Friday, March 29, 2013

The Baby Sitters

Children didn’t travel when I was a girl. Our parents gleefully packed their bags and kissed us goodbye and we were left to the mercy of our baby sitters.

My worst memory is of a trip my parents made to Mexico early one summer. “We’ll bring you huaraches,” mother said. “Now be good.”

Somewhere, my parents had heard of the “W” family and had hired them to care for my sister and me for the two weeks that turned out to feel like two centuries.

The family moved in—a mother who cooked cabbage all day, a father who walked about in his smelly socks, a twelve-year old boy called Junior who kept finding snakes near the lake, and a grandmother who once had been huge, but now whose skin sagged horribly. She belched and farted with no apologies. I was horrified—prissy little snob that I was.

My mother left a well-stocked pantry and it looked as if the “W” family intended to clean it out. Mrs. W was impressed with our new kitchen. It had everything. Dishes all matched, pans matched as well. And there was even a brand new mixing machine. She refused to use it as it was “mechanical” and she feared those gadgets were bewitched.

I spent my days playing Robin Hood and Maid Marion with some of the summer kids. These were families who moved into their cottages for the summer season. The kids were boys my age and some older so water polo had a tendency to get rough. One of the rules was they could hold you under as long as the ball was hidden. The boys grabbed my braids, stuck the ball between their knees and held me under until I was near death. But I never complained. Wouldn’t give them the satisfaction. We also played mumblypeg. When explaining the rules to me, Burt said, “You place the knife like this (as he laid an open hunting knife flat on the palm of his hand). Then you toss it like this (as he tossed it in a way that had it flip and fall blade first into the ground). And if it doesn’t land right, the loser picks a matchstick out of the dirt with her teeth.” My teeth were gritty the entire summer.

My sister was younger and played with her friends. We’d meet at noon when we sneaked into the kitchen to get something to eat. However at dinner time there was no avoiding that family. Mrs. W was concerned about eating in the dining room, but we always ate in the dining room as mother was trying to raise her daughters to be ladies and have manners. And as that was an endless job we always ate in the dining room. Grandma W plunked her sagging body onto one of mother’s ladder-back chairs and proceeded to eat everything in sight. Mother would have loved serving Junior as he ate two and three helpings of everything.  Mother was a marvelous cook and my sister and I were “picky” eaters. What Mrs. W brought forth was amazingly tasty and her family thoroughly enjoyed their meals. They had loud voices, big laughs, and thought nothing of waving the silverware about in the air.

Mother’s laundry room in the basement was a marvel to them. Daddy had built all kinds of cupboards and storage areas. I couldn’t believe that they might not have a washing machine. Didn’t everyone have one? But they didn’t. They didn’t even have electricity. That helped explain the rumpled look they all had. So everyday they did laundry. One morning, the Grandma asked my sister and me to hang her clean laundry outside to dry. Her petticoats were like pup tents, her nightgown like that tent they put up for weddings. But best of all were her underpants. They were made of soft cotton and trimmed with worn lace. You could tell they were old for you could almost see through the fabric. The bottom was split open so she could sit on the toilet without pulling them down. Amazing! We invited all the kids to come and see. It was the hit of the season.

Mother and Daddy finally returned with huaraches. “How’d it go?” Mother asked Mrs. W.

“Them girls of yours is angels,” she said.

My sister and I smiled sweetly. We had survived. But I remember feeling a tinge of guilt. When I really looked at Mrs. W, I saw she meant it. They’d all had a wonderful time while I’d spent the two weeks making fun of them behind their backs.

I blush now when I think of what a little snob I was. This was a family doing the best they could in the worst depression the country had ever known. Mrs. W was being as creative as she could to make interesting meals with very little. Mr. W had lost his job and feared he lacked the skills to find another. The Grandma was bravely facing her illness and aging.

Mother’s pantry must have looked like manna from heaven to them. Who knows what they had been going through? My parents had seen the W family’s need, looked into their hearts at their purity and simplicity, and had found a way to help, a way that allowed the W family to maintain their dignity. My parents knew their daughters were sturdy and could use a few lessons in gratitude and humility, obviously lessons long past due.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Best Friends

It was 1935 and another new school for me. I was in the fifth grade, the youngest in the class. Big challenge for as much as I loved having friends, I was shy. The first day, the teacher introduced me to the class as one of the new girls. There was another.  She was tall, rather plump, and had frizzy red hair. Betty B.

“Let’s be friends,” she said and she took my hand. It was as simple as that. And we were. Best Friends Forever. She was different from any other girl I had ever known. Her father had been an officer in the navy and he was now retired and trying to sell insurance in our small town. Betty had grown up mostly in China. She’d had a Chinese amah (nanny) and had traveled the world. She’d even seen a real volcano. I was in awe.

The following week, I got a second-best friend. David. He came by every day to walk me to school. He insisted on carrying my books and protected me from all the other boys. During recess we played a game called “jail.” (A game my great granddaughter says she plays during recess.) It consists of the boys chasing the girls, catching them, putting them in jail, only to have the girls escape and be caught all over again. David always caught me, and I always escaped. I had mixed feelings about him, on the one hand, pleased that he liked me, on the other embarrassed that he fussed over me. Oh, the agony of growing up.

But Betty was my best friend and what interested me the most were her toys. Betty didn’t have dolls and dollhouses like I did. She had a set of Chinese torture methods, little bamboo carvings of the death of a thousand cuts, the blinding with burning rice (something done primarily to unfaithful women by their husbands, Betty told me), and one that was a tall cage where the man’s head stuck out the top but his feet couldn’t touch the floor. A long slow death. And this was considered fun? She had an Imperial Family set of dolls. You didn’t change their clothes, just their heads. One set of heads had beautiful crowns; another set was ordinary for every day. There was a little box that held a Japanese doll. In the box were seven little sections each holding a wig, one for each day of the week. She also had the surgical kit from the last ship her father had commanded. The scalpel was dull, but real. We spent hours playing hospital, bandaging my dolls’ arms and legs, pretending to give shots with needle-less syringes.

Betty’s parents (while they lived in China) saw their children only when they were ready for bed at night. Betty told about how she and her brother had supper in the nursery. After being bathed and put into a nightgown, Betty was paraded into the living room where her parents were dressed for the evening, her father in his navy whites, her mother in a long gown. Betty missed her mother, but she loved the freedom her parents gave her. Most days, the amah took Betty to her home and let her play with her children. Betty loved that.

But our favorite activity was to go into Betty’s brother’s room and check out his things. Phil was much older and gone most of the time, attending the local college. From his ceiling hung beautiful Chinese kites of silk and fine paper. He had two ship models, each about four feet in length. One was a Chinese junk, the other an American naval ship, a copy of the one his father had commanded. You could open the little doors and arrange furniture in the rooms. They were exquisite. But the most interesting was his photo album. Phil was an adolescent when they lived in China and knew all the ways to sneak out of the compound. His pictures were taken in the town square—the public executions. I still get chills when I think of one. The knife blade is a grey blur as it slices through the upper right corner of the photo. The man’s head is resting against his chest. Lots of nightmares for me.

We moved and I lost David was replaced by other boys. Betty and I corresponded by letter. Eventually Betty’s father was called back into service. Her mother died and in 1941, Betty was evacuated from Manila with nowhere to go. We had her come to us for the summer. I remember her talking about a war that was coming. “Oh,” I said. “We don’t want war.” She looked at me and said, “What do you know about the world in your smug little Wisconsin.” Obviously very little. Betty’s father ended up in Washington D.C. and was able to establish a home for her. Over the years I lost her, but in my memory she is as alive as ever, red hair, torture toys, and all.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Strange Ones

Granddaughters Chelsea and Sloane called her the “talking lady.” She was tall and slim and wore long flowing skirts, sometimes several, one over the other. She draped her shoulders with a scarf and wore another around her head, trying to keep her unruly gray hair in place. A canvas satchel hung over her shoulders and it bulged with strange lumps. And in her hand was an open book, one of those blank books you buy for journaling. As she walked she held the open book in front of her lips and spoke into it.

I saw her often in the California suburb I lived in. She seemed to walk everywhere. One early morning, I stopped in at the local McDonald’s to have their sausage egg muffin. I took a seat beside the window and noticed her in the booth opposite me. She had several open books on the table along with a number of pens–red, green, and black. She was writing and changed pens often. I could see the words covering the pages were closely spaced. Her coffee was black in a Styrofoam cup. At one point she looked up and saw me. I looked back, deep into her eyes. We connected, truly saw each other, then she dropped her pen, scrambled out of the booth, and raced out of the restaurant.

I called a young attendant over and asked him not to disturb her things.

“Oh,” he said. “We all know her. She’ll be back. Don’t worry, I won’t let nothing disturb her things.”

I thought of all the other strange people I’d seen—the angry man at the bus stop. He was there every day; dressed in a suit, clean shaven, and carrying a leather notebook. He stood quietly until the bus stopped. The moment the door opened he started. His arm lifted and with an accusing finger pointed directly at the driver, he began to shout. It sounded like gibberish with an occasional four-letter word thrown in. People disgorged from the bus and more people got on. No one seemed to notice him. The minute the doors closed he quieted, opened his notebook and wrote. 

It was like the fat boy on the street corner of Bridge Street when I was young. He always stood on the corner opposite the Post Office, rocking back and forth, sucking his thumb. Often, his pants were wet. I watched him from the safety of the back seat of the car. People walked about their business and no one noticed him, or seemed to. I asked my father about him and he explained that he was a boy who would never grow up, that he would remain a child always and we must be kind.

I think of the “talking lady” who doesn’t want to be noticed and of the others—all those who don’t fit within the norm. The thinking seems to be that if we don’t notice they won’t exist. But they do. They are in our world. They are our people, part of our family—the family of humankind. I have a feeling the “talking lady” knows that and is recording all that she sees in her book. The guy at the bus stop too. He’s making notes. I’ve been told that when one enters the Pearly Gates, St. Peter looks in a book to determine where we will go. I wonder who has been gathering the data for that book? Could it be the “talking lady,” or the guy at the bus stop, or my rocking boy? God’s spies?

Friday, March 8, 2013


            I have a birthday this month and I won’t tell you my age, but will give you a hint. It’s a number the Chinese consider very lucky and there are two of them, and if you put them on their side, you get infinity—and beyond.  Anyway, birthdays always remind me of gifts and so here are some.
When my eldest son John was eighteen months old, he was “gifted” with a new sister. She was adorable. And that’s not just my prejudice. My father claimed there was one beautiful baby born, and every mother had it. John had been that beautiful baby once, and now he had a sister. When I took the children out for a walk, people stopped us on the street to rave about the “beautiful baby.” John always stood politely by. One day, we went for a walk with my father. Later that day, he returned with gifts. He had a token gift for Mary, but a box for John. “Open it,” he said, and John did. There was a sheriff’s hat, a badge, and a red bandana. Now John always wore hats. We had no idea why, for his father never wore one. But John had a hat for every occasion. When Howdy Doody was on, John wore his Howdy Doody hat. Next was Cowboy Bob, and John raced into his bedroom to retrieve his cowboy hat. He had a mailman’s cap, fireman’s helmet, football helmet, baseball cap, a whole repertoire of hats.
            John was delighted with what was in the box and my father had him put on the hat, badge, and bandana. “Let’s take another walk,” he said. While I bundled up the baby, my father and John had a whispered conversation. Soon we were on the sidewalk and a woman came up to us. “What a beautiful baby,” she said. My father nudged John who shyly spoke up and pointed to his chest. “Sheriff’s badge,” he said. The woman immediately turned to him. “What a nice badge.” She then said nice things about his being the big brother to this beautiful baby. I realized. John would have no need of envy now, for my father had given him a priceless gift, one of personal value and belonging. John was no longer a beautiful baby. He was now the big brother,  a role he has played graciously.
That Mary, who grew up to be a beautiful person, gave me many gifts. One of my favorites was when she was grown and on her own, I loved going to visit her and take her to lunch and dinner. It was such a treat for me to pick up the tab. Several years after she was married, I visited. We went to lunch and when the check was delivered, I reached for it. But Mary got there first. “No, no,” I said. “My treat.”
            She smiled sweetly and said, “No, Mom. Let me have the blessing.”
            A precious gift to me.

Son Bill gave me many gifts, but my favorite was one about organizing, one of my weakest attributes. Bill was an expert. He had set me up with a new organizing system for my learning center, one he had used successfully on some work he’d done in New York. After several weeks on one of our calls, he asked how it was going. “It’s not,” I said. “The system doesn’t work.”
Bill laughed. “Oh, the system works. You don’t.”
Oh, he was so right.
My youngest son Doug is amazing. He is the most able at living in the present of anyone I know. I started learning from him when he was a teenager. He could see the writing on the wall and would tell me about it in no uncertain terms, calling my attention to truths and facts I had been ignoring (I am the Queen of that famous river Denial). One of the best gifts was when he was about nineteen. I had been asked to do a writing assignment, a rather important one, and didn’t know if I could do it. I called him and was commiserating about the project. “I’m not sure I’m good enough for this,” I whined. “Maybe I should decline.”
His response was quick. “Bullshit, Mom. You can. Just do it.”
I straightened up, thanked him, and began to work.
A gift from my mother, one reluctantly received, came when I was in high school. I was with Mother at the church one Sunday when they were asking for volunteers to set up the community room for a tea. “Oh, Ruth would love to do that.”
I groaned, and one of the women spoke up. “Do you think she can?”
My Mother smiled and patted my knee. “Oh, yes. Ruth can do anything.” And she believed that, lived her life as if that were so. More than once, I pulled myself up by the bootstraps to be that girl for my Mother. Truly, a gift to me.
My father’s gifts are too numerous to even recall. He raised me to be a warrior and I am truly grateful for his love and belief in me.
I am blessed with friends who constantly are gifting me with insightful conversations, tasty morsels for my dinner, and calls and emails just to be in touch. I am truly grateful
            Re-gifting is not a new practice. It’s what we did with the three extra silver gravy boats we got as wedding gifts. Many years ago, I found a re-gift that still brings tears to my eyes. I read this in a McCall’s magazine, probably in the 1950s. I cut it out and have saved it these many years. (Don’t know who to acknowledge and thank for the magazine article.)
“In late 1864 a mother wrote a letter to her sixteen-year-old son coming home from four years in the Confederate Army. Randolph Helm had a ‘dark bitterness’ in his soul, he had told his mother, having known war too young and too long. Fifty-five years later the letter was used again, when Randolph’s nephew returned from World War I. It was used a third time when a member of the family came back from Iwo Jima and Okinawa. ‘She put rivets in her tenderness,’ this boy said. The letter is as fresh today as it was when Grandmother Helm wrote it nearly 100 years ago.
            “A winter day, 1864. Dear son, I’m glad you’re coming home. You’ll make it in time for spring plowing. If General Lee offers you a mule, don’t be proud. You take it.
            “What makes you think I won’t remember you? If you’d been away fifty years I’d remember. I don’t reckon you eat your vittles any different when you’re hungry and still squirm when you say your prayers ‘sif you had fire in your pants.
            “You got a deal of bitterness stored up in you for sixteen years. Yes, people lied and cheated and sold each other out, but they’ve been doing it sence the days of Eden. Just you see that you don’t waste yourself hating em. You see, they never laid in ditches covered with water till they wondered if all the world was under water. They never froze till they wondered if all the fire in the world had burned out. They never waited in the dark of night till they wondered if all the light in the world had blown out. They never starved and thirsted and froze and hated and burned and willed to die for something they believed. These things they never done, and you must be easy with em.
            “Now, as I’ve told you before, God’s still up there where He’s always been, and He’ll have His way. You watch.
            “I’m standing now at the winder looking out at the stars. Just you and God and me. I’ve put your hand in His, and I’m saying a prayer. I’ll write it out so’s you’ll know. (He don’t need to have it writ.) God, here he is, and don’t be too easy on him. Because he’s fit a war and lost an arm he mustn’t get to thinking his work’s done. He’s young and don’t know that work heals and so does forgiving. His dark bitterness won’t get him nothing. Hold his hand, will You, till he finds the light.  Now good night, my son, good night. Your mother, Nancy Helm”
            If you’ve been reading my blog, just know that you are a wonderful gift to me. Thank you.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Dangerous Neighborhoods

Growing up in small town America felt very safe. My friends and I strolled around Chippewa Falls with no fear. There were no dangerous neighborhoods there, only dangerous places. One tavern in particular was famous for its brawls. My father said it was not a place for ladies. All we had in those days was our reputation, once sullied, never again regained. And so my friends and I stayed clear of brawling taverns.

So you can imagine my shock when in college I was chased one evening while walking back to the sorority house. Our housemother had warned us that there was a rapist loose in the neighborhood and we were never to be out alone at night. We were to call her and she’d pick us up. But I’d left the library in a hurry and forgot about calling and here some guy in dark clothes was following me. I’d seen him lurking under the awning outside the Christian Fellowship Community Hall. I continued walking and soon heard footsteps behind me. I peeked. It was the guy. I started walking faster. He did too and soon I was racing with him chasing me. I ran into the middle of the street praying, hoping someone would see me. But no one did. Finally, I spotted the fraternity house of the fellow I was dating. I raced into the house and plunked down into a chair, my heart beating wildly. “Being chased,” I managed to blurt out, and the house emptied as the fellows ran into the street. They didn’t find anyone, but they walked me to the sorority house and then serenaded us for an hour. All’s well that ends well. But I had learned there are truly dangerous neighborhoods.

When I lived in Atlanta (1956), it felt in some ways that the entire city was a dangerous neighborhood. There were all these rules and regulations about what you could do where, when, and with whom. For instance, you couldn’t sit at a table with any, who in those days were called “colored.” However, you could stand with them, even in crowded elevators. “Colored” had to sit in the balcony at the theaters. When the movie Hamlet was showing, one of the “colored” professors borrowed her white friend’s children. With them in tow, she looked like a nanny and got to sit on the main floor. Such a crazy business. “Passing” was an interesting phenomenon. That meant that a light-colored person could “pass” as white. I had a neighbor who bragged about her southern blood. She would never use a bathroom that a “colored” person used. Never. In fact, she boasted that she and her mother had checked out of a hotel in San Francisco when they learned that “colored” people had rooms there. One evening, at a dinner party in a fancy Peachtree Street hotel in Buckhead (a white suburb), I happened to go into the ladies’ room and there was my neighbor. As I entered, a beautiful woman exited one of the stalls. I could tell she was “passing.”  When she left the room, I mentioned this to my neighbor and asked how she could explain her being in the same bathroom. She was flustered and waved her hands about. “Oh…oh…that’s just different.” As I said, the whole city was caught up in this crazy business, a truly dangerous neighborhood for all.

While still living in Atlanta, we took a trip to Milwaukee to see my parents. Dick decided to drive through Chicago to give the children an opportunity to see the city instead of the freeways that surrounded it. We were driving through south Chicago when someone threw a rock at the car. We were shocked. And then another rock came and another and someone shouted, “Go home, Georgia cracker!” We got away as quickly as possible, but it left us all stunned. Those people throwing the rocks didn’t know us, what we thought, how we lived, and yet they had formed an opinion about us. I had a tiny understanding (and so did my young children) of what it must be like to be dark skinned in a segregated city. If this nonsense was to continue, I despaired for mankind.

While living in Mount Lebanon , a suburb of Pittsburgh, in the early 1960s, I joined with five other women to do something about civil rights. We chose an interesting area of Pittsburgh, a mixed neighborhood with about 60% white, 40% “black” (the word we used then), and all poor. The neighborhood was filled with beautiful old Victorian town houses, all beginning to show their years. We talked the Presbyterian Synod into renting a storefront space for us. We named it The Meeting Place and it was truly that. There were activities all day long and well into the evening. Someone had organized a teen group and we took turns being there so the parents could relax and know that no “hanky-panky” was going on. One evening, as I herded the kids out and prepared to close up, I laid my purse and car keys on the table. One of the boys (a tall sixteen-year old) grabbed the keys. Two boys joined him and they began to tease me about taking me for a ride. I looked at these boys. Cute, full of life, ready for an adventure and I knew I was responsible for what would happen. I pulled up the “mother” inside of me—that female tiger that rises whenever her kids are in danger. I held out my hand and pointed to it. There was a moment, one of those times that seems to freeze. Then the boy laughed as he dropped the keys into my hand. We had escaped a truly “dangerous neighborhood.” From that day on, those boys became my protectors. I wanted to adopt them.

Los Angeles has its share of dangerous neighborhoods. One evening in the early 1980s, I finished leading one of the EST Seminars and met with my logistics team. We had gotten into the habit at the close of a seminar to allow people to ask for someone to walk them to their cars. But this evening, for some reason, I neglected to ask someone to walk with me. Soon everyone was gone and my car was parked in a very dangerous neighborhood. My friend Judy always said I carried “safe” around with me, and I hoped she was right. I was exhausted and all I could think about was getting home. All of a sudden a fellow staggered up beside me. “Lady, how about having a drink?” I turned to look at him. He was just a bit taller than me, but he was huge. His straight black hair was pulled back into a long ponytail, his face broad and ruddy colored. His thick neck disappeared into the broadest shoulders I’d ever seen. He looked like a brick wall. “Sorry,” I said and walked away. He raced up to me. “Oh, Jesus, lady, don’t be afraid of me.” I stopped and looked him in the eye. I was terrified and yet felt oddly compassionate. It was obvious his life was hard, but in some strange way I knew this scenario was up to me and I needed to keep us safe. “I am not afraid. I’m hungry and tired and I’m going home.” I clutched my purse to my chest and walked to my car. I got in, locked the doors, thanked God (literally), and started the car. Suddenly, the front of my car dipped. I looked up. There he was, his arms spread wide, pushing the front of my car to the ground. Again, for the sake of both of us, I felt I had to be in charge. I gunned the engine, put the car in gear, and released the clutch. He leaped out of the way and I drove home. I’d been lucky, but knew I needed to be more careful. Like a cat, that mother tiger has only so many lives.

I’ve been in other dangerous neighborhoods. I remember especially some corporate team meetings and a few cocktail parties in Los Angeles and New York City where careers and reputations were on the line. It seems those dangerous neighborhoods are all over the place.

I’m being careful, but there’s one neighborhood I can’t avoid. In Augusten Burrough’s book Dry, he writes about his experiences with alcohol and rehab. One of his counselors is a recovered alcoholic Ph.D. therapist named Rae. During one of their sessions, she advises him, “Think of your head as an unsafe neighborhood; don’t go there alone.” Good advice. Wish me luck.