Sunday, November 13, 2011


Music has always been a big part of my life. My daughter says you can always tell what CD I am listening to by the tunes I sing when I think no one else is listening. Sometimes a song gets a hold of me, winds itself around my soul and causes me to make a change in my life.

Several years ago, I was partner in a small medical group. I had been out of the office for some surgery and behind my back the other three partners decided to sell out to a large hospital group. I felt betrayed by these men I thought were my friends. As we got closer to the merger, my anger became over powering.

One night I was watching a concert on PBS by the rock band Fleetwood Mac. While watching the concert I realized that this was the same great music I had enjoyed so much while eating pizza and drinking beer in college. I couldn’t believe the music was actually the product of this one group, but then again they had three different vocalists. I went out the following day and bought their greatest hits album.

When I buy a CD, I put it in the car and it can stay there for weeks. Fleetwood Mac’s ballads of love and betrayal began to throb in my head. The pounding rhythms of The Chain and Go Your Own Way spoke to me. One morning after a particularly ugly meeting, I got in my little blue Z-3. I turned the CD to the song Rhiannon. The raspy growl of lead singer Stevie Nicks, mirrored the frustration and anger I was feeling. I drove from Tacoma to Federal Way at 75 miles an hour, screaming the words of the song.

“Rhiannon rings like a bell through the night, and wouldn’t you love to love her. She rules her life like a bird in flight, and who will be her lover? All your life you’ve never seen a woman, taken by the wind. What would you say if she promised you heaven? Will you ever win?”

During those dark and difficult days, Rhiannon became a real person to me. She looked a bit like Stevie Nicks, her long blond hair blown by unseen tempests. Rhiannon wore a long black dress, fitted at the waist. Tassels hung from the sleeves. The dress floated as she twirled. Rhiannon was a strong woman, who knew her own mind. She became my mentor and I emulated her. I would be assertive in this unhappy situation. I would allow myself to use the power of my anger, but I would not let my anger become me.

With this image of Rhiannon I began to tell myself a story. It was a love story between this strong, assured older woman and the handsome young man who would become her secret lover. The story moved from my imagination to my computer, and to escape the trials of my work place, I began to write their story. Within months I had written a novel .

While I wrote about Rhiannon, something changed within me. As first novelists often do, Rhiannon was imbued with parts of me. I began to glory in those strengths, and by the time the book was finished, I had made a decision. I couldn’t care for people properly if I was feeling angry all the time. I would leave the big hospital group. Their brand of cover your ass medicine with 7.5 minute office visits was never going to work for me. I decided I would open my own practice, where I could care for patients the way I felt they deserved to be treated. But I had no idea where to start.

I was driving down the street one day, with Rhiannon still playing in my CD player. I saw a real estate sign at an office park and something told me to call the man whose name was on it. Soon we were looking at office space. Then, over lunch one day, I ran into a woman who used to work for us. She had been involved in the healthcare industry for a long time. She told me how to start getting insurance contracts set up and helped me apply to the government plans. She put me in touch with people who knew insurance billing and computers.

I went back to counseling and my counselor gave me the name of her attorney. The attorney told me how to get out of my non-compete clause and helped me get a state business license. She gave me the name of an accountant. When I wasn’t working or writing, I spent all my free time making phone calls, and right after New Year’s in 2006, I handed my resignation to my employer. Three months later I opened my own practice.

“She is like a cat in the dark, and then she is the darkness. She rules her life like a fine skylark, and when the sky is starless. All your life you’ve never seen a woman, taken by the wind. What would you say if she promised you heaven? Will you ever win?”

Rhiannon the song led to Rhiannon the mentor who morphed into part of me. The song lived in my CD player for the better part of a year, and the words still sustain me with their authority and hope.

Saturday, October 8, 2011


The summer was growing short and my chance of going to medical school was diminishing. A distraction arrived when my mother and aunt came to stay for the 4th of July holiday. The three of us had just arrived home from shopping when the phone rang.

“Hello,” I said juggling a bag of groceries.

“May I speak to Debra Kraft?”

“Speaking.” I shuffled the bag onto the kitchen counter.

“This is Dagmar Coperhaver from the University of Nevada, School of Medicine. We have had an opening for the upcoming class and wanted to know if you were still interested.”

“Oh, my God! Yes! Yes, I am still interested. I had almost given up. Oh, my God. What do I have to do?”

Dagmar laughed. “Well, orientation starts August thirtieth and we recommend you come a week early to get your housing, financial aid, and other details taken care of. You won’t have time once classes start. So, can we expect you? Or do you need to give it some thought?”

I thought for thirty seconds. “Yes, I’ll be there.”

“Great! I will send you out financial aid materials and an orientation packet. Call me if you need anything. Oh, and, by the way, congratulations.”

“Thank you, thank you, oh my God, thank you,” I screamed into the phone.

My hand was shaking so hard I could barely get the phone back in the cradle. I turned around. My mother, aunt, and the girls were all staring at me. I am sure they thought I had taken leave of my senses. I grabbed the girls and danced them all over the kitchen. I had no idea how I was going to get in Reno in six weeks and at that moment I did not care.

I was still flying high when Tom came home from work. I grabbed him by the shoulders as he came through the door. “I got accepted at the University of Nevada. I have to be there the end of August. Isn’t it great!”

He looked at me with an empty, flat expression. “Well, I just can’t do this right now. Can’t you call and tell them you will have to wait until next year or do it by correspondence or something? I can’t leave.”

I dropped my arms to my sides. “If I don’t go now I’ll lose my position and I have to start all over again.”

Without another word he took the newspaper and walked downstairs. We didn’t speak again for many weeks.

I spent that time trying to figure out how I was going to get to Reno with a reluctant husband, two kids, a dog, a rabbit, and a guinea pig. I considered many options. I could leave them all behind and move into graduate student housing for a year in hopes Tom would come to his senses. I could rent an apartment for the kids and the animals and leave Tom in Pocatello. We could sell our house and buy a new one in Reno and try to act like we had a normal life. After communications resumed, we decided on the latter.

We flew to Reno and saw twenty-four houses in two days. We looked at places which should have been demolished. We looked at houses which violated every building code known to my engineer husband. All we wanted was a house in our price range which had decent paint and kitchen tiles which weren’t smashed out by sledge hammers.

There were some nice neighborhoods, but we couldn’t afford them. There was one house on the edge of the neighboring town of Sparks which was a possibility, but it cost too much and the wall paper and carpets were hideous. We left town without making an offer.

I began to panic. I needed to be in Reno in two weeks and I still had nowhere to live. I started thinking about campus housing again, but the medical school started a few weeks before the rest of the university. I would have to find somewhere to stay until I could move into the dorms. It was then that I had an idea.

We had purchased a small tent trailer when we moved to Pocatello. I would park it in an RV park until I could move to campus. It was warm enough in Reno and the trailer had a propane heater if it did get chilly. I could cook simple meals on the stove. I had light and a table to study on and most importantly a bed. Besides, it would just be for a couple of weeks.

Two weeks later, I loaded the car with all the things I would need to become a full time student once again. I hooked up the trailer, and drove Sarah, Robin, our pets and plants to my mother’s house. That night my mother told me she thought I was crazy, but at long last she acknowledged my dream. She said she would do whatever it took to support me. I stayed the night and left for Reno the following day.

It was a long drive across the brown sagebrush desert. I played music full blast to keep myself awake. I worried the car or trailer might breakdown. I was afraid my marriage was over and I had totally blasted my family apart.

I arrived in Reno late in the day and checked into the Shamrock RV Park. I hooked up the power and the water. I used the payphone to call Tom and my mother. I showered in the RV park common bathroom and cried myself to sleep. Little did I know this would be my home for another six weeks.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

When I was twenty one, it was a lousy year

I stepped off the elevator and into the cool, semi-darkness of the SUB study lounge. I was wearing jeans and an ISU sweatshirt I had picked up on line. I hoped no one would notice that it was one not available in the bookstore in this decade. In my hand was the Starbuck’s chai latte I meant to throw out before coming here. Starbucks existed in this time but only in Seattle. I hoped no one noticed.
     As I expected, my younger self was sitting in the large leather chair in the corner. She was dressed in bell-bottom jeans and a peasant shirt she had embroidered herself. Around her hair she wore a blue bandana and a thin necklace of love beads adorned her neck. A battered book bag stood beside her and a bright pink pop can sat on the side table. She was reading a textbook with a yellow marker in her hand. Every now and then she would look up and gaze out the windows across the way.
     I strolled across the room experiencing déjà vu. This place held so many memories. The good and the bad. I took the seat next to her. “Hi, Debi. My name is Dr. Dorothy Tate,” I whispered.
     “Hi,” she said. She looked around the room for an explanation. “Do I know you?” She must have mistaken me for a faculty member.
      “Debi, this is going to sound strange, but I am your future self.”
     “Right.” she said sarcastically. “And this is Candid Camera. Listen I am really busy and …”
     I raised my hand to interrupt her. “I know it sounds strange but I have come to share with you some wisdom I have learned along with way.”
     “Okay, joke’s over.” She turned her back to me and opened her book.
     “I know what you carved on the top of your dresser.” Her head swiveled around. “I know about Donnie. And Cynthia.” Her mouth fell open. “And I know what is going to happen to you in the future.”
     She picked up her Tab cola, took a sip and gazed at me suspiciously. “If you really are my future self, how did you get here? I mean isn’t there some rule on Star Trek about not changing the past. And what about the space-time continuum? I mean, this is cool and all, but I don’t think you ought to be here.”
     I set my Starbucks cup on the mahogany end table between us. Her blue grey eyes took in the unfamiliar logo. “I think in the latest Star Trek movie Spock proved you can meet past versions of yourself without causing a universal cataclysm,” I said. “I came here to share with you some universal truths I have learned over the years.”
     Debi began scribbling flowers and mandalas on her yellow spiral notebook. We always did this when we were bored in lectures. “Before you start, I want to ask you a question,” she said. “How old are you?”
     “Man! I always thought I would be dead before the end of the century. Am I really going to look like you? I mean, your hair isn’t even grey.”
     “And I am probably a lot fatter than you thought you would ever be,” I said smiling at her bluntness. Debi blushed and started a new drawing. I changed the subject. “I know you are struggling and you feel lost about your future. I am here to let you know that you survived.”
     “How do you know what I think?” she asked, her face a mask of defiance.
     “Because 35 years ago I sat alone in this study lounge wondering if any of it was worth it. I wondered why I was stuck taking rinky dink classes in a major I didn’t want. I wondered what happened to my dreams. I was directionless and thinking I should just kill myself and get it over with. I have come to give you some advice and some hope.”
     “Why do you care? No one gives a shit about me,” Debi said, her eyes filling with tears. “Mom doesn’t care about anything I want. Dad just doesn’t care. And Tom…I don’t know about Tom. I mean the Tates are a great old family and they have all the culture and stuff I want, but I haven’t heard from him in weeks.” Debi rubbed her reddened watery eyes. “Damn contacts. They keep floating off.”
     I want to hug her and tell her everything would turn out alright, but that is a lie. “So, first piece of advice. Listen to your gut. If something inside you is screaming, no, listen to that voice. It is the genuine you telling you the right thing to do.”
     “But If I do that people might get mad. I don’t want to make anyone mad.” Tears continued to flow. I handed her one of the tissues I had packed in my overstuffed pockets.
     “Second piece of advice. As the song says, ‘You know you can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself.’”
     “You know that song?” Debi gave me a watery smile. “Garden Party, right?”
     I nodded my head. “Ricky Nelson. 1972. It might sound trite but it is true. If you go around trying to make everyone else happy you will end up miserable because you are putting their needs before your own.” I watched her write Garden Party in the margin of her notebook.
     “How am I supposed to get the things I want if I have no one to help me?” she asked.
     “That is my third piece of advice. Life isn’t easy.”
     “Well no shit!” she said loudly. She picked up the crumpled ball of tissue and threw it at me. Other students gave us a dirty look for disturbing their concentration.
     “I know you are feeling frustrated and angry. You have every right to feel that way. You don’t know yet that it is life’s adversities that make us who we are. They are the furnace which tempers us and makes us stronger and more resilient.”
    Debi leaned back in her chair crossing her arms and ankles. “Now you are talking in riddles. You sound like just like Gandalf talking to Frodo. I just want to know what is going to happen to me.”
     I smiled at her. “Thanks for the compliment. Wait until you see the Peter Jackson version of Lord of the Rings. You are going to be blown away.” I took another sip of my latte, and wiped the foam from my upper lip. “I suppose wisdom does speak in riddles. I can’t give you specifics about the future. That would disturb the space-time continuum.” The corner of Debi’s mouth turned up, but she continued to sulk, so I leaned forward to catch her eye. “You need to know that you aren’t going to die from loneliness. Your life will eventually be what you want it to be even though the path is going to be difficult. You are a smart, talented, caring person. Surround yourself with people who support you. Those are the people who truly love you.”
     Debi looked down at the battered watch she wore on a thick leather strap. “Is that all? I have cell bio lab to get to.” She rolled her eyes heavenward. “God, I hate that class.”
     "I know. You get an incomplete and have to take it again.”
     Debi’s grew wide with horror. “Really! I have never done anything like that in my whole life!”
     “See you are a bit of a rebel.”
     “Far out!” she said, smiling broadly. Another student shushed us from a corner. Debi gave him a dirty look. I was amazed at how her feelings showed so fully on her face and in her body language. I thought about my own carefully controlled emotions. I too had things to learn.
     “Well,” I said, clearing the lump in my throat. “That brings us to my next bit of advice. It comes from a book which is not yet written but I think you need to hear it anyway. Have you got your pen? The author says, “Never again use another person’s body or emotions as a scratching post for your own unfulfilled yearnings.” She gave me a blank look. “It means you will never fill the hole in your soul with someone else. Mom taught us to depend on other people for our happiness and, Debi,” I gently touched her hand noting the calluses on her fingertips and the chewed fingernails. “You can only find that happiness within yourself. Play your guitar. Read good books. Listen to great music. Find the things which truly make you happy and hold tight to them. Oh, and take ornithology next semester. You will fall in love with bird watching.”
     She wrote BIRDS in capital letters in the corner of the notebook page and followed it with a question mark. She peeked at her watch again. “I really have to go.”
     “Okay. Last piece of advice. This one comes from another wizard you are going to love. He said, ‘It does no good to dwell on dreams and forget to live’.” I stood up to take my leave remembering to take my Starbucks cup with me. “I am leaving you for now but remember to follow your gut, take care of yourself, don’t depend on others for your happiness, dream but do not get lost in those dreams, and most importantly, life isn’t fair. Now, off to class with you.” I walked back toward the elevator.
     Debi grabbed her books and bag and chased after me. “But you didn’t tell me what I should do about school or Tom or anything.”
     “That would disturb the space-time continuum, wouldn’t it? Terrible things have happened to wizards who mess around with time. Good luck!”
     I gave Debi a wink and a wave and stepped into the elevator.
     “Hey,” she called after me as the doors slid shut. “What did you say your name was?”

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Memory

The smell of the place is a mixture of disinfectant, urine, and dust as old as time. I hear the hollow echo my black Mary Janes on a gray tiled floor. The grimy, metal barred windows are so high up, I cannot see out of them. It is winter outside; I remember the chill on my cheeks. The place has a creepy eeriness which raised the hair on my arms and set me shivering. A similar smell or empty hallway transports me easily back to that place. I always associate it with my grandmother.

My Grandmother Molesworth didn’t live on our family farm when I was very small. When people mentioned Grandma Katie they did it in hushed whispers. Their grown up words and their raised eyebrows successfully hid the secret for many years.

When I was seven, the conversations about Grandma became more frequent. One Saturday, Uncle Dale and my dad got in the old blue Chevy station wagon. They were gone over night and when they came home, they brought my grandmother with them. She was a squat gray haired woman in a brown gingham dress. Her thick stockings were rolled up above her knees. Her pale blue eyes showed no emotion behind the bent dirty glasses she wore. I couldn’t understand her when she talked. It seemed as though her large yellow teeth were glued together somehow although she opened her mouth fine when we sat down to eat dinner that day.

After that she was always at our house. The boys would drop her off early in the morning and then pick her up after the farm work was done. She would sit in the same chair all day staring at the black and white television, only coming to the kitchen for meals. She talked to herself through her clenched teeth and her mutterings frighten me. When my mother talked about Grandma she used words like “Thorazine” and “shock treatments”.

One day, Grandma was sitting in the kitchen and I was playing near her on the floor. Grandma said something to me and Mom translated. “She wants to see your doll.” I handed it to her and sat fascinated as she stroked the long ponytail of my classic Barbie. “She likes blond hair,” my mother said. I thought about my own blond hair and wondered why Grandma didn’t like me.

And then I knew. Grandma was a blue-eyed blond. She and my quiet, sad Uncle Howard were the only ones in the family who resembled me. Whatever was wrong with them was going to happen to me, too. I became afraid of my own thoughts. When I played with my imaginary friends, I was ashamed and I played as far from the house as I could, so no one would know my secret.

One spring night I heard my mother talking in a loud voice. “I am sick of being stuck here with her all day. She hates me, you know. She thinks I am her sister Etta. I didn’t get married to babysit your mother.” I couldn’t hear my father’s answer. “Okay then. After school is out I am taking Debra to Lewiston, and I am not coming back until you get rid of her. Do you hear me, Bob?”

When we came back that fall, my grandmother was gone. My dad and the boys had found her a place in a nursing home. I rarely visited. The smell of the place gave me such an overwhelming sense of déjà vu, I would flee for the car after only a few minutes.

One afternoon when I was about thirteen, my Aunt Jeanne came to visit. She was upset that her husband, my dad’s youngest brother, didn’t want more children. Mom pored ice tea and we went to sit in the front yard. I sat on the tire swing, listening intently.

Mom began to talk. “Well, you know about their mom and dad, don’t you?” Jeanne shook her head. “Well, their father committed suicide. Hung himself from his own tie. In a hotel in Twin Falls.” Tears started to leak from Jeanne’s over made up eyes. “And their mother, well,” her voice dropped to a whisper, “She tried to castrate Don with a butcher knife when he was a baby.” Jeanne covered her mouth with her hands. My mother went on. “They kept her at home after it happened. Their dad died a few years later and Howard took over the housekeeping. After the war, Dale and Bob took her to Blackfoot. She was there until the hospital kicked out all the chronic patients.”

Grandma died when I was in college. She had lived over thirty years of her life in institutions. The day of her funeral was the only time I ever saw my father weep. He called her “A saint.”

During my third year of medical school, I was assigned to the Nevada Mental Health Institute. When I walked into the grey tiled hallway with its barred windows and that sickly hospital smell, the déjà vu struck me once again. I knew I must have visited my Grandmother at State Hospital South when I was very small. I spent the month there walking crab-like down the hallways, protecting my back against my memories and fears.

One day I told my mother about my memory. She said it never happened.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Boys' House

At least once a week in the summer, I would be sent on an errand to my uncles’ house. My uncles’ house stood at the end of a long dusty rutted driveway.  They had lived in this house all their lives, and I didn’t like going there.

I would walk the half mile between our homes, dragging my feet and kicking stones along the gravel road.  When I got there I would stop in the wide front yard and pick a few pie cherries.  They were so tart they would make my eyes water, but I always had to try them.  Sometimes I would dawdle in Uncle Howard’s hen house.  The chickens would fly around me, feathers and straw showering down as I searched their nests for warm, brown eggs.  On my way back to the house I would stop and pick some of the wild hops which grew next to the wooden outhouse.  I would rub the oily pods over my fingers, inhaling the tart beery aroma, wondering why they were there.  But eventually I would have to complete my task.

The back pouch was the entry and there was a single concrete step leading into the house.  The torn screen door had long lost its spring and when it was opened, it slammed against the peeling, white siding, pushed open by the relentless Southern Idaho winds. The porch itself was gloomy, lit by a single blub which turned on with a string. The walls were unadorned and the wooden floor was worn smooth from countless footsteps. Uncle Harold’s coveralls hung to the right of the door.  The smell of sweat, manure, and neglect made the air too thick to breathe.

I would throw open the screen door letting it bang against the side of the house.  Holding my breath, I would quickly open the lid of the white chest freezer blocking it so it wouldn’t fall on me.  I would lean over digging rapidly through the hard, cold, packages searching for the proper one before my fingers froze.  Once I had the prize in my hands, I would run for the safety of the road.

As I got older, I became braver.  I started using my trips to explore the house.  I could hurry through the porch to the kitchen and dining area.  On the right was the small faded kitchen with its yellowed, peeling linoleum and red checkerboard shelf paper.  In the dining room there stood an oak dining table covered with an ancient sheet of green oil cloth.  My grandmother’s Singer sewing machine sat in front of the window.  The table and the sewing machine were brought here from Missouri when she and my grandfather came west full of hopes and dreams.  And it was in these rooms that all those dreams were shattered.

Through the dining room was the living area.  Here the carpet was worn down to the backing and the floor leaned ominously downward.  The windows were shaded with yellowed lace curtains, the only feminine touch in this house of bachelors. The room was filled to bursting with Craftsman style oak furniture.  The green leather upholstery was split revealing the dry, crackly kapok padding.

The story was I had taken my first steps in this room.  Uncle Dale was sitting in the arm chair and I was walking along his legs.  When I got to his feet I just kept going.  Across from the chair stood a green oil stove and behind it was a small narrow cabinet set into the wall.  The cabinet held my Uncle Dale’s books.  They were dry and dusty giving off that peculiar aroma of paper decay.  His tidy bedroom stood off the living room. I remember spending a very sleepless night there when he was asked to babysit me.  I was afraid of the house.  There were phantoms there.

On another memorable visit, I crept up the forbidden stairs off the dining room.  The stairs were steep and the treads were bowed by time and the passage of feet.  My heart was pounding in my chest as I ascended the stairs, but it thudded to a standstill when I reached the top. A long faded carpet ran down the narrow hallway.  In each bedroom, my uncles’ iron beds with their thin mattresses stood on bare wooden floors.  Fuzz balls the size of grapefruits lie in the corners, and the dirt on the floor was like a thick layer of barroom sawdust. 

I felt bad my uncles had to live in this decaying house with all their sad memories.  I wanted to help so one day I decided to wash the years of grease and dirt from the windows.  I took a bucket and sponge and filled it with hot water from the new bathroom they had added the year my grandmother came home from the state hospital.  As I pulled the crackling blue and grey curtains away from the dining room window, the moisture of my wet hands disintegrated them.  I wetted my sponge and took a swipe at the grimy panes.  The water ran down into the peeling window casing.

From the cracks erupted a swarm of winged insects which surrounded me, brushing me with their wings as they went flying through the dining room.  Spilling my bucket, I fled the house, terrified of the horde which I had unleashed.   I was afraid all the ghosts who inhabited the house were coming after me.  I didn’t want them to follow me into my life. 

It was the last time I entered the house alone. The sights, the sounds, the smells and the stories chased me far way.  When the boys moved out, the new owner of the property knocked the termite infested house down with one small shove of a caterpillar tractor, and he burned the remains. I would have liked to have witnessed that funeral pyre.  Perhaps it would have cleansed me from the terror of its malevolent spirits.      

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Treasure Chest

My mother’s Lane cedar chest always stood at the foot of her bed. She got it when she lived in Lewiston, Idaho and her sister, Irene, had one identical to it. I like to imagine them walking arm in arm, smoking cigarettes and talking excitedly about their upcoming weddings. They never could have guessed where their lives would take them.

My mother’s cedar chest was a beautiful piece of furniture when I was young. It was oak veneer and Mom always kept it polished and oiled. I loved it in the winter when she would open the lid and pull out the calf length fur coat which she always wore to midnight mass. I would lie on the fur side of the coat and rub my nose in the soft hair, inhaling the tart aroma of the cedar. I imagined wearing the coat when I became an adult. It would be the height of sophistication.

Another old fur lived in the treasure chest. It is one of those long narrow stoles with the tails and heads of the poor animals it was made from dangling from the ends. I found it frightening but intriguing. I used to believe that it belonged to my grandmother, but I learned recently from my cousin Leslie, it was probably Aunt Irene’s. The stole was used as dress-up clothes and was part of many a Halloween costume.

As much as I loved the smell and the glamour of the chest, inside it lay many mysteries. On the rare occasion I was left alone in the house, I would sneak into my parent’s room and carefully open the treasure chest. Most of the contents was boring; old linens and my old baby clothes. However, tucked in a corner was my mother’s old diary, kept in the years before she met my father. I tried to read it to try to understand her better but she was too crafty for me. She wrote the entries in Gregg shorthand, so even her diary’s contents was another mystery I never was able to decipher.

In the top drawer of the chest lay an unburned baptismal candle and a death certificate. I knew my sister had died shortly after birth. We visited her grave every Memorial Day. Along with my sister’s papers was a mysterious envelope which contained a copy of my birth certificate. I couldn’t understand why an attorney would be mailing my birth certificate to my parents. When I asked about it, Mom said, “You stay out of that trunk. The lid could fall and you would get locked in there and suffocate.”

Some of the items in the chest were my father’s. There was a small silk pillow case which he had purchased for his mother while he was stationed in England during the war. Some old cards to his mother were tucked inside the case. He had kept it all these years for my grandmother who had no use for it where she lived at the state mental hospital.

Over time I removed some of the items and made them my own. There was a wonderful calf-length wool pea-coat with military insignias on the sleeves and pockets. I pulled it out when I was in high school and wore it thinking myself very smart and John Lennon-like for protesting the Vietnam War by wearing it. Along with the coat there was a battered, brown box containing various military patches and buttons. These were a sacred relic to my mother. I believed for a long time they belonged to my father, but my dad hated war. He never talked about his experiences flying in bombers over Germany. Perhaps the box, like the coat belonged to my mother’s first husband, lost in the war.

When my mother died, the chest of treasures came to live with me. Time had changed the outside of the chest. Someone had let the water flow over a potted plant leaving a large ring in the shellac. Pieces of the veneer had been pulled away and lost. As I sadly sorted through it, most of the items in the chest were meaningless. The old clothes and linens had no history attached to them so they were sold at my mother’s estate sale. But the fur coat, which I still love to lie on and rub my nose against still resides within it. I am too large to wear the coat and the wearing of furs is no longer sophisticated or politically correct, but I keep it none the less. The old fur stole keeps it company in the bottom of the trunk.

The old linens have been replaced by two quilts my mother made for my daughters. They are young and have no interest in them for now, but I hope someday they will. My baby clothes have been replaced by my daughters’ favorite blankies. The cedar aroma cannot hide the smell of their soft babyhoods. My sister’s papers and candle still lay in the drawer next to the silk pillow meant for my grandmother, and my parent’s birth, marriage and death certificates lay beside them. But that age yellowed envelope containing my birth certificate still remains. I have removed it to a safety deposit box. The attorney’s name is the only clue I have to the past I am continually seeking.

As I get older I think perhaps the cedar chest is all I really need. The sight of it brings up memories of my mother and father and life on our farm. I no longer seek to know my mother better. She hardly knew herself. My life has moved forward making memories of my own. My daughters are women now with their own lives. Perhaps my grandchildren, the future of my DNA, will be drawn by the mysteries of my treasure chest and I will share with them the stories of my life and the items within.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Dance

I am the first one to admit I don’t know anything about dancing. I mean, after all, I was a tap dance drop out at age seven.

Of course, I watched dancers on the Ed Sullivan show. I loved the costumes and the grace of the dancers, but my knowledge of dance is still pretty basic. I can tell a ballet, from a waltz, and I enjoy watching a good rousing square dance, but the ballroom style of Dancing with the Stars I find fairly dull.

The thing is no one ever told me that relationships are like dances. In the beginning a boy picks a partner from the line of waiting girls. He chooses the dance and the girl follows his lead. He either likes her and wants to continue the dance; or he heads back to the stag line, leaving her to join the line of waiting wallflowers.

I was drinking beer and playing pool the night Tom decided to ask this perennial wallflower to dance. I was so flattered by the attention and the opportunity to get out on the floor that I never realized how truly out of step we were. His family was famous for their graceful waltz learned in the highest levels of society. My family did a rollicking tarantella with a smattering of country two step.

I wanted to learn to waltz but try as I might, I just couldn’t follow the steps. Tom wanted to lead and I couldn’t go backwards into life. I wanted to stand alone to do the twist or the frug. I loved the rhythms of disco and wanted to try the hustle. And around the house I did danced much as I pleased, but when Tom came home, he would take my waist and attempt to lead me more mannerly dances. I always ended up stepping on his toes.

We danced a furious merenge for many years, Tom dancing toward his career and me chasing after him. I found the paso doble of motherhood dull and monotonous. So one day, I started a new dance. I picked a lively two-step, balancing school and motherhood. Tom spent several years trying to continue in his lock step as I danced away in my own direction. Every now and then we would try to come together in the family waltz but the kids kept cutting in with dances of their own.

I thought someday when all the distractions were gone, Tom and I could dance together. I hoped he would loosen up and enjoy a lively jitterbug or jazzy freestyle. But when our daughters danced away into their own lives, my husband and I moved again into a halfhearted waltz, trying to keeping up the appearance of a happy marriage. We went round and round and back and forth in the same four step pattern his parents had danced all of their marriage. Tom didn’t realize I was bored with the music, and he seemed unwilling to change the record. Finally the stifling routine of our steps caused me to dance away again, and this time it was for good.

Two years ago I moved into my own studio. My first night there I put ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” on the CD player. I was sixteen again as I twirled and spun, unselfconscious. I am happy with my solo dance. I am my own choreographer. And if someday I choose another partner, he better be confident enough with his own dance to follow in my lead.

Saturday, January 15, 2011


Around the holidays I always rediscover how ambivalent I am on the subject of gifts. I enjoy giving gifts, however, I feel embarrassed to receive them. When people ask me what I want for any occasion, I usually answer, “World peace.”

My trouble with gifts started the Christmas I turned eight. That year my teacher read Misty of Chincoteague aloud to my third grade class. I fell in love with the story of John, Maureen and the wild ponies from Assateague Island. That year, a copy of Misty was the only thing on the Christmas list I gave to my mother.

The gifts started to accumulate under the Christmas tree and as they did I scrutinized them carefully. Soon a rectangular package appeared with my name on it. It seemed the right weight and size for a copy of Misty. It was solid along one side and dipped in on the other three. It made no noise when it was shaken. I would sit there for hours petting the package, anxiously awaiting the magic hour when I could open it and begin to read.

On Christmas Eve, I bounced around too eager to eat dinner. When the dishes were cleared away, I sat down under the brightly lit tree and grabbed the rectangular package. I squirmed while the adults took their places. The rest of the gifts were distributed and everyone ripped in. The first tear in the red and green paper revealed the rear dust cover of a book. I turned the package over.

My heart sank. Instead of the picture of a grey pony on the beach, there was brown horse and a man in a funny hat. “Justin Morgan Had a Horse”, I read silently to myself. I lowered the book to my lap. The rest of my gifts lay ignored.

Later, I dawdled as Mom and I dressed for midnight mass. “Are you sick?” she asked.

“No,” I said as I pulled at the neck of the stiff new Christmas dress.

“Well, then what’s wrong? You have been pretty quiet.” She applied her bright red lipstick in the bathroom mirror.

“I asked you for Misty of Chincoteague.”

“Well, Sears didn’t have it, so I got the other one. It’s about a horse, isn’t it?”

The unshed tears where tight in my throat. “But I wanted Misty.”

She never turned around but saw her narrowed eyes reflected in the mirror. “Why do you have to be such a brat? It is Christmas for Christ’s sake.”

After New Years, the Justin Morgan book was put on the shelf unread and I stopped making Christmas lists.

A few years later, while home from college, my mother asked me what I wanted for Christmas.

“Nothing,” I replied in a surly tone.

She continued to badger me for several more days. Finally she demanded, “Just tell me what you want.” When I again replied, “Nothing,” she threw down her dust rag, “Why do you have to be such a brat?”

Something exploded in my brain. I was a brat if I asked for something and I was a brat if I didn’t. "World peace!” I screamed at her as I stomped out of the house.

Years have passed and I have spent a lot of time and money on therapy. One day, while looking through some old books with my grandson, I found that copy of Justin Morgan. I turned it over in my hand detesting it. That day, I took the book to donation bin and hurled it in. I relished the bang as it hit the metal wall of the bin.  It was the sound of chains falling away. I got back in my car and drove to a bookstore. I bought myself a copy of Misty of Chincoteague.

This Christmas, I decided to take a chance. I asked for presents instead of world peace. I was very specific when I told people what I wanted. I told them where they could purchase the item, and what size and color I wanted. This year there were no surprises under my Christmas tree, nor were there any disappointments.