, she was lounging there with her feet up. I didn’t walk across the room to talk but stood at the dining table.  Even from that distance, I noticed that her eyes looked unusual.

“Why are you trying to throw away my stuff?” I asked indignantly, proffering the bag as evidence.

She looked back at me with a superior glare and said decidedly, “Plastic is evil.”

“What?!” I exclaimed with confusion.

I couldn’t fathom her response, but I could see that she wasn’t joking. She began looking around her purposefully, as if she were searching for a further answer to my question. On the maple end table beside her, she spotted her Bible and grabbed it. I was still standing about three yards away, holding the bag, at a loss as to what might happen next. She flipped through the tissue-like pages of scriptures quickly and randomly and dropped her finger onto a page of text.

“Here it is,” she declared. “Listen.”

I did listen, intently, because I thought perhaps she was somehow going to provide an answer to her strange behavior.

She read so loudly that her voice cracked. “How will it be with you, O land, when your king is a boy and your own princes keep eating even in the morning? Happy are you, O land, when your king is the son of noble ones and your own princes eat at the proper time for mightiness, not for mere drinking.”

The passage didn’t have anything to do with evil…or plastic. I was flummoxed. I wasn’t sure what to do. She was waiting for me to have an “aha” moment about what she had read, and I wasn’t getting it. But I was getting the feeling that, if I didn’t agree with her, there was going to be trouble. And so I did agree. She quieted down and went back to watching her television show, and I went into the bedroom and called my grandpa for help.

After a brief hospital visit, Mom returned to her lucid self again. But, even though she had went for observation, no one had diagnosed her or looked too far into why what had happened did happen, and so we carried on as if nothing happened, until the following year when she was on the phone talking to one of her many cousins. She loved to be on the phone; it kept her connected to the outside world. The phone transformed her. So often, when she and I were at home, tiredness invaded her voice, as if it took too much energy to speak. But she never wanted to let others know that she was feeling badly. When someone called or she dialed, she mustered the sound of strength and enthusiasm that carried her through the entire conversation. It was like her daily exercise, all performed without leaving the couch. So, it wasn’t unusual for her to be conversing with someone and, as I passed her bedroom, I thought nothing of her chit-chat until her conversation began to seep into my consciousness. I realized something was off. Mom was “prophesizing,” as if she could see events in far off places unfold before her eyes. At that moment, she was describing the birth of another cousin’s twins (a cousin who wasn’t even pregnant), play by play, as if she had a direct pipeline to the obstetrician in the delivery room.

Grandpa was at the house that day; he often checked in on us. I went to get him, and we both entered the bedroom to see what was going on.

“And the second baby—you can see its head!” Mom said excitedly. “It’s out. It’s a girl! They’re naming it Calliope.”

“Sissy, what’s up?” Grandpa interrupted her.

“I gotta go,” she told her bewildered listener, hung up the phone and looked at us, a strange glimmer in her eyes. We all paused a moment, staring at each other.

“You are under my control,” she broke the silence in a low voice, “and I have the power to freeze you in your tracks. Freeze!” she exclaimed, her arms splayed forward as if casting a spell. And we froze, partially from shock, but I was also afraid to move, afraid of what she would do if she found out she didn’t really have the superpower she claimed. She seemed so convinced. Grandpa broke the spell first, moving forward and putting his hands on her shoulders. Grandpa was 5’10 with a big belly lending to his weight, and Mom was emaciated, her once-rounder frame ravaged by her battle with Lupus and, at most, she weighed 105 pounds. Despite this, she threw Grandpa off of her with a force that startled both of us. In the pandemonium, I slipped out, called 911, and stayed out of the room, letting Grandpa calm her down. Paramedics arrived quickly and soon wheeled her out on a stretcher.

“My daughter is a concert pianist,” she proudly told them, exaggerating the talent I possessed after a few months of lessons, as they trundled her down the sidewalk.

One of the last episodes she had happened while she was at Tuolumne General Hospital. She hadn’t been admitted for psychotic behavior, and I didn’t realize I wasn’t going to find “her” there when I visited.

“Hi, Mom. How are you doing?” I asked. She stared at me in silence, and suddenly I realized that she wasn’t staring at me, but through me.

“Troy and Kim, Mary and Martha,” she intoned, trance-like. “Troy and Kim, Mary and Martha,” she repeated like a mantra that might transport her through the struggle her life had been since my dad had died. Troy was my husband at the time, and Mary and Martha were the names of the caregivers that visited her house weekly. I watched and listened for awhile, but she was a skipping record, unable to stop spinning. Of all the episodes she had been through, that one scared me the most because she was not engaged with me, even in her hysteria.

Months later, she was admitted to the long term care unit of the same hospital. Only 44 years old, she had deteriorated into a state well beyond her years, but she was lucid the last time I saw her. Just as with my father’s death, I knew she was leaving but, with her, I was able to say my goodbyes before she was gone.

So hospitals, they are hard places for me. Don’t get me wrong; I can enter them without fright. I have had two babies and two different surgeries in various hospitals without a qualm, and that fact made me think that the underlying wave of fear I possessed as a youth had disappeared. That is, until my husband got scheduled for back surgery. Even consulting with the doctor about the procedure last month nearly brought on a fainting spell, and I began struggling with panic attacks for weeks until I made the connection and started seeing a therapist for a bit of counseling and EMDR. Turns out, I never had a fear of hospitals. My fear is if they house someone I love.

I finish lunch while my husband is in pre-op and walk up to sit with him before the surgery. He is clothed in paper attire, i.v.ed, and covered with blankets that feel like burlap unsuccessfully treated with fabric softener. He appears calm but is the most nervous I have ever seen him, and I think about how heartrending it is to see someone you love be vulnerable.

“If I have to wait much longer, I might just bolt out that door,” he jokes to the nurse, but I know he is partially serious.

“You’re going to do just fine,” I tell him, stroking his hair, and I know it’s true. I feel calm, and he and I talk comfortably until the doctor comes in.

“The surgery will take about an hour,” the doctor says to me, “and I’ll come talk to you when it is done. He’ll be in recovery for an hour after that and then you can see him.”

I like the doctor. He is almost seventy, is kind, has been practicing for forty years, and has the same gray suit on every time I see him.

I enter the surgery waiting room at 1:30 and, for an hour and fifteen minutes, wait comfortably.  But at an hour and sixteen, I get twitchy.

It’s going a little longer than the doctor said it would, I think but am not overly concerned until I hear the announcement on the loudspeaker.

“Rapid response to surgery room 252,” a female voice pronounces.

I don’t know what surgery room my husband is in, but fear flows over me like water, my breath quickens, and I begin to feel dizzy. I can no longer concentrate on the book I was reading and begin to pace the hallway, hoping the doctor will appear. The volunteer who handles communications between the doctors and those in the waiting room is on break, and I begin forcing myself to breathe deeply. I unwisely let my mind wander to the possibilities—a slipped scalpel and a severed nerve, a heart attack. I watch the corridor for signs of emergency equipment being transported; I repeatedly walk to the empty station where the volunteer sat only a few minutes before. I muster all my ability for calm and try to send it to my husband with my thoughts.

You are okay, I tell him, and myself. Everything went wonderfully. You are just fine.

As I pace, in a fight between calm and panic, the doctor emerges in his scrubs with a pleasant look on his face.

“Everything went well,” he says. “We got a little late start, but it actually only took 45 minutes to complete the surgery. He’s doing fine. You’ll be able to see him soon.”

“Thank you,” I tell him, and he shakes my hand.

I walk to the bathroom, close the door to the stall, and sob in relief. My husband, the wonderful man who has given me more stability than I have had since both my parents were alive, is well and will continue to be here with me in this life. He will recover and get to enjoy countless days on this planet with me. We will love and support each other, and help each other conquer our fears and savor our joys for a long time to come.

A Story about Ola

The most astounding thing ever said to me came from my Aunt Ola when I was fourteen years old and she was sixty-three. She was driving me home, her ‘72 Nova hugging the tight curves of Rawhide Road, a meandering two-lane that narrowed to a one-lane bridge before it reached the highway. We weren’t talking about anything in particular. Ola wasn’t usually too talkative.

She had picked me up at 6:00 a.m. to help clean her house, an activity I imagine she and my mother devised, perhaps to hone my cleaning skills (at that age, my room was a cyclonic disaster). I got up at 5:00 to get ready, sat down on the couch to wait for her, and promptly fell asleep. As I entered REM, Ola knocked sharply on the door and, startled, I jumped up to answer, not realizing that both my legs had fallen asleep from my awkward, tilted position. I promptly fell on the floor, on my face, and quickly tried to stand again, but my legs had turned to stumps and, with a decisive thump, I fell again. Ola rapped harder, and I crawled. By the time I reached the door my legs were tingling with returning blood flow, and I stood, moving twitchily.

“All ready?” Ola inquired, peering at me curiously.

“Yes,” I replied, and we headed out, riding quietly, watching the sun rise in the characteristic golds and pinks of late summer.

Ola’s house was a little ranchette, on two or three acres. Over the years, she had housed horses, cows, chickens, and goats and generously shared the bounty of milk and eggs that came from them. As she aged, there were less animals, but the ranch had stayed largely the same—big, grassy front and back yards, multi-chaired front and back decks for chatting, sitting, and sweet, iced tea drinking, a sprawling pasture, and an old mobile home in back that various family members inhabited over the years.

I followed her inside the familiar house, she instructed me about the tasks at hand, and left me to work. Two hours later, we were back in the car, and Ola uncharacteristically broke the comfortable silence.

“There’s no one left alive that remembers me when I was a girl,” she said softly.

The idea of this was almost inconceivable to my teenage mind. I was clueless and invincible with youth. I was firm-skinned, strong, quick-minded, and surrounded by loved ones who had known me since I was born, and all of this seemed unchangeable. And, though I had lost my father at age eleven, I was unaware of the exponential nature of loss that accompanies age.

Even so, Ola’s words struck a chord within me. I recognized their truth and eventuality, for, I myself had never known her as a girl. I had only known her as an old woman, from ages 49-63, which seemed relatively ancient at that point in my life. Her square face had always had prematurely wrinkled cheeks. She had been forever bespectacled with large, eye-accentuating glasses. Her hair had always been straight and short, charcoal with silvered streaks, and she had permanently been short and a little stout, but strong, hard-working, practical, responsible—the leader of her family. That is who I knew her as. I had never imagined her as young and impulsive or thought about her living impetuously through the first-time experiences of youth. To me, she had always been a grandma, and I hadn’t the farsightedness to understand that she was once a girl like me, who had grown through all the things I had and beyond.

I’m not sure who Ola had lost that prompted her confession, what childhood friends had been taken from her by illness or disease, but her sentence has come back to me insistently over the years, asking me to make meaning of it. To me, it represents one of the shifts of consciousness humans go through, identity shifts that we consistently experience as we age. One of the first I experienced was at age nineteen. I was at our family reunion—a potluck picnic affair we held every year at White Pines Lake in Arnold, California where presents were brought for every child who had celebrated a graduation that spring. Our kindergarten, elementary, and high school graduates stood proudly in a row, cheesing for the camera, and accepting presents from the multitude of family. I had arrived emptyhanded. Up until then, in my perception of myself, I had been one of the kids, wide-eyed and expectant, getting things. I had stood in that line being celebrated; I had received and taken but, in that moment, my perspective changed. I had thought of myself as grownup for so long, but hadn’t acted the part, and it was revelatory as I recognized that I was one of the adults, that it was my turn to be one of the givers, buying presents for the children.

Of course, it’s not that, as adults, we don’t continue to be children. Even in adulthood, we are granted the gift of being youngsters in our parents’ eyes for as long as they are alive. But, our forties, fifties, or sixties often changes us again. As our parents age, we shift from our long-held roles of being children to that of caretakers. Parents who no longer can care for themselves become dependents, and we find ourselves doing things for them that they so selflessly did for us. And we, sometimes gracefully, but often stiltedly, move from one life role to the next, trying to figure out how to accommodate the needs of our ever-evolving existence.

This is what Ola voiced to me that day 36 years ago. She was telling me that she had experienced a shift. She could not return to the girl she once had been by returning to the company of her peers, the women that once had caroused with her, who knew her younger self, who could look at her and easily envision her vitality, her young face and dark hair, who knew all versions of her since, who she was and how she had changed, and cherished her for all of them. With their absence, a certain vision of herself had departed—an older, sager, stronger matriarch taking its place. Whether Ola was only wondering aloud or trying to impart a truism she had recently discovered, I am not sure, but I do know that her words have remained and reminded me of the potential of age and the importance of cherishing every role, every identity I inhabit as I make my way through the gut-wrenching, breath-drawing, magnificent, always surprising road of life.

 

The Color Beige

You know how it is. The whole kindred spirit thing. Wasn’t it Anne of Green Gables that started that idea?  But she was right. In the instant you meet future kindred partners or friends, you’ve known them a lifetime, and it doesn’t matter what differences you carry because your commonalities spring from something innate within each of you, something intangible that binds you, despite your differences. With these kinds of friends, you are always comfortable, able to be exactly yourself with no fear of censure.

As a hairdresser for 33 years, I have met many clients who fall into this category. That’s the funny thing about doing hair. A stranger walks in whom I’ve never met, sits down in my chair, and we talk, one-on-one, for, depending on the hairstyle, between one to three hours. I come to know intimate details of people’s lives and, in turn, end up confiding the particulars of my own. But instant connection is not always the case. Chatting with a client often reveals wavelengths that do not align, and courteous conversation ensues that lacks deeper connection but provides me with wildly diverse perspectives that I would not have otherwise been exposed to.

Early morning color and cut—she is mid-sixties, middle class, a staunch Republican who doesn’t want to hear differing political views, an expert thrower of lavish parties for causes she believes in, and I tread lightly in my conversation with her, trying not to rile her with discussion that might chalIenge her worldview.

“I just got a new puppy,” I tell her, pulling up a picture on my iPad and showing it off. My precious canine bundle stares out, in digital form, with beguiling, irresistible, liquid brown eyes.

“She’s cute. What did you name her?”

“Her name is Hazel.”

A pause and slight raise of eyebrows.

“That is an absolutely terrible name. Why would you name her that?” she asks forthrightly. I can tell she has no inkling that her words might be offensive, but I feel instantly defensive, defiant.

“I love that name,” I reply. I picked it out a year before I got her.”

My client purses her lips, and I can see the “Hmmph!” that she is thinking.

“Well, you know what I think is a beautiful name?” she counters. “My niece just found out she’s going to have a girl, and I told her she should name the baby ‘Beige.’ I hope she does,” she says wistfully. “Oh, I just love the name Beige.”

I have no words. I only stare at her while my mind creates sarcastic retorts and simultaneously races to pinch my mouth closed before any of them emerge.

Beige? I think. Beige? This is literally the most deplorable moniker I have ever contemplated. I have never thought of beige as a name for anything other than an unpleasant color, a color that in itself is unpopular; beige is the girl against the gymnasium wall that no one wants to dance with; it is the granny panties of lingerie; it is the Angels Flight suit discarded after eighth grade graduation. No one wants a beige sports car, a little beige dress, or beige highlights in their hair. To contemplate it as a name for the beauty that is a human infant seems to me an oxymoron, and employing it would surely break some unknown Biblical commandment (The eleventh one that says “Thou must not name your first, second, or thirdborn child Beige”).

My client continues talking, oblivious to my adverse reaction to her statement, but I am not able to tune her in because the incessant word lingers and begins to pull up another memory. I am in Oatman, Arizona, a place I visited yearly on desert vacation with a family I was married into for twenty-three years. Oatman is an old mining town turned tourist trap, one dusty road lined with dried-out businesses that make livings based on their Old Route 66 status, milking nostalgia and wishing the interstate hadn’t changed their fate. Of all the places I’ve been in my life, I have met some of the most interesting characters in that town—a man who incessantly boasted his dog had the biggest balls of any canine in the state, a woman missing her front tooth who discovered the aperture made an ideal cigarette holder, and another who used an unusual pickup line.

She looks to be in her thirties, at least twenty of those years weathered under a furious sun or in a furious household. She has a swagger, and I’m not sure if her confidence comes from the emptied Coors in her hand or the twinkle in the eyes of the men who monitor her movements around the bar. She, however, only has eyes for one man—my husband. I watch as she contemplates him, as she sallies closer, too-thin legs in tight Levis swaying, moving up behind his barstool almost stealthily, coming in close, caressing the sleeve of his tan button-down shirt.

“I like beige,” she says throatily.

“Wha?” he replies, physically throwing his head back in an effort to see who is talking.

“I like beige,” she repeats. “Your shirt,” she gestures wildly, as if trying to communicate in sign language. “Bay-ej,” she says, sounding it out. “It’s my favorite color.”

“Beige, huh?” he responds. “Well, um, thanks,” and turns back to his beer.

She stares at him, disgruntled and, after a few seconds, starts searching the bar for the twinkles that she had first ignored.

I was in my twenties then, and I often viewed people different than me as somehow wrong. But the reality of it is that I will always encounter people who like things I don’t and do things I would never do—people who drink Red Bull daily, people who have their eyebrows tattooed on, people who laugh uproariously at Paul Blart: Mall Cop—and, it’s all okay. People who are different than me aren’t wrong–they just are. They have their own kindred spirits to meet up with and, when they do, they can laugh about how my love of number two pencils and college-ruled paper is weird. Beige might not be my color, but people who like beige and all the other things I don’t, still, in some way, enrich my life. There are 7.2 billion people on this planet. We can’t all be bffs. The ones who contrast me are the ones that challenge me, entertain me, make me glad to be who I am.