Requiem for a Small White Dog

Gulliver’s gone to the final command of his master
His watery eyes had washed all the hills with his laughter
And the seasons can change all the light from the grey to the dim
But the light in his eyes will see no more so bright
As the sheep that he locked in the pen
There’s four feet of ground in front of the barn
That’s sun baked and rain soaked and part of the farm
But now it lies empty so cold and so bare
Gulliver’s gone but his memory lies there
“Gulliver,” lyrics by Bernie Taupin
April 16, 1991.   While the other dogs barked and lunged at me,  held back by their wire cages, the small white dog cowered against the back of her cage as far away from me as possible.  Her white fur was scrawny, revealing blue skin underneath.   I could see each of the matchstick-sized bones that made up her legs.  She was the ugliest dog I had ever seen.
She was also the only small dog in the pound on that April afternoon.   
Emily and I had just left Kate’s baby shower.  Kate, like many of my friends at that time, was expecting her first child.   Bernice was supposed to host the baby shower at her house, but she went into labor the night before and so we held it at her house without her. 
All my friends, it seemed, where married and pregnant, or married and trying to get pregnant, or in one case, just pregnant.  I could see that our days of freewheeling socializing and antiquing trips to the countryside were coming to an end.  Instead of going to bars, they would soon be going to “Mommy and Me” classes.  Instead of driving sedans, they would soon be driving minivans.  Instead of a townhouse in the city they would live near the best schools in the county.  I was going to get even more lonely very soon.
I can’t remember if it was Emily or me who suggested getting a dog.  In either case, after the shower we drove from Bernice’s house on the Northside to Chamberlain Avenue where the Richmond SPCA was then located.     
We told the volunteer behind the desk that I was looking for a small dog to adopt. 
“We only have one small dog available right now,” she said, and then led us back to the dog cages.  Most of the dogs were labs or lab mixes.  Richmonders love their labs. Richmond has more black and yellow labs than New York has black and yellow cabs.  
The girl led us to a cage with no dog.  I peered into it and saw the small dog shivering against the back of the cage.   The girl opened the door, reached in and gently picked her up.   
“We’ll take you to one of our adoption rooms so you can get to know her,” she said.
Across from the main desk, a curved wall with glass blocks led to a hallway with several small rooms painted red with chipped linoleum floors.  We went into one of the rooms. 
Emily sat in a chair and I sat on the floor.  The dog immediately climbed into my lap, still shaking.  The stress of being in the pound had caused her to lose much of her hair, the girl told us.  The dog had a small narrow nose and dark eyes.   What little hair she had stood up like white wires.   She didn’t look up at me but instead settled down on my lap.
“She needs you,” said Emily.  “And you need her.”
Emily was right.  I had left our two golden retrievers with Billy in New Kent, and I missed having a dog.   Billy and I got our first dog, Bear, in 1985.  A year later after we moved to New Kent, we bought Lucy, another purebred golden, from a dealer in Chesterfield.   Bear and Lucy would be the first and last purebred dogs we would buy.  Starting with the scrawny terrier mix, we would only adopt rescue dogs from then on.
I was reading “Cats Eye” by Margaret Atwood when I adopted the tiny white dog, so I named her Margaret.   
 Margaret 1991
According to Johns Hopkins medical school, studies over the past 25 yeas have shown that stroking a dog can boost levels of serotonin and dopamine, the mood related brain chemicals.  It doesn’t take a study to tell you that!   Who doesn’t feel better after petting a dog’s head while looking into her eyes, those two pools of love staring up at you?
Margaret was probably about a year old when I adopted her.   She eventually put on a little weight, although she never lost her girlish figure.  Her skin turned from blue to a healthy pink.  Her wiry hair became thicker. 
We became attached almost immediately.  If I left the room, she would come looking for me.  She was my constant companion.  I took her with me in the car everywhere I went.  She learned which tellers at the bank drive up window gave her dog biscuits and so she would get excited if she saw one of them.  Otherwise she would remain sitting on the front seat. 
Because I had to take care of Margaret, I had to take care of myself too.  I had to get up every morning and walk her, even if I felt too depressed to get out of bed.  I had to walk her several times a day, in fact, which forced me to get out of the house and get some exercise.  
When I took her backpacking with me, small as she was, she was always at the head of the group.  Larger dogs were afraid of her, because she was fearless.  Perhaps Margaret taught me to be fearless too.   This was during the Missing Years when I went skiing in Austria, cruising in the Caribbean and backpacking in the George Washington National Forest.
Even though Billy and I got divorced, we never stopped seeing each other.  Billy would watch Margaret for me when I travelled. 
When we remarried and moved in together, we brought the three dogs together.  As devoted to me as Margaret was during the Missing Years, once Billy and I remarried, her loyalty switched to Billy completely and absolutely.   One of the issues we had during our first marriage was that Billy was not assertive enough in our relationship.  He tended to defer to me.  I paid the bills and made the financial decisions.  Billy would ask me random questions, expecting me to know the answers because I had the college degree.   When we lived in New Kent during our first marriage, we had a problem with Bear running away.  A dog trainer told me it was because Bear was looking for the alpha dog. 
We did not have this problem the second time around. We now called Billy “Big Daddy.”   Margaret’s devotion to Billy demonstrated that Billy was the alpha dog in our house.   Instead of sleeping under the bed as she did with me, she now slept on the bed, on Billy’s shoulder with her nose snuggled against his neck.  When Billy came home from work and dropped his gym bag on the floor, she would crawl into it and growl at me if I came too close.  She even snapped at me a few times when I tried to reach into the bag.  Sometimes we joked that Billy only took me back in order to get Margaret.  It was a package deal.

Margaret guards Billy’s gym bag
When the kids, came, Margaret became even more loyal to Billy.  It was as if she knew that I was responsible for those noisy creatures.  She wasn’t sure how to deal with them at first, but she learned to tolerate them after she discovered that they dropped food on the floor.  She would sit under their high chair, and later under the table, looking down the entire time waiting for a morsel to drop. 

Margaret waits eagerly for Audrey to drop part of her 
dinner on the floor

 As small as she was compared to the goldens, they seemed to get along.  Bear pretty much ignored her, but she would intimidate Lucy, who outweighed her by about 100 pounds.  She would jump up and bite the skin on Lucy’s neck and hold on no matter how much Lucy shook her.   When the kids were babies and we would sit on the front lawn on a blanket, Margaret would guard them and chase off any other dogs who dared to enter the property (mostly yellow and black labs, of course).
Margaret lived a long life.  First Bear died, then Lucy.   After Lucy died we got Gus The Poodle, another rescue dog.  For a while we had two small white dogs.  
As she aged, Margaret lost her hearing and most of her sight.  She slept through much of the day.  She became crotchety and would snap at Gus for no reason.   But she kept on living, 13, 14, 15 years.
In the early spring of 2006, we took the kids to Seven Springs for a ski trip.  My mom took care of the dogs.  When we returned, Mom told us that Margaret was missing.  I had always heard that animals go off alone to die, and we assumed Margaret had done so, because she no longer left the yard.  We had stopped walking her years earlier.
A few days later, some boys in the neighborhood found Margaret in a shallow stream at the end of our street.  Billy brought her home so we could have her cremated.  Because we found her on a Saturday and we could not take her to the vet until Monday, he put her in a pizza box in the freezer.
“How does she look?” I asked Billy.
“Like a frozen dog,” he replied.  Billy always knew just what to say.  

Margaret’s last Christmas, 2005

Trip Report: Beaches Turks and Caicos

It’s paradise here where the sun meets the sea
There’s nothing to fear and so much to be
But soon I must go, say goodbye to it all
That homeland of mine is beginning to call
Return to Paradise, (c) 1978 Big Pig Music


The Way Way Back

If you get the chance to see The Way Way Back, see it.  It’s a fun movie.  It’s notable to me because Steve Carell plays the villain.  He has the same charming demeanor, but underneath he’s a jerk.  He was way too good at it.   Creepy, yet adorable at the same time.  Not many guys can pass this off.  Continue reading

The Missing Years, Part 2

The purpose of the Missing Years was to find a new man who was more compatible than Billy, or so I thought.  I dated a few guys and they were mostly jerks (not all of them).  One guy clearly had a checklist in his head and I could tell he was comparing me to the list during our date.   Apparently I didn’t measure up because at the end of the date he said “nice meeting you” and drove off.  That was that.  
I started to get depressed.   One night in early December I just wanted to sleep and forget about what a mess I had let my life become. 
I woke up the next morning to the sound of pounding on my door.  My secretary and paralegal came to check on me because I did not show up at work.   I think they had seen this coming.  They convinced me that I needed to be hospitalized.
Who do you think took me to the hospital that night?  Billy.  Who came to visit me every day while I was in the hospital?  Billy.  He took care of me even though I was in the process of divorcing him.  Now you know why I say I was such an idiot.  Billy is, hands down, the best person I have ever known. 
The first day in the hospital I received a phone call.  The general counsel of the company I worked for took the time to call me, one of his many lawyers, while I was in a mental hospital, to give me his personal support.  I will never forget that. 
The first night, I woke up and I could have sworn I saw a light shining into the room from the doorway.  Turns out it was just that.  The nurses checked all the rooms periodically during the night.  Creepy.
I spent 11 days in the hospital.   Even though I went in voluntarily, I could not get out until the doctors determined I was not a threat to myself.   So I spent the time convincing the doctors that I was not suicidal so they would let me go home.  
I can’t say being in the hospital helped.   I went home almost as depressed as when I went in.    
The only thing I learned while there was that the other patients in my ward were just like me.  All of were seemingly normal people struggling with issues that were too big to conquer without help. I think the time I spent in the lounge talking to the other patients did more good than the therapy sessions.
Some of you reading this may be wondering—should she be disclosing that she spent time in mental hospital when she needs to find a new job?  The answer is a resounding yes.   At my stage of life, a new employer needs to be prepared for what I am, warts and all. 
More importantly, I want to emphasize that depression is an illness like any other.  If I had been hospitalized for a broken leg or a heart attack, I would not be ashamed to talk about it.  I might not go out of my way to bring it up, but it is a fact.   And I am not ashamed.   It happened, it’s over, and it’s not likely to happen again.  I stay on my medications and see a therapist.   I have children who need me, a family that supports me, and a lot of friends who have stood by me.  Plus there’s also the thing about not pissing God off.  I really don’t want to do that.
Although I went looking for someone new during the Missing Years, what I found was me.  I started to do all the fun things things I wanted to do, but never felt I could for some reason. I went on my first cruise, went skiing at Park City and Vail, and took my first trip to Europe.  I stopped limiting myself.  
Growing up, we always talked about doing fun things, but we rarely did them.  I don’t know how many times my dad promised to take us to Europe, but of course he never did.  He always said we couldn’t afford it.  Yet he managed to visit Europe several times on his own. 
One day early in my career, I got onto the elevator with a colleague from my law firm, and a friend of his was also on the elevator.  They started talking and the friend said he had just returned from a ski trip to Austria.  Listening to him describe his trip, I thought to myself that I would never be able to do that. Why, I don’t know.  But thanks to my good friends Nancy and John from the Richmond Ski Club, I did just that a few years later.  I had always wanted to visit the Alps.  They were just as majestic as I had imagined, even more so covered with snow.  
Skiing in Europe is quite different from skiing in the U.S.  Unlike resorts in the U.S., the trails in Europe are not marked very well, I think because people are allowed to pretty much ski wherever they like.  Unlike the U.S, Europeans are not concerned about legal liability.  People don’t sue as much in Europe because in Europe, the loser pays the winner’s legal fees.  That discourages frivolous lawsuits.  Why don’t we do that in the U.S.?  Because in the U.S., the policy is to encourage free access to the court system.  It’s a double-edged sword.
I learned a lot about myself during the Missing Years.  I’m not an athlete but I didn’t let that stop me.  I was a terrible skier, but I did it anyway.  I had so much fun traveling with my friends, visiting new places, trying new food and enjoying the magnificent scenery from the tops of the Rockies and the Alps.  It was so worth it and I’m glad now that I said “yes” every time Nancy invited me on a trip.  Thank you, Nancy.   And thank you John.  I hope there are well-groomed trails and ski lifts with no lines in heaven. 
I learned how to take charge of my life while in Austria.  In Europe, people do not que up for the ski lift, buses, or anything else for that matter.  In the lift line, everyone sort of nudges themselves to the front of the line.  If you are not assertive, you get left behind.  I went to Austria with members of the Richmond Ski Club, and Richmonders are unfailingly polite.  For example, it is considered  bad form here to blow your car horn in traffic.  I once sat in line to pay a toll on I-95 while the woman at the head of the line got out of her car, walked around to the back, and retrieved her purse from the trunk so she could pay the toll.  No one honked at her.  We all sat there patiently waiting for her to find her money. 
So in Austria, a group of us Richmonders would get in “line” for the ski lift.  I would nudge my way forward, looking down at my skis to make sure I wasn’t running over anyone else’s skis.  When I got to the lift, I would look behind me and see the rest of my Richmond friends still at the back of the crowd!   There I was, getting onto the chair while my friends waited patiently for their “turn.”   When you see your chance, you gotta take it.  
On to Part 3:  Billy takes me back. 
Below– me on my first cruise.  1990.  Check out the gold lame jumpsuit.  Audrey recently wore it to a party as a joke!  It was pretty cool back then, or so I thought.  

Your Sister Can’t Twist (But she can Rock and Roll)

Oh your sister can’t twist but she can rock and roll
Out bucks the broncos in the rodeo-do
She’s only sixteen but it’s plain to see
She can pull the wool over little old me
Your sister can’t twist but she can rock and roll
Your sister can’t twist but she got more soul than me
Your Sister Can’t Twist (But she can rock and roll), lyrics by Bernie Taupin
I was not the only child to suffer under our father’s regime.  There were four of us, and we each suffered in different ways.  My sister was the baby and caught the brunt of our father’s lunacy.   She was the last one at home, and after my mom left him for the last time, she was stuck with him.   He stopped buying food, so she had to buy her own food and hide it or else he would take it from her.
Unlike me, she figured out ways to get around him.   She watched me trying to be good and do all the right things, and yet I got in trouble anyway.  She figured that if she was going to get in trouble for doing bad things, she might as well actually do the bad things.  And she did.  Let’s just say she had a good time in high school.
For example, once when I was in college my parents came down to visit me.  My sister stayed home.  My dad told her not to take the old car because it was not running well.  Of course she took it.  She went to Annapolis to party.  And of course the car broke down on the way home and got towed.
The next day, Sunday, she was frantic to get the car back before our parents came home.   She called the towing company.  It was closed but she got the owner on the phone.  Somehow she convinced him to tow the car back to the house.
He brought the car back and asked her how it was parked in the driveway.  He put it in the same position, she paid him $70 cash, and he left.  As he drove up the road past our house, she saw our parents coming home.  They passed each other going in opposite directions.
My dad tried to start the car later that day and naturally it wouldn’t start.  He didn’t understand why.  My sister kept mum.
I defied my father only once when I was in high school.  I was going to NYC for a yearbook convention with my yearbook class.    The teacher had arranged for us to see two broadway shows:   The original Chicago, with Jerry Orbach and Ann Rankin, and Fiddler on the Roof with Zero Mostel.  But the tickets cost $20 each ($20!) and he said they were too expensive and I could not go to see them.
I wasn’t about to miss seeing Zero Mostel on Broadway,  so I paid for the tickets myself, which by the way, was not allowed.  My dad had this weird way of looking at things.  He said that anything we bought was actually his because if we had not paid for them, he would have.  That’s the reason why he took my sister’s food.  This makes no sense, but we could not argue with him.  If we did, we got slapped in the face for having a “smart mouth.”
I saw both shows—they were great—and never told my dad.  Until, that is, I was in my 30’s.    Even after all those years, he still got angry that I had defied him.   I could tell by the look on his face that he would have slapped me, except my step-mother (his fourth and last wife) was in the room and he didn’t dare show her what a monster he really was.
My sister sowed her wild oats while she was in high school.  I would wait until I was 30 before I would cut loose.  It was a delayed adolescence, but with serious consequences.

Things My Parents Never Taught Me

My dad was crazy (turns out my mother is too), but I am grateful for a few things they never taught me. 
Number 1:  because my dad grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Hartford (he went to high school with Normal Lear and Charles Nelson Reilly, remember them?) my dad never taught me to be anti-Semitic.  He once told me that the reason so many Jews owned businesses was because no one would hire them.   He never really explained why that was so, just that it was wrong. Not the part about them owning their own businesses, the part about no one hiring them. 
I didn’t even know about anti-semiticism until I was 12 and went to see the movie Fiddler on the Roof.   We were living in L.A. at the time and my Aunt Elaine and Uncle Stan took my sister and me to see it.  Then we spent the night with them. 
I was so upset about the movie could not sleep.  I sobbed the entire night.  I could not understand why the Russians were so mean to these people.  What had they done to deserve it?      
When I was very young, my dad was a professional opera singer.  He sang in churches and synagogues.  The Christians sometimes didn’t want to pay him; they expected him to sing for “the love of God.”  My dad would tell them that the love of God didn’t put food on the table.  The Jews would pay him, however, even though they were not supposed to touch money on Shabbos.  Naturally, he preferred to sing in the synagogues.  This may explain why my parents never sent us kids to church.  It also explains why I thought bagels were a type of Italian food. 
Number 2:  my parents never taught me to be racist.  We never talked about this; it was a given.  People were just people.  Before I was born and my brother Guido was very little, a neighbor came over for a visit.  His name was Mr. Brown.
“Mr. Bwoun is bwoun all over!”  Guido exclaimed. 
My mom thought it was hilarious.
I grew up on military bases and went to the schools on post.  Truman had desegregated the armed forces in 1948, so the schools on post were integrated.    I didn’t know anything about busing or “separate but equal” or any other such nonsense.   I did learn about busing in 1972, however, when we moved to Inglewood, California.  We were bused to a school in Ladera Heights, which was a much better part of town.  So for me, busing was a good thing.
My best friend when I was ten was a girl named Sheryl Little.  Her dad was not in the military, but they lived nearby.  Her mother was my Girl Scout leader.   I spent a lot of time at Sheryl’s house.  She had a huge poster of Malcolm X on her wall and she told me he was her uncle.  She also told me he had been murdered by a jealous husband.   My mother insisted that Sheryl was wrong and that Malcolm X was not her uncle, but I found out it was true when I read his autobiography in high school.  Why did my mother lie?  Was she trying to protect me?  Sheryl’s story about how her uncle had died was not the truth either, so I guess her parents tried to protect her too.    
Number 3:  my parents never taught me to be homophobic.  My Uncle Stan came out of the closet after my Aunt Elaine died, and no one in the family thought anything about it.  Apparently they were not surprised.
Remember the “don’t ask don’t tell” debate in the military?  My dad and I watched a piece about it on 60 Minutes.  Afterwards he said:  “Why is this such a big deal?  If the guys are doing their jobs, leave them alone!”
Number 4:  finally, my parents never taught me to be a prude about sex.  (My husband is especially grateful for this one.)   In fact, my parents never taught me about sex or even talked about it.  The only dirty joke I ever heard my dad tell was this:  Two guys are in a bar and one says to the other, “Is that Hortense over there?”  “No,” says the second guy, “she looks pretty calm to me.”  It took me years to figure it out.     
My parents never said sex was dirty, or even that I was supposed to wait until I got married.   When I was in elementary school during the hippie era I wrote “make love, not war” all over my notebook.  I really had no idea what it meant.  My parents never said a thing.   They probably knew better than to make a big deal about it because they knew I didn’t know what it meant.  If only parents today would adopt that attitude instead of getting so upset over every little thing that might hint at sexuality.  No wonder the Europeans think Americans are uptight about sex. 
My mother once confided that she and my dad had sex before they were married.  This would have been in the mid 1950’s when birth control was not easily available.  
“What did you use for birth control?” I asked.
“We prayed,” she answered. 

(Don’t) Feed Me

  Remember the cartoon called “Cathy”?  She was a single woman with a boyfriend named Irving and a mother who desperately wanted her to get married.   Some of my favorite strips involved Cathy shopping for a bathing suit—I could so relate to her.  “Ack!!” she would scream from the dressing room.
The other day I went to Macy’s to get a suit for our upcoming trip to Turks and Caicos (we paid for the trip last year before my unfortunate professional sabbatical).   We are going to Beaches, an all inclusive resort with 19 restaurants.  Billy wants to try them all.  We will only be there for six days, but Billy will do his best.
Although this is not an official school trip, it has become a tradition at Collegiate for families to go together on Spring Break when the kids are seniors.  There will probably be about two dozen families at Beaches with us.  That means two dozen skinny blondes, and me, a size 14.
All my bathing suits are at the lake house (soon to be for sale) so I decided to buy a new one.   Even though it is only March, the bathing suits are already on the racks, ready to intimidate even the most svelte woman.
And of course, me.  I took a couple size 14 suits off the rack and tried them on.  Ack.  The suits made the fat near my armpits bulge out.   I could see all the cellulite dimples on my thighs.  Even with one of those awful swim skirts there was no hiding them.  I hate those swim skirts.  They shout “Hey, I’m too fat for a regular bathing suit!”
I thought about all the skinny blondes who probably wear a size two bikini.   A lot of these women don’t work, and therefore get to spend a couple of hours every morning in the gym.   I remember years ago sitting at our neighborhood pool next to two women.   One said she went to the gym every morning because she had nothing else to do once she dropped her kids off at school.  Yeah, I felt really sorry for her.
I am the classic yo-yo dieter.  Four years ago, I lost 40 pounds and wore a size 8.   I’ve gained it all back since then.   During the Missing Years I got so skinny I wore a size 4.  That lasted for about two weeks.
It takes too much effort and energy to stay that thin.  You have to be hyper-vigilant about what food you eat and how much, and where’s the fun in that?  You miss out on too many good things to eat.  Food becomes something bad instead of something good.   I don’t want to live like that.  Let’s face it; food tastes good, that’s why some of us eat too much.
I noticed that at parties with the skinny blondes, they stay far away from the food.  They don’t eat, or if they do, they wait until very late in the party and eat very little.  For me, the food is the highlight of the party!  That’s why I’m overweight.
Recently my mother complained that in my father’s family, everything revolved around food.  She said they talked about food constantly, what they ate during their last meal, what they were going to eat for their next meal, etc.  She said this as if it was the worse sin imaginable.  My father’s family is Italian; that’s what Italians do.  In fact, I would venture to say that most of us associate food with comfort, family and happiness.  Not my mother.
There is a happy medium between my father’s family and the skinny blondes, but I have trouble staying there.   It doesn’t help that my husband is a chef, but I can’t blame it on him.  Eating out can be managed.  What I can’t seem to manage is the stress eating.  And I have been under a lot of stress for the past six months.  I’ve been “nurturing” myself with food.  Can you blame me?  My life has gone to hell in a hand basket.  Thank goodness for Klondike bars.  Eat Skinny Cow ice cream sandwiches instead?  No thanks.  Or if I do,  I’ll eat four of them at a time.
Now is not the time to try to lose weight.  I need to find a job and sell my house first.
So there I am, staring at my thigh dimples in the mirror in Macy’s, thinking about how I will be sitting next to all those skinny blondes at one of the many pools at Beaches.  I am going to look like a cow next to them.  Maybe I should get a suit with black and white spots and be done with it.  Or maybe, just as they have an adults-only pool, they have a fatties-only pool as well.
But then I had a better idea.  I’m going to embrace my body and wear it proudly.  Why not?  It’s not going to change in the next four days.
When we went to the Amalfi Coast in Italy a few years ago, every single woman on the beach wore a bikini.  And I mean every woman.  No matter how old or how fat, they all wore bikinis.  I was the only woman on the beach in a one-piece.  I was the only woman there not showing her belly.  And not one of them was self-conscious about it.
I’m not going to go as far as the Italian women, but I decided in that fitting room that I’m not going to be embarrassed about my generous girth.  I’m not crazy about being this heavy, but it is what it is.
I also realized that just because a person is skinny does not necessarily mean she is happy.  Maybe some of the skinny blondes are so skinny because they are unhappy.    Maybe they only think being skinny will make them happy.
Some of the skinny blondes are happy, to be sure, but probably not because they are skinny.  Being skinny does not make a person happy.  It might help, but being skinny is not going to do it alone.  It won’t make up for the fact that your husband had an affair with your best friend (as an example), or that you are so bored you get to the car pool lane an hour before school lets out (which does happen).
The weird thing about my current situation is that I am happy right now.  Billy and I have always said that no matter what happens to us, as long as we have each other, we will be happy.   And we are.  I still have a wonderful husband.   I also have friends who have stood by me and supported me as I whine my way through this black tunnel I’m in.  I have two healthy, seemingly well-adjusted kids.   I have two dogs who think I am the greatest thing since sliced bread—as long as I have a slice of bread in my hand.  They come running to greet me with their tails wagging every time I come into the house, which is a lot more than I can say for my teenage kids.
Here’s an irony for you.  My mother hates fat people.  Hates them.  She is very thin and watches what she eats like a hawk.   And yet who does she live with?  Me, her fattest child.
So I will sit proudly next to the skinny blondes.  I will drink those fruity rum drinks with abandon (they are included!)  Besides, Billy prefers a woman with a little meat on her bones.   And that’s me.

Little Boxes on the Hillside

“Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”   Luke 18:16, NIV
The years between ages 11 and 22 were rough.  Fortunately, I had some help from the man upstairs.
As I mentioned in “Christmas 1971,” we moved from Maryland to California right after Christmas.  We moved in with my grandmother and my Aunt Cecelia in Inglewood.  Yes, that Inglewood, where “all the rappers come from” according to one of my friends.
We stayed there for eight months.  All five of us hated L.A.   I missed trees.  In L.A., instead of trees in the highway median strips, the concrete was painted green.
In August we moved back to Maryland.  My dad bought a house in Odenton in a small neighborhood of split level homes that all looked exactly the same.  (“Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky tacky . . .”)
I started at a new school (junior high school, no less) where I did not know anyone.  This didn’t bother me as I was used to that.  I didn’t have any of my school records, however, so I had to take a placement test.
After I took the test, I sat in the guidance counselor’s office to wait for the results.   This was back when computers took up an entire room, so I’m sure the test was graded by hand.  It took all afternoon.
There was another girl my age waiting also.  We started talking and discovered we had a lot in common.  We were both military kids.  She had five kids in her family; I had four.  We talked all afternoon.  Twenty minutes before the end of the day, I got my schedule and went to class.  Ten minutes later, Elaine showed up.  We were close friends from that day on.
Elaine’s family practically adopted me.  Did they know what I was going through? I never told them. Her mother probably guessed although she never said anything to me.  Back then people did not interfere with the way other parents raised their children.
 Instead, I spent most weekends at her house.  Her house was a little box that looked exactly like mine but it had an entirely different vibe because of the marvelous people who lived in it.  They even took me on vacation with them.  It was the first vacation that did not involve staying with relatives.  Her parents rented a house on Lake Owasco in the Finger Lake region of New York. We drove up there in her family’s cavernous yellow station wagon, the kind with the “way back” seat.  It was the best vacation I had ever had.  I remember dreading the ride home because it meant I had to go home.
Elaine’s father was a military chaplain.  Her mother was one of the sweetest, most generous people I have ever met.  Both of Elaine’s parents were Christians in the purest sense of the world.   Naturally they took me to church with them.
I had been to Sunday school a few times before that, but never to church.  My parents were both ex-Catholics who despised the church.   My mother went to a Catholic boarding school as a child, where the nuns tried to make her drink tomato (pronounced “toe-mah-toe”) juice because they thought she was puny and needed building up.  How tomato juice was supposed to do that, I have no idea.
My dad was a different story.  He did go to church with his second wife Doris, but he went in order to drum up business when he sold life insurance.  He later became a Buddhist to please his fourth wife.  He was religious when it suited him.
I found Christ through my friendship with Elaine and her family.  There were two things that got me through my childhood—school and Christ.  I went to school to get away from the house and to get support.  Jesus gave me support of a different kind.  I finished school a long time ago, but I still lean on Jesus.
Was it a coincidence that Elaine, who was the same age as me, showed up at the same school on the same day and without her school records?   I don’t think so.  God put her and her family in my path to help me manage during those painful years.
It’s funny how the things we learn as children stay with us through adulthood, both good and bad.  Because I was saved so young, my faith has never wavered.
You know the coolest thing about faith?  It goes with you wherever you go.  You don’t have to remember to pack it because it’s already inside you.  You can gain or lose weight and it stays intact.  Get married, get divorced, have a baby, become a helicopter pilot, lose your job, whatever.  It’s there.  I pray every day for guidance and support as I work through this crisis.
I’ve lost touch with Elaine.  Both her parents are dead now.  I miss them all.  Her family gave me the best gift—the gift of faith.

A 41-inch Bust and a Cup of Coffee

Yesterday’s blog was quite intense, so I want to follow it up with something more positive.  Today’s theme is that something good can come from a bad situation.
My parents unwittingly taught me three important lessons.  I decided I would never, ever let a man control me like my dad controlled my mom.  Ironically, I married a man who would never think to do the things my dad did.  But I didn’t know that when I was 12.  At age 12, I decided to become a lawyer, mainly because I figured it would give me the financial security I needed.  I would always be able to earn a good living and take care of myself.   I learned to be self-sufficient and resourceful.
My parents remarried when I was 17.   (He had another wife in between, but that’s a different saga.)  My father convinced my mother that he had changed, and he did, for a while.  My mother brought her car back with her.  This car meant freedom to her, and she was possessive of it.  Nevertheless, he convinced her to sell it and he bought her a Mercedes station wagon.  My dad made me sew all my own clothes to save money, but he drove a Mercedes from 1967 until the day he died.
He owned another Mercedes when they got the wagon, but his was older and a stick shift.  He liked the wagon better so he often took it and left my mother with his car.  Problem was my mother did not know how to drive a stick shift.   For some reason, she convinced herself that she could not learn.
“Get out there and teach yourself how to drive the car,” I would say.  “And if you crash it trying to learn, it will be his fault.  Or I’ll show you how.  Or go to a driving school to learn.”
But she would not.  Apparently she would rather curse the darkness than light a single candle.
From this I learned not to set limits on yourself and not to throw roadblocks in your own way.
I remember having lunch with a girlfriend who had three small children but she really wanted to go back to work.  Not for the money, but for herself.
“What’s stopping you?” I asked.
Well, there was child care expenses, and she could only work part time, and she probably couldn’t make enough money,  blah blah, blah.  Sheput those roadblocks there.  If you want to do something, find a way to do it.
The third lesson I learned was not to let anything get in the way of my dream.   I had no money to pay for law school.   My dad had promised to pay for it, but of course he didn’t.  So I worked for a year to save some money, took out student loans and got a part time job during school.
When I first started law school, my then-boyfriend, now husband, asked me if I thought I would finish.
What a stupid question, I thought.  It never occurred to me that I might not finish.   I answered, “Why would I start something if I didn’t think I could finish it?”
I’m really not that different from anyone else.  I may be smarter than the average person, but intelligence alone is not enough.  I think the difference between success and failure boils down to one thing:  perseverance.
As Newt Gingrich once said:  “Perseverance is the hard work you do after you get tired of doing the hard work you already did.”  I’m not crazy about Gingrich, but this quote makes a lot of sense.
I like Jayne Mansfield’s take on perseverance even better:  “A 41-inch bust and a lot of perseverance will get you more than a cup of coffee – a lot more.”
And you know what:  perseverance is going to get me through this dark tunnel.
Coming up:  Grease Monkey

Christmas 1971

“You are the sum total of your experiences and your upbringing.”   — Jeanne Phillips
“[D]epression has many possible causes, including faulty mood regulation by the brain, genetic vulnerability, stressful life events, medications, and medical problems. It’s believed that several of these forces interact to bring on depression.”
When I was eleven, my mother left us two weeks before Christmas.  She left the four of us children in the care of our father.  I asked her years later how she could have done this to us and she said simply that she didn’t think she could take care of us.   She said she felt that leaving us with our father was the best choice.  Judging by what happened to us in the ensuing years, I would argue otherwise.  But she made the best decision she could make.  We had no contact with her for the next six years.  Not a single letter or phone call.  I don’t know if it was her choice or if my father would not let her communicate with us. 
My mother had four children in six years.  This was the time before reliable birth control.   It was also before the days of microwaves and disposable diapers.  We didn’t even have a dryer then.   For years there were two babies in diapers at the same time.  That’s a lot of diapers to soak in the toilet, wash and then pin on the clothesline to dry.  Typical of the times, my father went to work and my mother stayed home and took care of the house and the kids.  I doubt my father ever changed a diaper, let alone wash one. 
My mother was a creative and talented person.  She played the piano, painted and made pottery.   She learned how to make clothes patterns and sewed all of our clothes.  I would pick out a dress from the Montgomery Wards catalog and she could replicate it.  I remember one dress in particular I loved so much that she made it three times as I grew older.  One year she made matching Easter outfits for my sister and I, which consisted of a dress and matching coat.  We looked like miniature Jackie Kennedys without the pillbox hats.
My mother was a quiet and shy woman who never liked to be the center of attention.  She lacked stamina as I remember.   I don’t think she had much self esteem to begin with, and my father didn’t make it any better.  He would taunt her until she would get so angry she would scream and throw dinner plates against the kitchen wall.  Then my dad would sit back and calmly and tell her she was the crazy one. 
Back in the 1960’s, we had one car, which was not unusual at the time.  My father also owned a motorcycle, which he would drive to work on the days she needed the car.  She had to ask his permission to use the car.  He would play a game with her when she asked for the car.  If she asked the day before, he would say he didn’t know what his plans were.  If she asked in the morning of the same day, he would say it was too late and his plans were already made.  She could not win.
One day she got the car and was running several errands.  She went to the commissary to get groceries and then came home to put them away before going back out again.   While she was in the kitchen, she heard a noise outside.  She looked out the window and saw my dad driving away in the car.  He had driven down the street on his motorcycle, saw that she was home, and took the car without even talking to her.  When she asked him about it later, he said he assumed she was done with it.   He told her it was his car because he paid for it.   
Eventually she could not take it any more and went back to Canada.  Our parents did not explain anything to us.  My dad told us one day she was going, and then she was gone.  My sister cried but I was numb.   

 The timing could not have been worse.  It was two weeks before Christmas, my dad was retiring from the Air Force and we were moving from Maryland to California a couple of days after Christmas.   The house was full of half-filled moving boxes.  My dad told us there would be no Christmas tree.  I was disappointed because the Christmas tree was the only Christmas decoration we ever had in our house.  My parents did not put up lights or a wreath.  The only sign of Christmas in our house I ever saw besides the tree was a bowl of mixed nuts in the shell on the coffee table.  I asked my mom once why she did not decorate the house and she said she was too tired to decorate in addition to buying presents and making Christmas dinner.

That year, my sister was 9 and I was 11.  Even though we did not believe in Santa Claus, we both wrote out our Christmas lists and gave them to our father.  On Christmas Eve, we hung up our stockings, which were really my dad’s gray hunting socks.  The real stockings weren’t packed; these were our stockings every year. 
I was the first one to wake up the next morning.  The stocking lay at the foot of my bed. It contained an orange, a couple of the nuts from the bowl and a small sealing wax kit that I had asked for. 
I went out to the living room to see my gifts.  I saw a small pile for my sister, but nothing for me.  I did not understand what was going on.   I thought my dad was playing a joke on me, not that he was the kind to do so.   I looked all over that little ranch on Nelson Loop for my Christmas presents.  I looked in the teak stereo cabinet that my dad had specially made for himself when we lived in Japan.   I looked in the bottom of the matching side tables and gun cabinet.  (Don’t worry, the guns were locked up).  I opened every cabinet and drawer in the kitchen.  Nothing.
I waited for the rest of my family to wake up.   My brothers, who were older, didn’t seem to mind that they didn’t get anything.   My father had apparently already told them that they would not get any gifts that year, presumably because of the move.   My sister was delighted with her presents and didn’t notice at first that I didn’t get any.  (She soon got her turn.  During the years my parents were divorced, she never got a single birthday present.  My dad forgot her birthday every year.)
My dad wished me a Merry Christmas.  I asked him where my toys were.
                “Oh,” he said casually.  “Did I not get anything on your list?”  That was all he said.  He didn’t apologize or seem the least bit concerned.    
                As an adult I understand that he was going through a rough time, having been left with four children to raise.  But I was eleven then.  
                The day only got worse.  We went to one of his Air Force buddy’s house for Christmas dinner.   We ate dinner, and the wife said she was not feeling well.
                “Go lie down,” my father said.  “We will take care of the dishes.”   She went into her bedroom and my dad promptly told my sister and I to wash the dishes, which we did, by hand because there was no dishwasher.   Merry Christmas.