An Uber driver galloped through 5 a.m. Saturday traffic to Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan. Those iconic, fairy tale lights that define NYC’s skyline felt like coachmen escorting us–Mommy Katie, Dada Jason and Grandma JanZ—to Cinderella’s ball. It was surreal, like a scene from “When Harry Met Sally” only this story is about two friends who got married, then moved to The Big Apple to go to grad and med school, and then created their own little family in a land of brick apartments, subways, orthodox beards and fedora hats, underwater tunnels, honking drivers, jaywalkers and a Starbucks on every other corner.
This zany land of noise and smells and congestion that is so different from the land I come from, is where my baby daughter was about to give birth to her baby son and I was literally along for the ride.
The heroine, Mama Katie, worked at her job as a fourth grade teacher in Manhattan, Friday the day before she was destined to give birth. She ordered a feast of pizza and salad, made a batch of double fudge brownies and went to bed. At 5 a.m., she woke me up and informed me that her water broke. She booked an Uber and we raced to the hospital from Queens only to find out she was just 3 cm. dilated.
Like 99% of the women who have their babies at Lenox Hill, according to a Labor and Delivery nurse, Katie also chose to have an epidural. Voila! no more pain. No such juice was ever offered to me when I had my three babies. Pain and childbirth were a rite of passage. No more! Instead of fighting the pain, childbirth is now remarkably relaxing, so much so that I figured I’d have time to start writing this blog while Katie slept. When the doctor came in to examine her, she had dilated to 4 cm. The obstetrician decided to administer Pitocin. Ten minutes after the drip started, she was ready to push the baby out. Two gigantic heave ho’s and Hudson Bow was born at 12:42 p.m., 8.5 pounds, 20.5 inches long. A remarkably handsome child born to a remarkable mother and father, who just so happens to be the fourth grandchild of a remarkably, unabashedly, smitten grandma.
How does it feel to watch your daughter give birth? Proud. Scared. Hopeful. Honored. To watch the ritual of birth, the continuation of life, witness the first breath of the next generation is primitive and guttural and National Geographic sacred. It’s like watching a time lapse documentary where everyone you have ever known, and those dusty family members you’ve never even seen pictures of, converge in this euphoric Family of Man Times Square NYE Countdown Celebration. It’s real and it’s not real. It’s normal and feels anything but. Because it’s your baby, it’s your grandchild and there’s nothing in the world that you wouldn’t do for Hudson or Millie or Jack or Bronson–your heartbeat, your blood.
None of it makes sense. All of it makes sense. Everything. Wisdom magnifies across a drive-in-movie screen: Life is supposed to be good, precious. How can we love so much and be capable of such hate and cruelty? At one point in our lives, most of us were loved as dearly as we love Hudson. Someone believed in us, fought for us, gave up for us so that our lives could be better than theirs. How is it that we are so screwed up? Shooting, killing, yelling, blaming, denying? When our Source, all of ours, IZ Love?
Today’s “news” makes no sense. Not on this New York skyline day of Hudson’s birth. The Day of Promise and Hope. The Day our world tingled and twinkled and the traffic along 77th Street stopped. The Day the moon froze in it’s full moon position and smiled into a yellow-lit hospital room at a young couple ogling over their son, and a grandma cooing the song her father sang to her, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy, when skies are grey, you’ll never know dear, how much I love you, please don’t take that sunshine away.”
Tears, ugly, precious tears well up. I can’t help it. I don’t want to help it! A new life. A new me. In my arms. The first time Hudson and I, Grandson and Grandma, forged a bond birthed in ancient times. Rekindled. Renewed on this extraordinary, ordinary, afternoon in Manhattan.
Millie is once again used to me. After a few short months of separation between her longterm Spring/Summer staycation in Southern California with Mommy and Gma, she kinda forgot me. At 20 months, it’s to be expected.
It was clear over the course of the first week that she liked me. She smiled and we played wide-eyed peek-a-boo Baby Shark-kaaa-kaaa-kaaa-kaaa games. But she didn’t trust me. At least not enough to be left alone without her Hong Kong grandparents’ supervision. While my daughter and son-in-law are out hunting and gathering, John and Jennifer dote on our granddaughter probably with more reverence than their own two children. To say she is spoiled, in the most loving way possible, is an understatement.
Recently, say the last couple of days, she has begun to tolerate me with tangible gusto. We go out for walks around the block, just the two of us. Drop by the local doughnut shop for a bitty before-dinner treat (naughty Grandma!). Talk to the faded plastic flamingo. And stop at the neighborhood playground, normally filled with similar-age toddlers like Millie, and their nannies and a few of us token grandparents. It is a sweet community of bubbles, bouncy balls, blue sedan strollers, and little people who love dancing, clapping, squealing and accept each other’s “serious” look faces as normal.
Being a toddler, I realize, is genuinely serious business. Every single corner of their visual and auditory world is a learning experience.
Which is why yesterday’s Irate Nanny Attack was so disturbing.
Here’s the scene: Late morning. Puffy jacket, knit cap weather. Nanny was on her cell phone near the toddler apparatus. Her little person, Aubrey, was playing with some singing knobs on the gym equipment when 2-year-old Remy, who was accompanied by his grandparents (who, they told me, put their lives on hold for a year so they could help with childcare) unexpectedly pushed the little girl, and she fell down. Stunned, Aubrey cried as the Nanny grabbed her and started yelling at the boy and his grandmother: “Get him out of the park! He is a bully. Leave. Leave. Get him out of here! He doesn’t belong here!”
Grandma grabbed Remy off the apparatus and began yelling at him, “No, no! That is bad, Bad!” then shook him.
The Nanny continued to scream and point, “There is something wrong with him! Get him out of here!”
To which the grandma yelled back, “You were on your phone. You should have been watching her!“
which triggered the nanny’s response, “He is a bad boy. He doesn’t belong here!”
Three toddlers witnessed two adult toddlers attack each other like rabid coyotes.
The hostility continued for 10 minutes before the two parties finally separated.
“He’s just a little boy,” I calmly said to the nanny. “He didn’t do it on purpose.”
The nanny had AirPods on and appeared to be talking to someone on the phone. She smiled at me, which was weird, then yelled at the little girl, “When someone hits you, hit them back. I told you before, hit them harder.”
The little girl’s face was blank. She had no idea what the nanny said or meant. She seemed to be close to Millie’s age, younger than two.
The nanny turned around and continued her phone conversation while I tried to get Millie to say “Hi” to the little girl to distract her and see if she was OK. Millie and Aubrey stared at each other, kept their space, and took in each other’s vibes. Despite witnessing what was hopefully their first and last playground violence incident, they appeared to be in-the-moment.
Millie and I found some abandoned pink and blue balloons from an ongoing 2-year-old playground party. We played and played for more than 20 minutes, delighted by the wind and how it whisked the balloons along the crispy leaf carpet, then high into the November blue sky.
It can be this way, I thought. Leaning into love. Leaning into the simple, the innocent. Leaning into one’s potential, that can serve both sides. Where both are right and worthy and honored. Where both listen with open hearts.
We don’t have to lean into the nonsense. We can choose to disconnect. Maybe say a prayer. Move on. Like the little kids in the park. Millie doesn’t hold a grudge, stereotype. She doesn’t yell at each other, blame.
These little kids are sponges. If they see us snapping, attacking, being vitriolic, guess what? They’re clones.
Being here in Queens, I’m an observer, a recorder. I pay attention to everything. Because it’s new. Because I can. Because paying attention to how others behave helps me behave better.
We all make mistakes. I have a Ph.D in Mistakes.
But when you know better, you do better. Say sorry. Mean it. Or as Mom used to say, “Be the bigger person.”
You know the “Aladdin” song? (just in case you need a reminder: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iq2KLYRLQyw ) Well, that’s how I’m feeling these glorious November days, my new favorite month of the year, next to retirement October and September, the months the world goes back to work and school and retirees get to wander.
I’m here in Queens waiting the arrival of my new grandson–any day now.
If this sounds like deja vu, it’s because just 20 short months ago Baby Millie was born in the midst of the pandemic. She’s none the worst for wear, thank the Lord, but all of us adults and school-age kids got beat-up in the washing cycle. We’re coming out of it, a bit battered and in need of some fabric softener, but the sun is shinning here in the Big Apple as we slide into the Big Holidays wondering what Life will bring for families like ours throughout the Nation and the World?
Current Worry Score: 6.78
Things are getting better. At least in my little world. And I am feeling mighty blessed these days. I get cuddles from Millie, nuzzles from their black lab-mix pup Charlie, witness my daughter blossom into The Best Mommy and Teacher Ever, applaud my gritty son-in-law and have fallen in love and admiration with Millie’s paternal grandparents who moved from Hong Kong to be full-time caretakers to this full-house family.
Naturally, there’s a bit of jealously on my part because Millie favors them, not me, but knowing how devoted they are to our granddaughter is emotional and gratifying. Knowing that my daughter doesn’t have to worry about Millie’s care, takes a load of worry off my shoulders. She is going to be just fine. She’s strong. She’s supported. And she’s living the life she has chosen. And, she’s giving back: She’s an essential Educator. And (that’s the third), she’s happy. That’s what we parents want, right? Knowing that our grown kids are OK even if we can’t always be with them.
This gratitude thing is pretty overwhelming. It’s like the wind. The blowing Fall leaves.The Magic of Disney, which I so craved during the dark days of the pandemic. As I Distant-Taught my 8th grade English Language Arts students, double-dutied by caring for my new granddaughter, I used to fantasize about Disneyland. I imagined being on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride and munching on popcorn down Main Street and what life would be like when the Mess of 2020 was over.
In September, I became a Magic Key holder. Couldn’t resist! Now I can go to Disneyland and California Adventure as much as I like, along with my sister and cousin. Us best-buddies senior citizens having a no-apology, only live once, blast.
Hopefully, as a Nation, we’re collectively rolling into health; but I know I will never forget The Lesson: To care for one another. To love as big as Mount Whitney. To never again take for granted the sweetness of a song or the greetings of a stranger. Smile. Stop being afraid. Stop worrying. Be present. Remember, God is in the center of all things, just waiting to join the party.
I’m sitting on the balcony outside my daughter’s Queens apartment as Millie naps, soaking up the sounds, the sights, the sun, the smells. Last year, I craved Nature and bought a turquoise bistro set for their balcony so I had a place to feel the air. They lived next to the train tracks which lulled some people in the household to sleep. Definitely not me! Now in their new apartment, the train is miles away and the soundtrack to our Fleet Street abode are the departing planes from John F. Kennedy Airport, a parade of honking horns and sirens from 4 to 8 p.m., cranking music of all languages, strolling children curiously pointing out the sights–the Halloween leftover jack-o-lanterns and skeletons–and hushed Disney lullaby music from inside the apartment.
The two-story brick homes, framed with silver and wrought iron awnings and rails, are so different from where I live in Southern California. People walk. Rarely talk. They are on a mission. And then there’s Me and Millie who wave and say, “Hi” to everyone we pass. It’s a game. Can we get them to smile? Respond? Feel lighter? See what we see?
It’s a Whole New World.
Alan Menken and Tim Rice were right when they penned these words almost 30 years ago:
I can show you the world
Shining, shimmering, splendid
Tell me, princess, now when did
You last let your heart decide?
I can open your eyes
Take you wonder by wonder
Over, sideways and under
On a magic carpet rideA whole new world
A new fantastic point of view
No one to tell us, “No”
Or where to go
Or say we’re only dreaming
A whole new world
A dazzling place I never knew
But when I’m way up here
It’s crystal clear
That now I’m in a whole new world with you
(Now I’m in a whole new world with you)Unbelievable sights
Soaring, tumbling, freewheeling
Through an endless diamond skyA whole new world (don’t you dare close your eyes)
A hundred thousand things to see (hold your breath, it gets better)
I’m like a shooting star, I’ve come so far
I can’t go back to where I used to be
A whole new world
With new horizons to pursue
I’ll chase them anywhere
There’s time to spare
Let me share this whole new world with youA whole new world (a whole new world)
A new fantastic point of view
No one to tell us, “No”
Or where to go
Or say we’re only dreaming
A whole new world (every turn, a surprise)
With new horizons to pursue (every moment, red-letter)
I’ll chase them anywhere, there’s time to spare
And then we’re home (there’s time to spare)
Let me share this whole new world with youA whole new world (a whole new world)
That’s where we’ll be (that’s where we’ll be)
A thrilling chase (a wondrous place)
For you and me
The sky’s the limit fellow adventures. What’s on the horizon for you?
Look at them: 30,000 runners, all of them pre-qualified by running previous marathons. Just a sprinkling appear to be competitive. Most paid the $200 entry fee because they wanted to challenge themselves: To be better, stronger, more mentally focused.
At Mile 23 of the New York City Marathon 2021, my son-in-law, Jason, looked like he was just hitting his stride. While my 9-month pregnant daughter and I ambled our way into a bagel shop and later Starbucks for a seasonal latte, Jason was pushing himself beyond the I-can’t-keep-going wall. Later, I asked him how he did it and he said he just got it into his brain that he wasn’t going to quit–no matter the blisters and smoldering leg, thigh and butt muscle-pain. That same determination is pushing him through medical school as an English Language Learner student who immigrated from Hong Kong and became a U.S. citizen just a few short years ago. All the late-night runs after studying and long shifts at the hospital and in the classroom, taking care of now 20-month-old Millie, are as innate to Jason’s character as his dedication to dote on his little girl despite blinding exhaustion. Jason is determined to succeed: For himself, for his family and, eventually, his patients.
I remember when Jason came to America on a Visa and I asked him what he wanted to do? “You’re in America now, you can accomplish anything you set your mind to,” I assured him. He looked puzzled. He genuinely had no clue what he wanted to do having been straight-jacketed into an engineering program at the University of China. When he realized engineering wasn’t his forte, his college counselors relied on aptitude test results and switched his major to religion. Again, religion wasn’t his thing, but he soldiered on and finished his studies, earning his Bachelor of Arts degree.
Here, in America, Jason experienced choice for the first time in his life. Soulfully, he contemplated his future before determining that a career in medicine was his best path. It would come at a cost, however; U.S. colleges wouldn’t accept his University of China credits, which meant he had to go back and complete his four-year degree, which he did in two vs. four years. Imagine, not being fluent in English reading, writing and speaking comprehension and jumping into a field that, even to born Americans, is insanely challenging. Jason explained that studying for medical exams felt like trying to sip water from a fire hydrant running at full blast.
But he’s doing it, the impossible.
And that’s what I was thinking about as I watched Jason and the other marathoners run past me and my fellow enthusiastic supporters who lined New York City’s streets on a brisk, but sunny Sunday afternoon. Yelling runners’ names strewn across sweaty T-shirts, soundbites of encouragement, “Good job!” “You can do it!” “You’re almost done!” hooting, cheering, honking horns, ringing cowbells, clapping for the Jasons and the Emilys and all of those running on behalf of a sick or deceased love one.
“The human body is amazing,” Jason told me on our walk back to the apartment. “But the mind is even stronger. You’d be surprised what you can do.”
Not me, I thought. I could never do that.
Not so, chimed-in my about-to-give-birth 4th grade teacher-daughter who insists that she will join her husband next year. Both babies there to cheer them on, “You’ll be there too,” she smiled.
Great, another worry to add to my list of current worries. Katie already walks miles and miles of Manhattan’s hilly streets to and from work, climbing up and down the subway stairs. Full-term pregnant. How does she do it? How do they all do it? I marvel. In the heat. In the snow. In the crowds!
These post-Covid New Yorkers that I lived with at the height of the pandemic last year, they are something else. Never giving up. Never shutting down or shutting up. Brash. Polite. Living Life Large.
That’s the essence of this year’s NYC Marathon, the reason my eyes got misty as I gazed at the skyscraper of humanity, old, young, rich, poor, Black, White, everyone together, supporting each other as we collectively confetti-ed our support.
Every single person, runners and spectators alike, each one of us with our own challenges, successes, our own set of doubts, together, on this crimson and butterscotch Fall day, saturated in Possible.
Photo credit: The New York Times
I’m sure it’s OK with you if my eyes are misty. Let me tell you why: For the first time in two years, I walked into a bookstore. Granted, it was a Big Box-type bookstore, still, there were row after row of hard bound and paperback worlds.
With my hoarding of Teacher Appreciation Barnes and Noble gift cards in hand, I strolled up and down the aisles like I was greeting a long-departed best friend. I opened the covers of books I’d only read online reviews about, read the inside cover flaps, the back flap, walked, actually walked, to look up alphabetized books by the same author. I had “Retirement Time” on my side as I wandered up and down the COVID-decluttered aisles, wondering, thinking, grabbing a cafe latte, shelving, unshelving, adding to my list of must-reads, and remembering what it was like to linger with paper.
It was like talking to my high school boyfriend, Tim Myers, and catching up:
How have you been?
What’s it like in heaven?
You know, I always loved you.
I wish I had had a chance to tell you. I was meaning to. You were on my To-Do List.
But Monday, you died.
Bookstores conjure up memories and possibilities. I have missed them. Greatly. I didn’t know the extent of my longing until I opened the door into the dream: everything was familiar. The children’s books are upstairs. The non-fiction is to the right. The bargain books to the left, next to escalator. Yet, things were different, like there weren’t knowledgable book clerk specialists to guide me to new and favorite authors. I unwittingly left my phone in the car and was lost: who could help me? My brain was overwhelmed.
A young couple, I’d say 19 or so, dyed black hair, stripped black socks, piercings in their eyebrows and nose, giggling, looking at Young Readers graphic novels, were chatting about some kind of audition, reading their phones for updates, and I boldly asserted “Could you please look up the author of a book I’m looking for? ‘My Side of the Mountain’ “
Sweetly, they got to it: “George”…they responded…and I remembered, Jean Craighead George. The author who changed my life.
Back in the day, when we went to libraries, not bookstores, at least not my working class family, I read the worn brown and yellow-cover borrowed book over and over again, imagining myself running away, living in Nature, and being with a community—wildlife—that understood me. In fourth grade, I was aware I was a little different, not peculiar, but I was drawn to the odd.
People like Priscilla, who was large and pimply and friendless. I was drawn to her because people didn’t understand her, they rejected her because of her shape, family dynamics, and the home she shared with disabled parents and siblings. She lived in a converted garage, which didn’t matter at all to me. I saw her inner greatness, and she saw mine.
At 10, I still played imagination. But you had to keep that bit of damning info on the downlow. Could ruin a person’s reputation. But I adored my trolls, my TG and Y acquisitions, particularly my pocket-sized dolls that I would sneak into school. Priscilla and I would play with our purple-haired PeeWees. We’d find colorful gum wrappers around the perimeter chain link fence and fold them, zig zag, zig zag, into charming necklaces. Always crafting something out of nothing. We added other odd girls into our tribe, Gaylen, Annie, the kids who weren’t athletic or popular or the smartest students in class. It mattered, I’m not saying it didn’t, that we didn’t fit in with the “beautiful people” like the Kenny Bapty’s/Jeff Vaughan’s/Michelle WhateverHerFrenchSurnameWas of Beryl Heights Elementary School’s social elite, but we were good: We had each other.
And I had my books, that I’d read and re-read, escaping to a place I seemed to fit into.
“I am on my mountain in a tree home that people have passed without ever knowing that I am here. The house is a hemlock tree six feet in diameter, and must be as old as the mountain itself. I came upon it last summer and dug and burned it out until I made a snug cave in the tree that I now call home.”
These are the first golden words from “My Side of the Mountain”, my first favorite book. I will gift George’s story to my remarkable, reluctant reader grandson, Jack, for his 10th birthday. It’s not a $100 Lego kit or a dedicated gaming laptop, but it might help him along his journey. From one generation, to another.
Once upon a time, there was a mountain of books …
Dark blue tent. White Eurovan Camper Home. Turquoise folding chair. Watercolor paints. Edna Valley chardonnay. Cornflower-blue sky. 1,000-day Gouda. Mushroom brie. Multi-seeded Norwegian crackers. Handy portable generator powering up my LifeIZGood laptop. Layers of blue. Layers of green. Layers of quiet. Translucent breeze. Crashing waves. Cypress trees. Crunching yellowing maple. Two books read. Two paintings done. The poetry of now, the most perfect afternoon of my entire life.
Can every day be like this? Please?
Serenity. As wide as my ocean front yard. It’s getting better. Everything. My health. My attitude. My awareness that every single moment is a gift. It’s all going to work out. I need to stop worrying, planning, overthinking. I need to be here, now, at this graffiti-carved picnic table, in the shade, in the sun, in the bliss, knowing that everything I need is right here.
I need very little to be happy. A comfy place to sleep. A nice enough chair. Healthy food. Pleasant temps. Something to write on–a journal, laptop, a napkin, if need be. My art materials. Wine, of course. A reliable vehicle. Quietude. Music. Family and friends. My pups. Nature, my healer.
I am so profoundly blessed.
I know that not every day will be like this. But right now, it is, and I’m loving it and I’m grateful to be able to place all those worries in a bucket six feet away from me.
I don’t understand why, when I was working and raising kids, that I didn’t make more time for this….relaxation. Taking another day to explore, to rest, to read, to write, to think. I was always so obsessed with work, my students, my home, my children, and grandchildren. I didn’t make time to just be.
Sitting at this scarred campsite picnic bench, doing nothing more than noticing, is like floating over Highway 1, which I can hear to the West. All the doers. All the goers. And there’s me, hanging out without a plan cluttering my mind beyond the yummy dinner I’m cooking tonight or the sunset wine walk I will enjoy. A day in the sun. In the middle of the workweek. In October. The best-kept secret of retirement. Midweek and the Fall, when everything and nothing is possible.
I had NO idea retirement was going to be this regenerating. The PTSD of my life was stunning and exhausting and draining, actually bruising. I didn’t get it until I stopped, took a back seat, got in the van and headed north and west and felt scared and worried and finally fell back into the parachute arms of a very patient, very loving God.
Some readers may bristle with me referencing and crediting God. Certainly, you are more than entitled to your opinion and experience. This blog is not intended to convert or preach. We all have our own beliefs and come to certain understandings at our own time and pace. What I have come to realize about myself is that I am my best self when I give myself space. Writing and art help me to feel calm, to focus on what matters, to feel a sense of peace and love, which to me, is God. Unconditional, forever, love. My best buddy who wants the best for me.
My challenge is to remember this epiphany. Tattoo it across my chest. Document it in a blog. So when those challenges come (tomorrow’s L.A. traffic—dreading it—for example), I can reflect upon this moment of solitude and grandeur, sitting in this alcove of reverence, and know that no matter what comes my way, God is in the center, just waiting to help.
I want for nothing.
At the knees of the sacred Sierra Nevada, humbled by the majesty of Mount Whitney. Drenched in the sun, tumbler of filtered water at my side. Just the clicking of the keyboard to stir the silence of this incredible place, Alabama Hills in Lone Pine. It is lonely. It isn’t that piney. It is boulders and peppered dust and tumble weeds and a slight breeze and wispy clouds predicting Monday’s impending storm. The dogs are napping. My left arm is tanning. My just-washed hair is drying and I have my writing, my art, my music, my vitamins and veggies, my solar panel and mini electronics generator, a book—of course—and silence.
I want for nothing.
Sometimes the spirit needs nothing but surrender, mixed in with a bit of fear.
I’m camping on the Moon. The scene of many, many movies from “Gladiator” and westerns to the “Long, Long Trailer”, in fact, I’m looking at the incredibly dangerous road Desi and Lucy drove up toting literally tons of rocks in their Airstream. I was supposed to camp at the Mount Whitney Portal Campground but decided, NOOOOO, having been warned of the steep and dangerous road. Looking at that same road from this vista at the foot of the mountain range, I’m so glad I followed my instinct. Not a tall-heights person. No, not me! This campsite out in No Man’s Land is enough out-of-my-comfort-zone for me. Other than the occasional biker or Jeeper, I’m here alone with my thoughts. Sometimes, that’s all a person needs to feel whole, repaired. Nature. Something to write with. An opportunity to ponder and not talk.
I want for nothing.
This is the same mountain range I have driven past for 35 years, yet I never thought to pull off the road and sit a while. Camp. Feel the heat. Feel the cold. Be musty. Walk around without a shirt on. Squat when it’s time. Be raw. Be natural.
Honestly, my first instinct is to flee. This place is way too wild for me. I like to see people, talk to them. This place is desolate. No stores. No gas pumps. No other travelers closer than two miles away. The silence: it is a bit unnerving. The view, sharp grey mountains scalloped-pie-crusting a layer of toasty egg custard nutmeg dusted landscape. It is not a place I am naturally drawn to. Out of my element. For sure. But it is exactly what I needed at this point in my life: Different. Even the air feels different, like a sheath of bridal satin tickling my freckled, dry arms.
Tomorrow I will return to civilization, escaping two days of rain, staying in a predictable, dog-friendly hotel. Wine tasting in my sandy sweats. What I’m used to. The comfort of the Central Coast. Three more days of camping up the road from my beloved Cambria. What I’m used to. What I like. Soon, being here, when nothing meant everything, will be a memory, one I hope never to forget, the time I decided to push the boundaries, take a chance, so that next time I don’t have to be afraid. Maybe a little, just not as much.
May the peace that transcends all understanding pass through you.
Words to this effect, or maybe precisely these words, concluded our Sunday service at Christ Episcopal Church in Redondo Beach, a congregation I was “led” to after my mother died of emphysema in 1981.
As she lay dying in a dark room at Torrance Memorial Hospital, I felt compelled to contact my abandoned childhood church, out of desperation really. My mother was terminally ill and my family, like a lot of families during times of crisis, was frayed with each person’s opinion about what they believed was the best course of treatment given that my mother was suffering and unable to breathe.
While Mom and I had not been especially close during my teenage and early adult years, fortunately, our relationship became closer toward the end of her life when I grew to truly love and respect her. All those years, I had been a self-centered, selfish, foolish daughter, not appreciating how much she had sacrificed for her family. As her illness progressed, Mom confided in me—she trusted me—to promise her that I wouldn’t continue to let her suffer and prolong her life. Enough is enough. My dad and brother weren’t ready for her to pass and my sister was incommunicado; Mom’s impending death was too much for her to deal with. Realizing there was a severe “breakdown in communication”, I phoned my old childhood church and spoke with the secretary who explained that while I was a lapsed parishioner, the minister, Father Rob Edwards, would be happy to drop by Mom’s hospital room and chat, say a prayer–if that felt right.
Unlike the minister at another church, a local feel-good New Age congregation I was attending with my cousin, this minister, Father Rob, actually showed up. He was grounding–centering–and reminded me to think about the gift of the moment. “Your mom is still here,” be present for her, he suggested. He asked permission to say a prayer, which he did, either something he made up on the spot or read from the Book of Common Prayer. I felt better. The hushed room seemed somehow lighter. Mom was at peace and so was I knowing I was her advocate and would make sure no extraordinary measures were taken.
* * *
This memory came to me as I sat along the creek at my Convict Lake campsite wondering what I should do about the gnarly impending weather event forecast. It’s supposed to blizzard snow in a few days and rain like crazy. I have two nights reserved at a sweet little resort in Bridgeport, but I’m not a fan of the freezing cold and putting on chains. Yet, I didn’t want fear to prevent me from continuing my adventure. I was sharing my stress, my worry, with this trip’s travel partner, how the responsibility of preparing foods, making sure he’s OK since he’s been ill, and all that comes with being the “What’s Next?” Captain, when the clouds literally cleared and Father Rob’s words, “May the peace that transcends all understanding pass through you,” came to me. I am not alone. God is with me, always.
Tears erupted from a cavern of fear. Suddenly, the Autumn River became my past, present and future. The water’s bend toward the west represented yesterday; a reminder of love and pain, yet narrow, just a sliver of the brilliant landscape. The present is wide and gurgling with jumping brown trout and thirsty branches and wheat-colored grass. The future flows to my right in a direction I can’t see, a promise, a hope–a belief–that this small stream will join other waterways also headed down the mountainside. And surrounding this brilliant chapel of metaphors are the orange and yellow Fall arms of God whose stature towers in the silhouette of the snow-covered Eastern Sierra mountains.
The stress I was burdened with minutes ago, vanished. The sun came out. The sky turned stained glass blue and the bruised clouds broke up into cauliflower puffs.
Chapter One: The Little Girl
My earliest memories: Mom, sitting at the sparkly canary yellow Formica kitchen table, smoking Pall Mall’s with her friend and next-door neighbor, Marian. I was about three. We had a calico cat named Penny, and a toad who lived in a hole outside the back door. Spreckles Lane in Redondo Beach might has well have been Times Square in New York City as far as I was concerned. We could ride our bikes in the often-flooded street, climb magnolia trees, get treats from the Helms Bakery Truck, scale neighbors’ mason brick back yards, and investigate “suspicious” looking criminals. Mr. DeGraf, for instance, worked at a vet’s office on Hawthorne Boulevard in Torrance. He smoked cigars, wore a grey janitor’s coverall, and was known as the man who put animals in the crematorium. His son, Fred, was a lanky suck-up Eddie Haskell-like, “Oh. Hi, Mrs. Cleaver. Gee Mrs. Cleaver, your hair looks real pretty today,” fake kiss-up to adults, but turn your back on him and he was smoking in the alley. It was a world of adventure and possibilities, including producing musicals synced to our favorite Disney hits, “I’ve Got No Strings” and the score from “South Pacific”. We made the adults listen to what we thought were truly Broadway-worthy performances.
I set up my Sears bronze and white Silvertone record player and, scratches and all, performed to an enrapped neighborhood audience, “Zippety do dah, zippety ah, my oh my what a wonderful day.”
And it was. And it wasn’t.
See, Mom, unbeknownst to me, the little three and four-year-old girl, was deeply unhappy. One day when I was out playing with Johnny from across the street, Mom put her head in the gas stove. Her prized white and silver O’Keefe and Merritt stove, the very same oven she made steak and kidney pies and roast beef dinners in. Mom was profoundly unhappy; no one, but her best friend knew how much she didn’t like being a stuck-at-home, kid-draining homemaker. But Mom being Mom, literally sucked up her despair with a nasty cigarette addiction.
She was skinny and got skinnier as she hunched over the sink, smoking, and coughing those deep smoke-filled coughs that rattled the windows.
She and Dad got into it. Yelling. Pushing and shoving. I thought it was normal. “Isn’t this how all parents behave?” Bully dads were normal in my suburban neighborhood. Tough guys. I adored my dad and had no idea his Ruler of the House stance wasn’t Kosher. Poor Mom. She was trapped in the Donna Reed 50s; what could she do? No job, no money to call her own. He was the breadwinner. He was the boss. His money. His rules about how she could spend it.
I thought they loved each other. I know my dad adored her. He would rush to kiss her with his day-long stubble and sawdust grub from working in the Valley as a carpenter. His face and hairy back were blackened from the sun, which made his beaver-broad teeth stand out all the more. When he smiled at me, I felt like I was the most loved human girl on the planet. But Mom, I saw her struggle; she just wanted to be free.
I know Mom loved me. In her own way. She made sure we had good food, made our beds, tried to get us to take naps and get to bed when it was still light outside. She wanted us to be healthy and happy, I’m sure. But she rarely communicated her heart with me. I can’t ever remember a time she wanted to “just talk” or check in with me. She did chores, kept the house spic and span, like the cleaner. She looked tidy in her crisp waist-cinched pastel dresses. She rarely wore make up and kept curlers in her hair at night. I never remember her reading, much less to me, or talking about herself and things she was interested in. She was working. Cleaning. Preparing. Watching from a distance. She was my mom and I know she was a good, kind woman. But I don’t remember being hugged or kissed or told anything positive. She was a ghost in the family album.
There’s no one alive I can ask. Who was my mom? What did she want for her life? Why was she ignored, forgotten, put-upon, expected to be the house cleaner and keeper of us all? Why did she keep her hands in Ajax scrubbing and scrubbing her whole life? Why didn’t she have confidence in herself? Why didn’t she pursue some kind of dream beyond wife and mother? Why didn’t she talk to me, my sister or brother about her desires? At what point did she get lost? When her farmer-father suddenly died of stomach cancer and her young mother was forced to pack up and work at the concession shop near Bank Quay station in Warrington, England?
What happened to that little girl?
Don’t expect great writing. Don’t expect interesting character development and twists and turns. It’s just me. My laptop, my 2001 VW Eurovan Camper, the trees, the Pacific Ocean, the squawking jays, the stained blue sky, the chiffon ribbon breeze, a chilled glass of chardonnay, my turquoise folding chair and Big Sur campsite neighbor, the best man at a forest wedding he’s about to attend and sing at. He was rehearsing, possibly, or soothing himself, singing a song he composed and strummed on his guitar. I couldn’t help but eavesdrop. I scooted my chair closer, looked up at the sequoia canopy, thought of my own wedding at this very same state park 45 years ago, and allowed his music to crack open my broken heart.
It was here that 21-year-old, eight months pregnant me married a man who would derail my life, and my two children’s lives.
Everything inside me told me, “No, don’t do it,” but I went through with my disastrous plan because of my mother’s words when she found out I was pregnant, “Well, you are going to marry him, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” I assured her, all the while knowing no such plans existed.
Quickly, I bought white cotton maternity shift at Sears, reserved a Big Sur camp site, hired a mail order New Age minister, made potato salad and assorted picnic foods, deviled eggs, cold cuts, bought a tent, invited my parents, and got married on a sunny June day, just one month before my son was born. I wanted to cry, but I smiled. I wanted my mom to tell me that she loved me and would help in whatever way she could. But no one, NO ONE, told me that the impending marriage was nonsense, that it was wrong. No one said that marrying this unemployed, perpetually-in-college student 12 years older than me would avert my dreams and ruin my life.
So, I did. And my life, and the life of my children, was pretty screwed up. One bad, fateful decision.
My heart spoke, and I didn’t listen.
But now I am.
I’m 65 and on my first solo camp trip. This is Day 6. I’ve been waiting. For inspiration. For courage. To get to the place, the core, the reason. And campsite neighbor Max–his song–had me weeping buckets as I thought about my journey, why I lacked confidence, courage, to have the right–the audacity–to share my story. What does it matter? Who would care?
See, the thing is, I’ve always looked to others for acceptance. My confidence eroded by strong and opinionated family members. I was too fat. Too sensitive. Too dumb. Untalented. Too strong. Too weak. Just not as good as them.
I fought back. And from all outward appearance it looked like I could take the battering. But it takes its toll. The only thing I was genuinely good at was eating Mom’s food. I was her “big eater” and it was the place, I discovered, I could be loved. When my siblings and Dad, complained about the evening meal, I was the first one to finish the plate and to prove how extra lovable I was, eat their leftovers too! Mom’s culinary skills and effort were her way of showing us love—and I was the only one who appreciated it. I got the crown.
Thus, my 60+ decade battle with food addiction.
Is this the moment I stand up at an OA meeting and say, “I am an addict”?
Believe me, I tried it. And while it may be the tonic for others, for me it’s about getting to The Source, the reason, and that song, Big Sur, an impending wedding, my solo adventure, just pushed me to another, raw, vulnerable place.
Where did it go wrong? And, now decades later, how can I fix it? How can I, at last, find the peace to live the rest of my days in alliance with my spirit, with God, with my present destiny?
Breathe. Look up. Listen, and have the courage to allow The Truth to be revealed to you. Be naked. Be courageous. And know that melody you just heard drifting through the pines is leading you to the path you were always meant to discover.
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